Saturday, August 11, 2007

Baldblogger Interviews Edward J. Blum, Part 5

Today's segment from my interview with Ed Blum--along with subsequent segments--moves into more of the history behind his Du Bois book, teaching, and where and how Du Bois can fit into pedagogy.

Baldblogger (BB): Can you discuss a bit of the history of writing W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet, in short the evolution of this project? When did you start? How long did it take? To what archives did you travel? Did you travel to Ghana at all during the course of this book?

Ed Blum (EB): W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet began on the plane from Lexington, Kentucky, to Boston, Massachusetts, in the fall of 2002. I was heading to the Harvard Divinity School for a job interview and I knew that they would want to know what the next project was. At the time, I was about 2/3 of the way through my dissertation and had a list of 20 “next” projects (things like a biography of Dwight Moody or a study of religion and the abolitionist movement). But none of those felt right – and I was thinking in terms of what folks at Harvard would want to hear. So I came up with a religious biography of Du Bois, since his connection to Harvard was so important. I knew that David Lewis had won the Pulitzer Prize for his first biography of Du Bois and I knew that Lewis did not take religion seriously in it. During my interview, the good people of the divinity school seemed very excited about the project (this was proof to me that it was worthwhile). So as I finished the dissertation I started reading everything Du Bois, which is a lot.

I spent the first several years just reading everything that Du Bois published and that was published about him. Sadly, I don’t think anyone could ever read everything published about Du Bois--there is a ton of it. This early work didn’t take me to any archives, but it did bring me to a lot of out-of-print books. I have found that librarians, particularly interlibrary loan libraries, are crucial for researching historians. I would click on this book or that pamphlet and low and behold two weeks later it would arrive. Some of the stuff I found was fascinating. An MA thesis from an African American scholar who had met Du Bois and decided to write a poem about him; the eulogy that Reverend William Howard Melish gave in Africa in 1963; a copy of The Souls of Black Folk with extra poems written on the sides.

In 2005 I hit Du Bois’s personal papers, which are on microfilm, at Rutgers University. This was done in tandem with two research assistants – Danielle LaPorte and Katherine Kennedy. They read through 30 years of The Crisis, the national organ for the NAACP, while I combed through Du Bois’s personal writings. Personal papers are a hoot. You find all types of crazy things. I remember when working on my dissertation I went to New Haven to search through the Dwight Moody papers and I found all of these sermon outlines; they were literally a dozen words from which Moody would give his sermon. Sometimes, I could match the sermon later printed in the newspaper with the outline. That was cool. Only once did I ever have the hankering to take something from an archive and that is when I found Confederate money in a minister’s papers at Princeton. I don’t know why, but the devil inside said ‘oh no one will care if it’s missing.’ Of course, that’s no reason to steal. And, what the hell did I really want with Confederate money anyway?

I did not travel to Ghana, sadly, in part because of time, in part because of finances. I imagine that another scholar will find a treasure trove of materials there relating to responses to Du Bois at the end of his life. My bet would be they will find more spiritual reflections about his life and times.

So I worked on Du Bois non stop from 2002 to 2007. My dissertation research, which was from 1999 to 2002, informed a good deal of the study as well. One thing I didn’t do, which David Lewis and others have done, is interview those who knew Du Bois. There are lots of reasons that I did not, but the main one is that I wanted to know how people understood Du Bois in his historical moments, and I found plenty of material on that from the eras of his life.

BB: For interested readers unable travel to archives, what are some of the best on-line sources/resources if one wishes to study about Du Bois and read his work?

EB: The best place to find online resources about Du Bois is at the library webpage of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. There, one can find a ton of stuff, including digitized photos of Du Bois, his friends, family, and other material. They also have a ton of digitized articles and books from him.

[BB: other on-line resources include The W.E.B. Du Bois Virtual University, Professor Robert Williams's fabulous repository of Du Bois resources, the resources page at the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass-Amherst, Dr. Steven Hale's Du Bois on-line selections, resources from the Documenting the American South project, the Perspectives in American Literature (PAL) page, the reading room at Harvard's Du Bois Institute, documents from the FBI files of Du Bois (though redacted), Du Bois's New York Times featured author page (subscription required), the e-project at the University of Virginia Library (scroll down for Du Bois), and in other various places Paul Harvey points out.]

NEW: I meant to post this initially, but forgot. Richard Rath, a historian who does sensory history among other things, teaches at the U. of Hawaii and with some students developed a kind of soundtrack to Souls of Black Folk. It is amazingly cool, and a helpful resource in teaching. Check it out here and let us know what you think.

[Photo from UMass-Amherst Digitial Du Bois]


R.G. said...

Thanks Phil for an amazingly, comprehensive and very personal interview. And thanks to Ed Blum for furthering our understanding of one of the most important figures in not just U.S. History, but World History.

As someone who has admired DuBois since college, I had no idea how deep his religious convictions were, particularly as they pertained to authentic Christianity. I also did not know how much he experimented with a variety of literary genres. I must get the book a.s.a.p.

Phil said...

Hey Rod, good to hear from you. Hope all is well there in NC. We hoped the interview would be a good resource, and a way to engage Du Bois in a whole new way for a new generation. Ed's book is a must read; I look forward to hearing your response.