A Letter to Du Bois, Snowden and Locke

My Dear Du Bois, Snowden and Locke,

I have only just met you, and yet I feel so close to you. You came decades before me and I don’t even know if you would like me. I am not as aristocratic as I’ve heard you may prefer. I’m just me. Dark skinned, untamed locs on my head, I speak good English but intentionally choose to keep my tone and sometimes verb agreement not so perfectly “English.” Usually I’ll wear something that connects to my African American heritage or my African heritage. I am unapologetically, proudly a Black woman. I do this because I have been in the White world my entire life, a student of Evangelical Christian schools from PreK-12th grades and in 8th grade I made the decision to stop trying to look or be anything like those who would not even let my friends and I start a gospel choir and who taught us that God made Black people inferior.

I guess you are wondering why I am writing to you. I know you are long gone, and even if you were alive I am not sure if I’d be the one you’d want to be close to, but I have loved each of you so much and I am writing this letter to tell you why, but let me introduce myself to you first. When I finished all my k12 schooling and graduated college, I knew your names but did not know you. When I went to teach in public schools, I would hear Du Bois’ name especially and knew of his brilliance, but not to what extent. When I finished graduate school, I still only knew of you. However, as I made a sharp detour away from traditional education and began to explore classical education and its connection to the African American people, I felt more alone than I’d ever been in my career…in my life! After spending 10 years working in a Classical school founded by my parents, I tired so much of hearing students’ parents, teachers, and family friends tell my mom and dad that classical studies has nothing to do with African American people.

Around the same time that I was discovering the phenomenon of bringing classical education to the African American community, I was beginning my doctoral studies. I at first was going to study theatre and music being used as a teaching tool in the k12 language arts classroom, but I could not stop thinking about the evolution that I was seeing in my students at the classical school where I was teaching a Great Books class. I already knew that my declaring my interest publicly would isolate me. I knew of no one who had this similar interest, yet the pull of interest would not let me go. I think of when Heidegger says, “To think is to confine your self to a single thought until it stands still in the world’s sky.” The light of classical studies in the African American community mesmerized me. I changed my research topic and all unheavenly places broke loose. My advisor rejected me. Professors in my department told me I was pursuing a topic that was outdated and pointless. Who would support this journey? There was only 1 professor at the time who even though she could not understand my decision, told me to follow my heart.

I came home one evening and rested on my parents couch, feeling heavy from the constant battle I was fighting in academia. I felt alone. I had no one to talk to. I had no one who would understand why I wanted to look into this and then I accidentally found myself reading “Of the Training of Black Men” by you Du Bois and when I read the following passage, I felt I’d found a friend:

W.E. B Du Bois

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.  Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls….I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.  Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America?  Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia?  Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land? (From Souls of Black Folk: Of the Training of Black Men)

The entire essay drew me in and gave me courage, but this last passage in the essay, brought me to tears. I was not alone. At that moment I did not care what controversies surrounded you. In fact, now when I read them my heart aches. It does not make me love you any less. When I hear about them accusing you of communism or being a threat to America, when all you wanted was to stop nuclear warfare, my heart grieves that your motives were misunderstood. When people say that you do not understand the African American experience because you were never enslaved, I mourn for you because you did endure slavery of another name, constantly oppressed by a government that wanted to silence you. When I hear my own people say anything negative about you, I find myself getting angry because they don’t realize that you cofounded the NAACP. I know that maybe you could have been more gracious to people. I know that you had this elitist way of being, but everything I read from you tells me nothing but that you wanted the best for your people. You aggressively sought to enlighten us about how to navigate this sometimes hateful land called America, where our ancestors were enslaved and the slave trade created a genetic habit of oppressing us in every way. You sought to give us the language and literacy, the tools to combat that. You wanted to take us from the fields, from under the heavy hand of racism and White supremacy so we owed no one anything and could chart our own paths. You were misunderstood, I believe. I am sorry Du Bois. Blacks and Whites ran you from this country, forgetting and blinded to the work you had been doing to liberate us. You tried Du Bois and you died with a broken heart and in the foreign land of Ghana. Yet, your work lives on. I read Souls of Black Folk so much the pages are falling out. I am reading On the Education of Black People now and am inspired by your essay “Galileo Galilei” as your thoughts on him inspire me to make sure I encourage my students to wonder, for from wonder comes great discoveries that can change the world. I love you Du Bois and I am thankful for the work you did. You will never be forgotten or dishonored by me and I hope that somehow the work that I do, although I may do it a little differently than you, will inspire others to take a second look at you, instead of writing you off as an elitist man who looked down on those who were not the talented 10th or a woman.

