Tag Archives: Aldon Morris

The Scholar Denied: Aldon Morris on W.E.B. Du Bois

Du Bois The Scholar DeniedI read this not long after seeing Aldon Morris himself talking about both Du Bois and The Scholar Denied, a wonderful evening. He gave us a taste then of his background, what brought him to this project. In reading the book, this is the autobiographical phrase that stuck with me:

I am a member of what sociologist and freedom fighter Joyce Ladner coined the “Emmett Till Generation,” blacks traumatized by by the lynching, which left a lasting imprint. (x)

#BLM show what little distance we have come. Also these shared questions, the way he was always moved by social movement:

What stirred in the souls of black people to cause them to be swept into the vortex of a powerful social movement? What changed in these people who had been taught to obey racists or face the awful consequences? Would they be able to overthrow Jim Crow? I was consumed with issues social scientists would come to conceptualize as human agency and the ways oppressed people could use it to generate change. (xi)

This is what social movement studies should be asking, no? Instead they have such a different feeling and I think much of that is driven by the same dynamics that led to Du Bois being marginalised, to the extent that Morris found him entirely absent from his sociology classes (as did I in undergrad):

My purpose in writing The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of American Sociology is an ambitious one, namely, to shift our perspective on the founding, a hundred years ago, of one of the social sciences in America. …  I show that such intellectual schools are not merely the products of intellectual networks and original, meritorious ideas but are deeply entangled with power, ruling ideologies, and economics. … I lay bare the racism and power of dominant whites responsible for suppressing a seminal body of social scientific thought. (xvi-xvii)

And in spite of all this, such a body of work may still flourish. Because this flourishing is demonstrated here as well. This is a book of inspiration as much as anything, and always a book belonging to movement. You can see it in the acknowledgment that Du Bois was not an isolated genius, but flourished in institutions — there’s Du Bois kicking it in Germany where he was treated as an equal, studying under Weber himself and his later friendship with Boas who helped him see for the first time the greatness of African civilization — as well as in collaboration with black (and some white) intellectuals in Atlanta: Monroe Work, Richard R. Wright Jr, George Edmund Haynes. Two women were also instrumental in the Atlanta School, Lucy Craft Laney and Mary White Ovington. It was an uphill battle, however, and not just against white racism.

The Scholar Denied documents clearly the ways Booker T Washington and Robert E Park ‘conspired to obstruct and silence Du Bois politically, and how their actions imperiled Du Bois’s influence as a founder of American Sociology’ (xviii). The ways that Du Bois’s work was suppressed by scholars subscribing to white supremacy, ‘because it concluded that there were no scientific grounds on which to justify racial oppression and because they could not view Du Bois as an exemplary scholar who pioneered scientific sociology.’ (4)

A note here on this use of the word scientific — I was always a bit conflicted about that because it rings of positivism, of ‘objectivity’ but this is not the sense in which wither Morris or Du Bois use it. It stands, rather, for critical study. Rigorous and scholarly investigation based on interviews and actual fieldwork (still revolutionary for the time really, even after Booth). Du Bois was one of the first to get out of the proverbial armchair.  Of course The Philadelphia Negro (1899) is the primary example…and hell yes it should be. What an impressive, incredible book. It attempted, as I have written before, to turn the whole white-crafted question of the ‘the negro problem’ on its head.

Because of stiff white resistance to black aspirations, Du Bois, at the beginning of the twentieth century, concluded that the major unasked question of whites regarding blacks was: How does it feel to be a problem? (7)

Oh Sociology

Sociology has gone on to some great things, but has a rather ugly past. I suppose even so they were no worse than Geography — and possibly better for all their multiple sins. Still, the 1st issues of the 1st American Sociological journal — The American Journal of Sociology, founded by Chicago sociologist Albion Small in 1904 — contained a lead article by Galton, father of eugenics, on (wait for it) ‘Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims’. This was no fluke or passing fad, the article was reprinted in the 1921 sociology textbook ‘Introduction to the Science of Sociology’ edited by Park and Burgess. So popular in curricula across the country it was known for decades as the “Green Bible”, it established sociology as an ‘abstract science’  (19, 138) and thus eugenics as a valid field of that study I suppose. But it helped define Du Bois right out of the field.

