I’ve written before about the controversy in Great Barrington over honoring the town’s most famous citizen, the African-American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, with signs at the entrance to town. Last week I got a healthy dose of contrary perspectives, and insight into how this issue shows up fundamental divides in a twentieth-first-century community.
It is so easy simply to ignore (or vilify) those on the other side of an issue like this. It seems obvious, to many people, that we should be proud that this is Du Bois’s birthplace, and equally obvious that any opposition is based on racism. It’s hard not to think so when you hear that there were people in town distributing leaflets opposing the signs (all rumored, by the way: no one involved in the pro-Dubois effort has seen these documents). We even heard that copies of some of his writing about communism had been distributed on Sunday at a church in town.
I find unsubstantiated rumors irritating—-I want to know what’s really going on. (Having been the target of rumors and anonymous phone calls during my three-year experience as an elected member of the School Committee, open debate is the only air I want to breathe.) Since I’d been told who was thought to be leadiing the anti-Dubois campaign, I called him.
I could do this because I knew this man from my days on the School Committee, when I was the most prominent proponent of preserving our small local schools. We stopped a centralized building project in 1999, with the support of many of the more conservative folks in town.
The conversation didn’t start well. His first response was, “I’ve never made a public statement about that.” But after I explained that my concern was the lack of open discussion and that I really wanted to understand how people felt about this issue, we talked for over an hour. I learned two vital things.
First, from the perspective of many local people, Du Bois has had plenty of honors already: two postage stamps, books about him, the UMass library named after him. He left Great Barrington and was successful in the wide world, and he belongs to that world and not to the town. (They would prefer to see locally important people honored.)
Second, they feel that newcomers are forcing Du Bois down their throats at every turn and that it’ll never stop. Surely this is how they feel about lots of things we newcomers care about, whether it’s sushi or yoga or the New York Times. What we need, I believe, is new ways to talk about this, and a lot of what my friends at the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard–who worked with us on the Encyclopedia of Community–call “bridging social capital.” That is, connections not with those who are like us but those who are different. And we newcomers are different; surely it’s up to us to give a little, and ask a few questions. I have a feeling we’ll be a lot more successful when we do. (BTW, David Levinson is the editor of the forthcoming Berkshire County African-American Heritage Trail Guide, so we’re in the thick of this.)