Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Moses, and My American Literature Survey Class
Classes at the university where I teach last one month. The philosophy is that classes are kept small, the professor is able to give individualized attention to each student, and we are able to cover vast tracts of subject matter in a small amount of time. When the students of a particular class are superior, reaching the fourth and final week is always, for me (and, I assume, for the students), a bittersweet experience.
I have taught American Literature Survey many times—beginning with Columbus, and ending with Toni Morrison’s racially-based story, “Recitatif.” Racism pervades American History; in the words of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963), pioneer sociologist, historian, fighter for African-American Civil Rights, and a hero of mine, “The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line.”
My students are, for the most part, African-American and Hispanic; they are also, usually, the first member of their family to attend college. They are young and ambitious; most have children, jobs, and outside responsibilities, but they are determined to get what my father a’h called “the piece of paper”—their college diploma. I urge them on; I am their cheerleader. I tell them how my father, the son of immigrants, was the first in his family to attain the BS and MS degrees, in Chemistry. “Nobody can take the knowledge away from you,” he used to tell my sister and me (she took after him, teaching Math and Science; I took after our mother, with English).
After break, today (it is a twice-weekly class, meeting for a marathon 8am-2pm, with a recess and lunch break), one of my students asked me about Dr. DuBois; she wanted to write about him for her “Lit Crit” (Literary Criticism) paper, which involves finding a library article about the subject. What did his life stand for?
We had read about the “Great Controversy” between DuBois and Booker T. Washington, whose speech at the 1895 Atlanta Exposition led to the infamous “Atlanta Compromise,” wherein he promised that African-Americans, particularly in the racist-haunted South, would put aside any hopes for racial equality, the vote, political power, or even property ownership, provided they could get a pittance of menial jobs, against the onslaught of white immigrants who were coming off the boats and flooding the labor markets.
DuBois boldly spoke and wrote against Washington, saying that this devil’s bargain, this Compromise, would cripple any African-American attempts at equality, and eventually force the closing of Washington’s own school, the famed Tuskegee Institute of Alabama, for want of either students or faculty.
DuBois was a pioneering sociologist, I told the class; he was curious about the behavior of people in groups—specifically, he wondered what caused racism. How could a person hate another human being without knowing them, simply because their skin color, religion, or nationality were different? This, sadly, remains a question we Americans are still grappling with today, in the Age of Trayvon Martin a’h.
I went on to tell this group of bright and curious young women—the American citizens, consumers, and voters of today—about what I called their “two behaviors”—that is, what I call their tribal and universal behaviors. Tribal behavior, I explained, involves their people, their language, customs, foods, religion, and other habits which mark their distinctive identities stemming from a particular country—either Haiti (most of them hail from the city of Cap-Haitien, which I am certain has a particular municipal aura different from other parts of the island, as New York City differs from, say, Chicago). As for my Hispanic students, I would never presume (as do many white Americans) to lump them together; a Colombian is different from a Cuban or a Chilean; when I mentioned my preparing, as a rabbi, to officiate at a funeral, we discussed cultural differences—using, for example, an open casket, and the waiting period between death and the funeral service.
Then, I mentioned our universal behaviors—the roles we play as Americans, as citizens of our country. We meet in classrooms and discuss our differences. I am the first, and usually only, Jewish person they have ever met; as such, it is crucial that I discuss and identify any and all stereotypes they may have heard about my people, including monetary habits, nose size, religion, and Whether We Killed Christ, all of which I discuss freely and openly. I explain why I, as a Jew, can tell an anti-semitic joke, while if someone else does it, it becomes racist; I tell them, as an example, a joke I heard George Lopez, a Mexican-American, tell about his people when he emceed a show on the White House lawn, and why I can tell it, but only in his name.
I think about my class now, as I look at Bamidbar, the opening Torah portion in the Book of Numbers. It discusses all the Israelites walking through the wilderness, in nice, tight rows, and I wonder if it truly ever happened. Jews are notoriously independent-minded—did the twelve tribes encamp according to the plan given in the Torah portion, or is this wishful thinking laid down by an exacting editor, years after the fact?
Young American women of different tribes, young and newly-liberated Israelites, following an elderly leader through an uncharted wilderness—did they not have time to question, wonder about their future, argue about tenets of Torah Teaching, strain at the bit, perhaps? It is significant that the Revolt of Korach will come about in a few weeks, and I truly wonder whether the Order of March was as neat and tidy as the Torah Portion makes it out to be….
In both cases, young American women, and young Israelites freed from an Egyptian yoke, we see traces of an Old Order, and a yearning for a New. My students, in one more, short week, will take whatever bits of literature they retain of my teaching, and go off to another subject. I am uncertain as to how much of my work, my teaching, they will remember.
As for the Israelites, reading again of the too-neat-sounding Order of March, I shake my head—I have my doubts. These are Jews, after all, we are discussing, and Jews are notoriously independent-minded. No: they must have, indeed, questioned poor old Moses. The editor wrote down, not what happened, but his own wishful thinking, of What Ought to Have Been. As for What Really Happened, we are still living it, today. How much of the Torah do you yourself follow, Reader? How much do you plan to undertake in the future? And how much will you never follow? The Questions stand….