Park and Burgess drew upon Du Bois’s work, as almost certainly did the rest of the Chicago school, though they did not credit him. his voluminous papers were not included in these or other edited collections, not was he invited to key conferences of the field. All this despite the fact that Max Weber himself ’embraced Du Bois’s scholarship and declared him to be one of the greatest sociologists in America.’ (149)

Weber’s respect had much to do with his pioneering of methodologies, especially with The Philadelphia Negro. Interviews, participant observation, surveys, data crunching, spatial analysis. The manner in which Du Bois studied North AND South, urban AND rural and all over time and all rooted in their historical context because he saw all of this as deeply connected. Also Du Bois’s engagement with social problems and concerns that Weber also saw as important though it was eschewed by the Chicago school as unscientific and unobjective.

Upon returning to “‘nigger’-hating America,” Du Bois embraced his life’s work: the production of careful sociological studies of African Americans steeped in empirical data that could be used to discredit the dominant sociological and popular doctrine that blacks were forever stuck at the bottom of human civilizations because nature made them inferior. (22)

The Philadelphia Negro was written while an assistant instructor at UPenn — where Du Bois felt utterly marginalized as he was not allowed to teach white students. Morris quotes him writing:

It goes without saying that I did no instructing save once to pilot a pack of idiots through the Negro slum. (56)

After The Philadephia Negro‘s publication, Du Bois hoped to be able to establish a research program to study the black community. White universities refused to host such a program, white scholars refused to collaborate. So the scholar denied went down to Atlanta University, which segregated neither faculty nor its ‘sprinkling’ of white students. Du Bois and his students began quite an incredible project, collecting data on black urban life in Atlanta year by year, year after year. Their goal was to hold a conference at the end of each year to sift through it, analyse and publish it, maybe change the world with it…because they probed at its deep roots.

The Du Bois-Atlanta school of sociology was guided by a scholarly principle: sociological and economic factors were hypothesized to be the main causes of racial inequality… (58)

Du Bois created a ‘Laboratory in Sociology’ (75),  his goal was to do these yearly studies every year for 100 years…can you imagine? The wealth of information that would have generated. All this even as Jim Crow was ramping up. Although their work, just like The Philadelphia Negro, was officially ignored it clearly had an impact on the field (as did Jane Addams’ publication of the Hull House Maps and Papers in 1895). Yet it was The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-1920) that is cited as the 1st great empirical study of American sociology (68). A fairly incredible fact after reading Du Bois’s work, or looking at the reproductions of some of Du Bois and his students’ incredible hand-drawn and coloured charts (many of which can be seen here in this incredible collection on public domain review).

So it would be bad enough if it were just the Chicago School ignoring an uppity black scholar, but this story is so much more involved than that. I never liked Booker T,  I really hated Up From Slavery as much as I allowed myself to judge (because, you know, I haven’t all that much right to judge). But damn, Morris is right in this damning praise:

Just seven months after Douglas’s death, white Americans, and European powers involved in colonizing Africa received a wonderful gift of black leadership — Booker T. Washington. (9)

Washington preached that inequality was driven by the fundamental inequality of blacks themselves and a lack of black civilization. This was picked up and echoed by the Chicago school of sociology (12), because you know why (apart from its convenience?) I never knew Robert E. Park took a job at Tuskegee, as director of public relations and a ghostwriter for Booker T himself. Du Bois had rejected the position.

Bloody hell. The insult of such an offer.

So it becomes oh so clear where Park’s ideas are founded, how they were sustained in this view of blacks as rural, simple, safest away from cities and their temptations. Above all the necessity of extremely gradual (we’re talking centuries), rate of changing race relations. Of course Washington saw Du Bois and his colleagues proving full equality and demanding full rights as a threat and a challenge. Park joined him in this view, retaining an intense loyalty to Washington through the years after leaving Tuskegee, catapulted as he was into leadership at Chicago. His utter lack of qualification in comparison with Du Bois is painfully obvious. By 1905, Booker T was on the warpath, threatening Atalanta University and its funding if it continued down the path laid out by Du Bois (he wrote openly that Du Bois’s work at Atlanta University wished to destroy Tuskegee — extraordinary and vile). Funding did dry up at his word, though Du Bois managed to eke it out for another 10 years. This explains a lot I think, about the Chicago School.

