When Professor Cheryl Townsend Gilkes was a child in Cambridge, Mass., her father would lean down to her and ask: “Daughter, what’s the word?” The question was the lead-in to a popular urban street rhyme, but in the Townsend household another reply was expected. “I’d say, ‘Du Bois, Daddy,’” she recalled. “‘Du Bois. D-U-B-O-I-S. Du Bois.’”
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies Cheryl Townsend Gilkes

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies Cheryl Townsend Gilkes

Gilkes, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies, was steeped in the influence of the great sociologist and scholar from a young age. Her father, Murray Townsend Jr., who worked at the Internal Revenue Service, was a sociology major at Morehouse College. And as Gilkes put it, “If you took sociology at historically black colleges, Du Bois was taught.”

She has been teaching Du Bois, especially his seminal 1903 work, The Souls of Black Folk, for many years at Colby. Du Bois’s message, Gilkes says, needs to be heard now as much as ever.

“Du Bois is probably the original Black Lives Matter sociologist,” she said. “This is what The Souls of Black Folk is all about. We are human, too, and we need to be included in your consideration of this nation and how it came to be.”

That was a bold thesis when Du Bois advanced it at the turn of the 20th century—defining the problem of race not only in the context of the United States but as a global challenge.

“In addition to the psychological and literary power of Du Bois’ analysis, there is a socio-historical dimension to be explored that asserts the distinctive value of the black experience for human progress generally,” Gilkes writes in her afterword to a 100th-anniversary edition of The Souls of Black Folk. “Yet, he begins by simply asking, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’”

Gilkes remembers vividly her first inkling that she was considered a problem. It was a day on a Cambridge playground when a Greek-American playmate had an argument with her mother—in Greek. “I said, ‘Is this about me?’” Gilkes remembers asking. The friend said, “No!” but Gilkes knew better. Even with the language barrier, she knew. “Her mother didn’t want her playing with these ‘N-word’ children,” she said.

It was a part of the black coming-of-age experience that was inevitable at the time—and remains so for many children now. Asked about progress in the area of race relations, Gilkes said simply, “In conflict theory, there are two sides to the conflict, and people on the losing side do not just give up on the civil rights battlefield and go home.”

That is apparent now, as racial tensions have grown in recent months and years. It’s a continuum that goes back centuries, Gilkes and Du Bois point out, with European colonization of Africa, slavery that was the foundation of the industrialization of America, and the post-slavery effort to keep one class of subjugated workers and people in their place and on the job.

“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea,” Du Bois wrote.

In an article titled, “The Margin as the Center of the Theory of History,” included in the book W.E.B. Du Bois on Race and Culture (1996), Gilkes points out that Du Bois argued that oppression wasn’t just a problem for African-Americans, but for women, the poor, the “unrepresented laboring millions throughout the world.”

“Du Bois is probably the original Black Lives Matter sociologist.” — John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies Cheryl Townsend Gilkes

The “color line,” he said, hinders democracy, slows economic justice, and make “real human contact” impossible.

In her writing and teaching, Gilkes resolves to create that human contact and understanding of the African-American experience. She grew up in a household overflowing with African-American history and current events. Several black newspapers were delivered to the home and she was taken to NAACP meetings from an early age.

“I tell students this,” she said. “The philosophy of African-American culture in the United States is this: you have to learn who black people are. We have all these theories about race but if you don’t know who the people are? Hello!”

Gilkes informs students in her course African-American Culture in the United States that “you will be exposed to things.” An ordained Baptist minister, she declares, “When you leave this class, you will know what a spiritual is.” In addition to reading Du Bois, Gilkes asks students in her course on race and ethnicity to immerse themselves in at least one ethnic group, which sends many off to interview their immigrant grandparents. In her course on the African-American religious experience, “One of the questions on the final is to make believe they can talk to Dr. Du Bois and suggest revisions, given all that has happened since he wrote [The Souls of Black Folk] in 1903,” she said.

Du Bois would be appalled at the ways social media create instant issues, she said, but would take to Twitter to disseminate his views. He would bring up short those who dismiss the contributions of people of color. And Du Bois would see, Gilkes said, the continuing importance of building up black America’s self-esteem, and that his analysis still holds for the 21st century and in far more complicated and not easily accessible ways.

“It’s not the problem of black folk,” Gilkes said. “It’s the problem of centuries. It’s the problem of the world. We understand that we’re all a consequence of the problem.”

Ultimately Du Bois would reject the label of “original Black Lives Matter” leader. “What he does say is he does it because he loves black people and given the amount of hate that can be generated, that in itself is a revolutionary position,” Gilkes said, leaning closer, her voice falling to a hushed whisper. “My words fail me when it comes to talking about how important he is because there’s so much. There’s so much.