Du Bois you carried me through my entire doctoral program. When I was told that my research was irrelevant, your work was my guiding light. My Polaris. My North Star. Finding you made me so stubborn that I was undeterred, no matter how many times I faced adversity. For a while it was just you and me on this journey and then I uncovered others. The others, like Anna Julia Cooper, Frederick Douglass or Marva Collins did not get the attacks on character like you did and were not seen as controversial. They also did not write as much as you did on the topic of classical education in the African American community so I stuck close to you. We walked together. I started telling my husband you were my boyfriend. I have your picture hanging in my office. When I have doubt, your words speak to me and tell me to keep pushing. So I have been. Recently, though I’ve met 2 others who maybe were a little different in their personal philosophies and maybe did not speak so much on classical education specifically, but I feel they connected to you because they were activists through scholarship for our people, like you.

Alain Locke

When I got hired to teach at Howard University in the Classics Department, which is housed in Locke Hall, I decided to look into learning more about you Alain Locke. I read the New Negro, which I felt really spoke to my thoughts that African Americans being taught in Classics and the canon was actually common. It was not just some rare group of African American Classicists, but it was what we learned as our country began to begrudgingly embrace our equal humanity and citizenship. It was what we had to do to gain the literacy we needed to be able to vote, get decent jobs, get out of sharecropping, the chain gain, etc. I am almost positive that this dread headed woman would not have been of any interest to you, not just because you were gay, but because I am not “polished” enough to fit into your inner circle. For me, obtaining a Rhodes Scholarship would have sent me to my knees in thanks to God, realizing how competitive it is. Even though you were the first African American to gain it, I do feel that you saw this as some indication that you are better than others who look like you. I would have been little more leery about seeking out a White benefactor like Charlotte Mason who would seek to be called “Godmother” and wanted to have some control of my work (although a benefactor who wanted to help as a collaborator and equal co-laborer in this work would be most welcome). Even though you mostly wrote to uplift your people, you many times seemed as racist against them as their White oppressor. I would not have made my hair groomed in a European style. I would not dress up in conservative dresses as you wore impeccable suits. I would not have spoken with a polished accent, giving an air of a “highly educated, European influenced” African American. I would not have seen myself as any different from those in the hood and those in the suburbs or those in academia or those who are not. I tend to just be me and love on any and everyone no matter if they have been to school, have read Shakespeare or prefer Sanford and Son or Tyler Perry Movies (Tyler Perry gives me so much life through Madea). How can I? My people, all aspects of them are a part of me! My paternal grandfather barely finished elementary school, yet raised almost all of his 13 children to get their degrees and to achieve such career success as being doctors, lawyers, professors, teachers, pastors. My maternal grandfather also didn’t finish elementary school, but owned his own farm and restaurant. Both of them were the sons of slaves. I cannot reject those without a college or graduate degree because my ancestors didn’t have them, but they worked hard so that I could! I read their stories and I recall the stories my grandparents passed on to me about their parents and grandparents and great grandparents. To deny the slave is to deny myself. To deny the slave is to discount their intellect and power as the slave master did. To deny the heroic, beautiful, tragic, wise and awful story of the slave, but to embrace the story of Odysseus or Prometheus or Othello and all the heroes that American schools make us read, even while refusing to tell the full story of my ancestors in their history books, makes me no different than a White Supremacist. I do not want to be guilty of that. I cannot reject the hood, because my beloved grandmother lived in and loved the hood and I spent my days with her, enjoying all aspects of Black life and valuing the rich culture that is so organic within us. In the hood I see our wisdom, intellect, creativity and soul totally untainted by European influence and I love it. Yet, I am scholarly, but that scholarship is used as a tool to uplift my people…all of my people. I LOVE my people. No matter who they are, what shade of their skin, what schooling they have had, what neighborhood they are from, or what their bloodline may be, because to reject any of them would be to reject pieces of myself. I prefer to work and be in schools where the people would not have access to this type of education, can get it. I don’t go after the “upper class”, but they are always welcome, but I literally run after the ones you may have called “niggers and lower class.” (and you said this about men who were students of Harvard!). I seek to give this to any and everyone who are willing to take the journey with me.