The Chicago School

The Chicago school was guided by two major theoretical principles formulated mainly by Park. The first was that sociology was an objective science whose mission was to formulate natural laws determining human behavior. The second was a unique social Darwinism that combined evolutionary principles with social interaction analyses. (112)

There is so much packed into the book on the subject of Park’s opinions and writings that you can see threading through future scholarship like a malignant spirit. A call for objectivity, a ‘ridiculing of reform-oriented sociologists’ in a quest to uncover ‘universal social natural laws.’ (114) A belief in racial hierarchy, whites at top and blacks at bottom. Park drew on Simmel, whose student he had been, in theorizing basic social forms: competition, conflict, accommodation, assimilation. (115) He believed in ‘racial temperaments’ transmitted biologically and that blacks would be forever both culturally and biologically inferior (117). Terms used to describe them were ‘primitives, folk people, aliens, and savages‘ (119) despite the claim that they had lost all cultural ties during the middle passage.  Always an emphasis on blacks remaining rural and South as cities required ‘civilized’ persons to inhabit them. (120)

It’s awful reading — and recognizing — the litany.

Park wrote an utterly vile piece on ‘Negro’ music, describing how the songs show them to be sunny tempered and optimistic. He somehow managed to find in them no trace of Africa. He describes leading authority on Black spirituals to be a white Colonel who collected them from black soldiers. Madness.

But also bad scholarship. You can see the devastating impact of racist views on any shred of intellectual validity. I mean, as a scholar all he had to do to know better was read the incredibly well researched work of Du Bois.

Du Bois himself debunked and warned against all of it, particularly the use of natural sciences to understand society. He was able to see how it was being used to maintain white supremacy. I suppose it is small wonder that Washington and Park together worked to marginalise Du Bois’s contribution to sociology, ‘render [his] scholarship invisible’. (137)

Engaged Scholarship

There follows a discussion of Du Bois as engaged scholar, he would of course go on to play a pivotal role at the head of the NAACP and the publisher (editor, writer) of The Crisis. This could be found in households across the country, unlike, say possibly, The Phildelphia Negro.

Part of this is Morris’s exploration of the role of intellectual schools and the importance of networks in developing ‘greatness’. Here is where engaged scholarship comes to the fore — as Du Bois was excluded from white networks (funding, position, publication in certain journals or collections, invitations to conferences and etc) and given his refusal to accept black inferiority, he found his own way through:

He developed counterhegemonic networks and a counterhegemonic form of capital that have not been identified or analyzed in the literature. (187)

Morris describes this as ‘liberation capital’, donations of time and money that sustained a counterhegemonic institution and its research. This underlay the Du Bois – Atalanta school and its impressive body of research, showing that that:

Merton and Collins are right to argue that intellectual networks and scientific settings such as universities are crucial to producing excellent science, Yet networks and institutional theory err in the assumptions that great science can be produced only in elite institutions… (192)

And this is the achievement of the Du Bois-Atlanta school, a large measure of the inspiration alongside and in addition to the awesomeness of their scholarship and the ways that they blazed a trail in the ways urban studies could be done. Not only are these historic achievements now slowly being recognized, but they remain of great theoretical importance. Just one example:

As Decker states, “The rereading of Du Bois’s works became the stating poin for critical whiteness in the United States in the late 1980s.” (220)

And of course, the question remains haunting academia and its continued embeddedness in a white elite setting despite the increase in diversity (and you just have to read Patricia Hill Collins or Angela Davis or bell hooks or any other number of scholars of colour to see just how difficult and precarious their situations remain)

To what extent do progressive white scholars of today unwittingly interject racist biases in their science even while believing they stand above prescientific racial assumptions? (221)

Aldon Morris bringing W.E.B. Du Bois to life at the LSE

On Thursday I had the opportunity to go to a most powerful and inspiring lecture from Aldon Morris on W.E.B. Du Bois — a lecture in the language and rolling alliterative cadences of civil rights struggle which was such a pleasure and inspiration to listen to. It was wonderful to feel how language and subject can transform a space, bring a sense of history and movement to fill the air and the soul. Even better that it should be as the ‘British Journal of Sociology 2016 Annual Public Lecture’, best of all to find it in a place become as corporate as LSE.

