Saturday, January 09, 2010

Amy Bass, Those About Him Remained Silent Interview, Part 1

Baldblogger's next interview features yet another work on Du Bois: Amy Bass's Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle over W.E.B. Du Bois (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). A history professor at The College of New Rochelle, this is Dr. Bass's third book. She posted about the book at the University of Minnesota Press's weblog, in addition to a radio interview and a conversation with the The Berkshire Eagle. This is the first of two posts.

Baldblogger (BB): In short, Those About Him Remained Silent is a book about the controversy surrounding the quest to honor and memorialize W.E.B. Du Bois in his hometown of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, following his death in August 1963. What is the short and quick version of the book's main arguments?

Amy Bass (AB): It's tough to write hundreds of pages and then condense. More directly, the book is about the debate: why did a community that so embraced Du Bois in the late 19th century come to shun him almost a century later? But in a bigger sense, it is about ideas of race and nation and citizenship in the Cold War, and in an even bigger sense, it is about civil rights as a legacy -- how we remember, what we remember, and perhaps even most important, what we forget. The idea of memory is a really important one in this piece, and thinking about it in a cultural study has really changed my perspective on history, and the art of research, writ large. While I am not exactly sure what my next project is, I think it will continue in the vein of the study of memory, as it is something that has really captured my imagination, which is kind of interesting to me, because in the initial draft of the book, it did not even exist.

BB: You write that it was not until graduate school that you realized you grew up within miles of Du Bois's hometown. Discuss this realization and the process of studying and researching about the place you grew up-a literal kind of local history. To what extent did your impressions and understanding of Du Bois change-and the place from which you hail?

AB: The easiest way to explain it? He became a neighbor. It's interesting, because I was obviously reading a lot of Du Bois, but I wasn't reading Souls & and I wasn't reading the autobiographies. I was reading him as a black intellectual, as a Marxist intellectual. I came upon the Great Barrington reference in Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic in a seminar I was taking with Nikhil Pal Singh. I was so shocked by it -- and in retrospect this is kind of hilarious -- that my intitial reaction to fight it, to think it wasn't true. But then as I dove into his more personal writings, not only did I grasp it as a fact, I embraced him as a different kind of figure. There was something important to me about him being local. It was astonishing, because in a very real way, there are few more global thinkers than Du Bois. It gave me a truly parallel perspective.

BB: And a related question: your first book, Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete (University of Minnesota Press, 2002) tackled a national subject-really a global subject-in the context of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Your latest book also explores the modern Civil Rights Movement-a "local" study of Du Bois in a national and global context. What have these books added to your knowledge and understanding of the CRM, both in terms of your research and how you teach it?

AB: The strangest thing for me was to realize that I'd written two books on 1968 -- it was completely without conscious intention. But it makes sense: my desire for studying civil rights is to ensure it a plurality -- this is something that I explore in the first book, and also with the study on Du Bois's legacy. It cannot be thought of as THE civil rights movement -- it has to be civil rights movements, plural, and I think both books examine why this is so. Civil rights had common goals of equity and citizenship, but it had such diverse figures, moments, strategies, organizations. It cannot be a cohesive entity, and yet we have compartmentalized it as such. My hope with both of these projects is that expands a bit as to where civil rights exists and who participates on its behalf, whether Olympic athletes or a few townsfolk who want to erect a sign where Du Bois once lived. I think it also demonstrates how strategies of civil rights did not necessarily begin as such. The movement to memorialize Du Bois in Great Barrington in the late 1960s was to be just that: an act of memory. However, as the controversy began to unfold, it -- I hope -- becomes obvious that this movement to remember civil rights turns out to be an action of civil rights itself.

BB: Discuss the evidence you used to construct your argument, both documentary and oral (and given the images of Du Bois memorials and commemorative plaques-I would say artistic or material evidence as well).

AB: The project began with a lot of conversations, the first of which were with my parents, who knew a lot of the central players. I then did a few more formal interviews with some key players who are still alive. I then went to the archives of the most prominent local newspaper, and that is where both the public debate -- editorials, letters to the editor, etc. -- and the behind-the-scenes debate, via files in the papers archives, came to light. The photos in the book are obviously also important, as is the site itself, which has changed dramatically, and for the good, since I began the research.


John Fea said...

Great interview. Great author.

Phil said...

Thanks, John--and a great book too. I believe you and Amy were in grad school together (if my memory is correct)?

And speaking of memory, I'd be interested to get your thoughts at some point on Du Bois and historical memory in _Those About Him Remained Silent_. Your future book (I think) will tackle historical memories, memorials, albeit in a different time period.