Last summer, Phillip Luke Sinitiere graciously invited me to lecture on American exceptionalism in his American religious history class. Today, I had the opportunity to return the favor. Phil was the guest lecturer today in my course on Contemporary Worldviews, a philosophy course I teach to the fourth year students who are enrolled in Southwestern’s Darrington Unit extension. These students are all serving life sentences at the maximum security state prison at Darrington, but will be placed at other units around the state of Texas to serve as inmate chaplains, counselors and teachers after they graduate.
Our first class graduates this May 9. They were the first class in the program, and I was there with them at the beginning, teaching them Western Civ I. They are a tremendous group of men, and I’m very excited for them.
I was really excited to hear Phil lecture today, one which he titled “Forging Freedom in Thought, Word, and Deed: W. E. B. Du Bois’ Life and Times.” As many of you know, Phil just completed his history of Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church (due out this October from NYU Press), but Phil is also a W. E. B. Du Bois scholar. The timing of the lecture was perfect. In many ways, I see Du Bois’ life and work as something of an encapsulation of much of what I have attempted to teach these men over the past four years. And Phil’s lecture was outstanding–he effectively communicated the significance of what Du Bois meant to the advancement of human flourishing in America and the world in his long and fruitful life.
The students were riveted as Phil opened Du Bois to the class, introducing him to us as he would a personal mentor and friend. In the first half of the lecture, Phil discussed Du Bois’ early life and career, namely his being the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard, the formation of the NAACP, his controversy with Booker T. Washington, and his friendship with Albert Einstein.
After this first half, Phil opened the floor up for questions, and he received many thoughtful insights and questions from the students. He had provided them with a packet of readings from Du Bois last week to have read by the beginning of the class, and they were well prepared. Included in the packet were Du Bois’ “Prayers” (1910), “Credo” (1920), “The Negro and Communism” (1931), “If I Were Young Again: Reading, Writing and Real Estate” (1943), “An Appeal to the World” (1947), and “Whither Now and Why?” (1960) among several others.
One of the questions Phil received was this two-part question: how many times have you lectured on Du Bois, and what is the most challenging question Du Bois raises that you grapple with as you study him? Phil said that he has lectured on Du Bois hundreds of times, perhaps thousands if you count the many lectures he has given in his classroom teaching. But despite the number of lectures he has given on Du Bois, Phil said that he continues to grapple with this question raised in all of Du Bois’ writings over an eighty-five year period: what does it mean to be a human being, and what does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself?
Such a profound set of questions, and yet so simple. So simple, even a child can understand their meaning and importance, but so profound as to tax the mind of a thinker and doer such as W. E. B. Du Bois in the period of almost a century while he walked this earth. Indeed, Du Bois challenges us Christians to put our faith into practice.
In the second half of the lecture, the part dedicated to what Phil described as his “twilight of years,” Phil related some local history pertinent to the life of Du Bois. He talked about his visit to Prairie View A&M in 1945, and specifically talked about a student named Mayme Ross who assisted in hosting Dr. Du Bois when he came to speak at the school. Mayme was a junior when she served as a student host for Du Bois. Phil had recently gotten in touch with her, and was able to speak with her about her first hand experience with Du Bois. Well into her nineties when she spoke with Phil, she told him that she grew up in humble circumstances, and wasn’t sure how she’d feel around such a towering scholar as W. E. B. Du Bois when he came to the campus at Prairie View. But when she met him and interacted with him, she said she felt herself totally at ease–here was a man truly interested in her life, her ideas, her dreams, and her faith. Through Ms. Ross’ testimony, Phil gave us a window into the man W. E. B. Du Bois, and not merely the scholar.
Phil discussed many aspects of Du Bois’ life and teachings in the course of his three+ hour time with the class. Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of Du Bois’ life was the occasion of his joining the American Communist Party and his emigration to Ghana in the last years of his life. Phil masterfully put Du Bois’ decision in context, and helped us to move beyond simple explanations of that decision–a decision that Du Bois did not make hastily, or without the deepest consideration for what it would mean for him personally and professionally.
In Du Bois we see a man who grappled with what it means to be human, what it means to live in freedom and equality, and how justice is truly applied. We see a man who is concerned with what it means to be a “true American”–not in a jingoistic or boorish sense, but in the truest sense, that is, being in community with other Americans who cherish freedom, human dignity, economic and social justice, and concern for the well-being of others.
The meaning of human dignity–it is a historical issue, a theological issue, a social issue, an economic issue, a political issue, an ethical issue, and a practical issue. Through critical thinking, activism, historical and theological reflection, and love for others, Du Bois showed us what it means to truly grapple with this issue that immediately concerns us all.
Thanks Phil, for teaching us today, and for being a model for us of the man Du Bois was.