Dr. Du Bois, Kristof, Ferguson, and why we need to listen to voices of color

Back in July Krista Tippett interviewed Dr. Elizabeth Alexander, Dr. Arnold Rampersad, and dear dear Maya Angelou (just weeks before she passed away) for an On Being podcast titled “W.E.B. Du Bois and the American Soul.” Today I revisited this conversation, which looks at not only the prophetic nature of Du Bois’ work in predicting that race would be a critical issue of the 20th century (and the 21st, achem achem) but also how historians often overlook that Du Bois was not only a historian, sociologist, etc. but also a poet. His lyrical power with words added to his power.

The great poet Dr. Alexander says during her portion of the interview, “He’s led me to aspire to write better. I mean, these are just sort of very personal things. His productivity has made me hesitate less and try to put more out there, because I think that one of the tragedies of racism as it has affected intellectuals and learning is that we’ve had such limited opportunities and so many of our ideas are so quickly shot down, um, that to see a Du Bois who just said, I don’t care, I’m going to — I’m going to write something again tomorrow [laughs]. Who just keeps doing it.” 

As a writer I am often terrified to put my work out there for fear of being shot down (a big reason why it has taken me so long to begin blogging). And I am white, and benefit not only from white privilege but also class privilege and cis privilege. I can’t begin to imagine the added challenges for writers, artists, and creators at large who suffer not only from the inevitable inner demons that arise from making ourselves vulnerable when sharing our work, but also from the historical and continued discouragement of voices that are talking about the real stuff that tends to make rich white America very uncomfortable. Yet so many people of color, low income people, queer people, transgender people continue to write and express and put their work out there. Such courage! Such inspiration!

With this feeling of gratitude for the continued production of creative and vulnerable work from people of color, I was very concerned when I began reading journalist Nicholas Kristof’s fifth New York Times installment of “When Whites Just Don’t Get It.” Kristof has been writing a column, begun August 31st, that, from how I see it, is targeted at getting white Americans to begin taking race seriously as their problem. He has made some good points. He is a powerful literary voice, and I am grateful he is speaking about white privilege. But. But. Wait.

The first two paragraphs of Part 5 read, “We feud about the fires in Ferguson, Mo., and we can agree only that racial divisions remain raw. So let’s borrow a page from South Africa and impanel a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine race in America. The model should be the 9/11 commission or the Warren Commission on President Kennedy’s assassination, and it should hold televised hearings and issue a report to help us understand ourselves. Perhaps it could be led by the likes of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and Oprah Winfrey.”

Upon reading this I immediately returned to my earlier contemplations on the continued efforts made to keep voices of color quiet. And here we are yet again saying that the answer to the racism in Ferguson is in two white former presidents, both incredibly problematic on the issue of race, and a very very famous Black woman. What about the Black people who have been using their voices in articles, poems, songs, artwork, chants, protests, screams, petitions, etc etc? What about the young people and the Black professionals and the people of color who have been in Ferguson all these months and really know what is going on there? Why do we continue to suggest that problems will be solved from the top, as if somehow we still have faith that trickle down really will work?

I am writing to strongly push back at Mr. Kristof’s suggestion that there be a commission of wealthy famous leaders, majority of them white, to solve racism in America. First of all, it won’t work. Period. I won’t go into that right now. Second of all, it completely misses the point of where this movement must come from. From the people. From the people. From people of color. With white folks on the side who truly are willing to show up and step back at the same time. Du Bois famously wrote, “How does it feel to be a problem?” We must stop treating racism like it is the problem of people of color and that white people are going to so generously fix it. We still need Du Bois, and Maya Angelou, and Elizabeth Alexander. We need all the voices of color that are speaking at this very moment. No justice, no peace.

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