W.E.B. DuBois strengthens the soul of a community (February 17 newsletter)

This morning I remembered a day in July in a garden along the Housatonic River. The River Walk has planted native wildflowers there, and in midsummer the butterfly weed blooms vivid orange. A woman was singing in a strong, rich alto, leading a spiritual. A percussionist soloed with quick, strong hands. A group of us were sitting on folding chairs on the grass in the sun, in the W.E.B. DuBois memorial garden, and we were thinking about how he felt about the town where he was born.

He wrote all his life about the Housatonic River. As Professor Jones-Sneed told me later on, DuBois said you could easily drive through town and not know this broad waterway was there. And he asked what would happen if the town turned to face the river.

“The Housatonic River is the natural Main Street of Great Barrington. It should be a clear and limpid stream … flanked by broad roadways and parks as the lifestream of a town.”

He was writing in part from his own memories. He used to sit by a stream bank as a boy, a little way out of town, and listen to the water. That place held a kind of peace for him. He was often alone. He was working to help his mother, outpacing his classmates, struggling with the challenges of growing up as a black boy in a mostly white town, as he writes in Souls of Black Folk.

Back then Great Barrington was a working town, with its factories and quarries on the train line to New York. The river, he said, was polluted with waste from the woolen and paper mills. He was a boy working his way through school and going to debates at the AME church, and a young man writing columns for a New York newspaper.

He grew to become a teacher, a professor, a world traveller, a father with a young son, a writer known around the globe, an advocate and a founder of national and international movements.

When I see him here, through the places in this valley where he stood, I see him by the river. He was a brilliant, passionate man, living in a world that constantly told him not to think, not to act, and not to exist. He wanted to change that. He had to change that. It was a question of survival, for himself and everyone he loved.

He was thinking about how people connect with one another, and in converging currents, he was thinking about how we respond to the land and how we think creatively. He was talking about how a community forms, and what values it embodies and makes strongest.

And so putting the river at the center of town and cleaning its water meant more to him than healing the body. It meant healing the mind and soul of the whole community. “Perhaps,” he wrote, “from that very freeing of spirit will come other freedoms and inspirations and aspirations …”

On that summer day, I remember the MaryNell Morgan-Brown singing her interpretations of the Sorrow Songs he brought into his essays. Ghanaian master drummer Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng and saxophonist Antoine Roney performed together.

We sat together listening, and for a few minutes, an hour, the elements of what he loved came together — the strength and sadness in the music, the vision of community and connection to the land that we are still trying to realize today, the anger at bias and unnecessary pain, and the love and the depth of language, and ideas that stay in the mind and call for action.

If you could distill that feeling … if we can feel it here, with the artists who feel his words in their bodies, and the white pines growing on the land where his family lived for 150 years … how far can it carry us?

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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