A shame, as the LSE is no stranger to movement, and still has a number of vibrant scholars.

22493Aldon Morris wrote what may be my favourite book looking at the Civil Rights Movement — it’s hard to limit myself given how much good work is out there, but it may well be true. I have been working through another collection he co-edited on social movement, and I am looking forward to reading more about Du Bois (whose book on Philadelphia published in 1899 made me question everything I knew about the field of urban studies — but not deeply enough I realise) and the men and women who forged an engaged and meaningful sociology with him at Atlanta University — all highlighted in Morris’s latest work The Scholar Denied.

23493879I will save a deep engagement with Morris’s argument for the happy time when I manage to read my newly-signed copy ( I got a hug too! As if my evening were not already awesome). I just wanted to remember the things that most remained with me from the lecture.  First how it struck me that this book is not just about granting Du Bois his rightful place in the canon — important as that is. That alone would surely be too little too late.  The importance of returning to Du Bois lies in his continuing significance in both the substance and method of our own thought and scholarship, primarily — and to paraphrase — in the ways he was about challenging paradigms, disrupting narratives, and illuminating truths. There was such a clarity about the ways in which the dismissal of Du Bois and the importance of his work has led to an impoverished sociology from its beginnings. This is what needs to be challenged so that it is never forgotten — and of course the challenge continues as part of the struggle to increase a diversity of background and experience within sociology — the key to avoiding similar impoverishment today.

What Du Bois did in his own time was to challenge the prevailing, and sloppy, car-window sociology and theorisations based upon the unchallenged fallacies of Jim Crow racism. He set out to challenge and prove that these unquestioned beliefs were in fact myth. I had forgotten that he was a trained historian rather than sociologist, and so he always contextualised his work within the history of the rise of racist mythologies (more and more I think this historical contextualisation is the key to understanding all injustice). To do so he chose to live and work within Black communities, to interview people to bring their voices to bear on these questions, to understand their experiences, and in that way to create a body of evidence through fieldwork to support the absolute destruction of a biological basis for white supremacy in Black inferiority.

Three of Du Bois’s many contributions:

  • the theorisation of the global colour line — not just in the US but as a global phenomenon emerging out of colonialism
  • Idea of double-consciousness, and a prefiguring of intersectionality
  • the importance of standpoint — he turned the whole formulation of the ‘Negro’ problem (still being asked by Myrdal and others decades later) upside down, asking people ‘how does it feel to be a ‘problem?’ He worked to challenge the construction of such ideas and the privileging, the normalising, of the white viewpoint. Such unquestioned normalisation is the essence of shoddy scholarship, is it not?

Then, of course, there is his work for the NAACP, his continuing engagement in social justice movement, his support of students in radical struggle, and their right to be radical and fight as they felt called — the way he continues to be a model for scholars in how they understand and change the world.

This hardly does justice to either the content or the kind of inspiration to be gained that evening — but the podcast from LSE can be found here. The evening came as a crown to a truly lovely, if very long day, and I shared those final hours with Ules, still finishing his PhD on migrants and their relationships with charity. Both of us felt a similar happiness, I think, in hearing a Black scholar reclaim the radical righteousness of Du Bois in LSE’s Old Building. Even if we were shafted in a rather disgraceful organisational breakdown that meant the reception scheduled to take place after the lecture was unexpectedly cancelled at the end of the talk.

I was tired, though. That morning had started with a few hours on the train from Bristol, then a very long coffee then lunch then pastries in Russell Square with friends-who-are-really-family, Geoffrey and Heather from The Circle Works. Some talking about space and community building and care. Then a quick walk up to the British Library to meet with the wonderful Debbie Humphrey for the first time. She was interviewing me for City‘s website and made me feel like my stories and articles had some real value, it was such an honour and a pleasure though I was incredibly long-winded. Next time, of course, I shall have to be the one interviewing her, because her photographs are spectacular and her work fascinating and full of insight on the lived experience of housing and struggle. Some of my favourite things. There is much I miss about London, if only it weren’t eating itself.