Alain, I don’t know if you and I would have been on the same page about my all encompassing love of the African American people. Yet, meeting you this week again has given me the same love for you as I have for Du Bois, even with all of your complexities, I can see what you were trying to do. I may have done it differently, but I see your heart. You tried to highlight our “Black Excellence” in being the “father of the Harlem Renaissance.” Oh how I love when you say, “I am not a race problem. I am Alain Leroy Locke.” My goodness! It is this that makes me feel that you feel as I do. I want the world to see my students’ Black Excellence. You chose to use the anthology The New Negro and the essay (of the same name) to discuss that we are no longer in those fields! We are meant for more! We are also the Kings and Queens of the earth. I say “also” because all races are God’s children, thus we are all Kings and Queens of the earth, but sometimes society seeks to make my people feel otherwise. I cling to Psalm 139 and that is where my pride comes from. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made!” This is what I teach my students and even though you may not have quoted this verse, it is this I feel you were trying to teach the African American people. I get it Alain! I see you! I feel I understand your intent, even though how you tried to reveal that may not have gone over so well. You failed to unveil that our beautiful Blackness needs no overhaul to resemble the oppressor, that in our purest state we are absolutely beautiful and royal. Yet, I am inspired by you, my friend and I love you. I hope it’s ok that I say that. I mean that as one would say to a grandfather or a mentor. If I’d been alive, I would have attended your small funeral. I would have honored you too along with Du Bois and others, because even though I may not have agreed with how you went about some things ( and Du Bois I think you had your disagreements with him), I see you and I honor you. I would not have rejected you.

So Du Bois and Locke you have touched me in ways so deep, that I cannot express it. You have given me courage. You have given me tangible resources that I can turn to when those who doubt me question me. You have given me strength to stand on what I am discovering about the Black Classical tradition in African American history. The one thing I was missing, was that actual physical connection to Ancient Greece and Rome. I had been teaching it still as if this body of knowledge did not belong to those of African descent and that we were outsiders merely partaking of the feast. How grateful I was when my dear friend Eva Brann told me about you Frank Snowden. I have read about your work, 15 years or more of researching the African presence in ancient Greece and Rome. I was so excited that I told a friend in academia and he told me to be careful about getting too excited, because again you, like Locke and Du Bois or a little controversial. I am beginning to see a pattern with you three gentlemen! I toned my excitement down a bit and began to do my own research and I discovered you too were rejected by Blacks and Whites. Blacks were so consumed with reaching back to Africa, the Africa disconnected with anyone from the West, that they were unable to see the value in what you were trying to uncover. Your days at Howard ended with your life being threatened, an effigy being hung on campus to reveal a deep hate for you and your work, that you resigned. I feel your heart broke too. So much time spent seeking to give us the ancient African heritage, so we could know of our ancestors place in the Classical time period. All three of you worked so hard to try and give us the world, but “we didn’t know who you were” possible saviors, seeking to give us truth that would give us a clearer understanding of our identity here in this foreign land.

What the master, the oppressor would always keep from us, making us think that the African and African American people have contributed NOTHING to the human story, you all tried to prove otherwise and you did. Yet, we rejected you. I am sorry. I have read each of your stories, realizing the awful positions you were in. You were human like all of us, with your own flaws, but your hearts were sincere in wanting to elevate the African American people above the Veil. You used your scholarship to uncover the lies perpetuated in this country that we have nothing to offer and that whatever we do know only comes from the White man. You 3 proved that is a lie and you suffered for it. My people hated you, because we are so angry about slavery and Jim Crow and systemic racism that wanting to go back to Africa causes us to want to skip over truly understanding the education that was happening during slavery, reconstruction and those times between the Middle passage and the Civil Rights Movement. We sometimes fail to see the heritage and power we have right here in America, birthed in us through the sufferings of those ancestors. We fail to realize that Sankofa (Adinkra symbol meaning “to go back and get it”) means we must go back and get ALL of it. The heritage of our ancestors from slavery to present day AND Africa. Not one or the other. We must embrace and understand all of it in order to fully comprehend the most beautiful and harrowing human story ever known…our human story. Snowden you tried to give that to us. You took us back to ancient Africa and brought it all back to us here. You helped me to see that we should not be passing off Aristotle, Socrates or Sophocles as part of the evils of the slave trade and Jim Crow, when you said,

Frank Snowden Jr.

Nothing comparable to the virulent color prejudice of modern times existed in the ancient world. The ancients did not fall into the error of biological racism; black skin color was not a sign of inferiority; Greeks and Romans did not establish color as an obstacle to integration. (Frank Snowden)

but we rejected you, preferring to hold on to the myth that all those books from White people were meant to enslave and oppress us. Therefore, many of my people remain under the Veil. I am hoping that I can reintroduce them to you Frank. My goodness, I feel that (and I hope Du Bois and Locke you won’t be offended) you would be a very dear man. I am just starting to read you, but I feel that I would have loved to sit at your feet and ask you questions and learn from you and you would have welcomed me.

All 3 of you have suffered and I know this pain. Your people rejecting you and refusing to hear you because slavery has so chained our minds to bitterness we cannot appreciate both our African AND American story. We have a heritage that extends to two continents! What a rich story that is and we must grasp all of it. We must come to understand that the Classical tradition is a part of that narrative and to miss it, we actually miss an entire chunk of the story of how our people educated themselves when they came to this foreign land and they used that education is the foundation of their fight for liberation and equality. While enslaved they stole it and once they were freed they ferociously pursued it. I have felt this rejection too from my people, but I have found your friendship so helpful in navigating this. Seeing your suffering has made me realize that I am not alone. I have also felt the racism of Whites who are angry that I have discovered the Black Classical tradition, because as you Du Bois has said, they desire to keep us in a VEIL of ignorance, yet we all agree that we should seek to know every single jot of what they know. Yet, I do it a little humbler than you. I am not seeking to be in competition with Whites. I know that many African Americans took on White culture as a means of survival, seeking assimilation as a way to “get out” of the pit of oppression and maybe they had no other choice? I am not seeking to do that either as I feel my ancestors fought and died so I do not have to. I am not seeking to make myself to be superior to any of my people or to portray myself as such. I am not seeking to study Classics as if it is superior to the wisdom and knowledge of my people, but I study it because I see how it helps students gain access to the language and literacy as one would do when living in a foreign country. I study it because my ancestors did and I want to connect with them by gaining the knowledge that they had. Classical studies is everywhere in America. Latin is on our money, Plato is in many texts that we read, Greek tragedies often inspire some of our favorite movies. The way that Classics and Great Books are so grafted into American society is something that won’t change and so to give my students access to this knowledge helps them to gain the literacy they need to navigate the world that they live in. I humbly give it to my people so they can share in the discovery and I am hoping that the work you have done will help me in this journey. May they learn from you as I have learned as Martin Luther King said, “We’re going to let our children know that the only philosophers that lived were not Plato and Aristotle, but W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke came through the universe.” Your life and work was unmistakably BLACK and for the uplift of the race. You did not take your training in Classics and the canon and try to make our heritage disappear, but you told OUR story and you told it well. You told it so well that our people and ALL people wanted to hear it. Oh I love you and am so grateful for you. Your lives led me to discover those ancestors who while enslaved stole Classical education, stealing classics from the master’s library or bribing the master’s children to let them borrow their books. They eaves dropped on the Latin lessons and took note of what their oppressor was studying. They’d sneak back to the slave quarters and share it with each other, until a “dark market” of classical learning was permeating from plantation to plantation. Once they were freed they continued to pursue classical education and that effort gave birth to each of you.

Thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for the body of work that you left behind to guide me on this path. I hope that even though you are no longer with us, that somehow the work I do and the way I learn from the mistakes you made, will allow me to be successful in carrying on your vision and even to add to it. Let me expand it some? I wonder if there is a common ground in Classics and the study of the Western Canon? I wonder if this common ground can be used to maybe build a bridge from Black Americans to White Americans? I am not suggesting that either of us assimilate into the other or that either of us denounce our heritage, but I am suggesting that all of us recognize that we share these texts, regardless of what our narrative is around them. As we reveal our narratives around these texts and share them with each other, may we retain our heritage and our ethnic pride, but yet come to live out the American motto of e pluribus unum, “out of many, one.” You laid the groundwork and I’d like to carry it on and maybe in me doing so, you all will rise again, somehow.

The Sankofa Symbol

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