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The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon and W.E.B. Du Bois

A few months ago I wrote about what is known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, a situation where one happens upon some obscure piece of information—often an unfamiliar word or name—and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly.

Last week I wrote about how great Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, is. In the book, Stevenson tells of a story that was included in W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 book, “The Souls of Black Folk“.

The title of the short story is “Of the Coming of John”. about a young black man in coastal Georgia who is sent off hundreds of miles to a school that trains black teachers. The entire black community where he was born has raised the money for his tuition. The community invests in John so that he can one day return and teach African American children who are barred from attending the public school. John almost flunks out of school until he realizes the trust he has been given and the shame he would face if he returned without graduating. Newly focused and committed to succeed, he graduates with honors and returns to his community intent on changing things.

John convinces the white judge who controls the town to allow him to open a school for black children. His education has empowered him, and he has strong opinions about racial freedom and equality that land him and the black community in trouble. The judge shuts down the school when he hears what John has been teaching. John walks home after the school’s closing, frustrated and distraught. On the trip home he sees his sister being groped by the judge’s adult son and he reacts violently, striking the man in the head with a piece of wood. John continues home to say goodbye to his mother. Du Bois ends the tragic story when the furious judge catches up to John with the lynch mob he has assembled.

I found the story captivating, so I thought I would enjoy the full book. Fortunately, Amazon has a free Kindle edition of The Souls of Black Folk, which I have downloaded and added to my reading list. But before I get to it, I had a couple other books in my queue.

As fate would have it, after I finished reading Just Mercy, the next book on my list was Reconstructing Rage: Transformative Reentry in the Era of Mass Incarceration by Townsand Price-Spratlen and William Goldsby. This book chronicles the history of a non-profit organization, Reconstruction, Inc., which is dedicated to helping prisoners and their families reintegrate into society. From the Amazon web site for the book:

Reconstructing Rage analyzes how – and how well – one company, Reconstruction, Inc. of Philadelphia, has organized returning prisoners, their families, and communities for 24 years. It looks at Reconstruction’s programs, strategies, and patterns of change over time; holistic (i.e., mind-body-spirit) and principled transformations in the people and families it has touched; and at the company’s collaborations and contributions to criminal justice and public policy best practices. Reconstructing Rage explores challenges of improving community capacity and quality of life outcomes within and beyond reentry and reintegration, for former felons, their families, and a growing number of others interested in a broader social justice.

It was in the epilogue that I came across a quote also from Du Bois’ The Souls Of Black Folk:

“It is a hard thing to live haunted by the ghost of an untrue dream.”

The authors of Reconstructing Rage link Du Bois’ quote with a speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King in which he asked, “How long will it take?” for change to happen, and he replies that “the arc of the moral universe is long. But it bends toward justice.”

Seeing Du Bois’ name mentioned twice in one week was a mini Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, but what made it a full-fledged one was when I started reading Cory Booker’s book, United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good.

(sidebar: I may have mentioned before that Cory Booker is my favorite politician, and I hope that he has the opportunity one day to be our President. I saw him speak at Villanova a couple of years ago, and it was one of the best presentations I have ever seen.)

Anyway, I’m only about 20% of the way through the book, but so far it is great. But what struck me as I was reading it, and how it relates to this post, is that he also uses a quote from Du Bois to open up one of the chapters.

“The most important thing to remember is this: to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.”

A powerful quote to say the least, and one that encourages all of us to constantly reflect on what we are capable of and what we are meant to do.

So after coming across Du Bois’ name three times in one week, I realized I really knew nothing about him, so off to Wikipedia I went. Here is some of what it had to say about this amazing individual:

Du Bois was an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, and editor. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois grew up in a relatively tolerant and integrated community. After completing graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate, he became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. Du Bois was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Racism was the main target of Du Bois’s polemics, and he strongly protested against lynching, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination in education and employment. His cause included people of color everywhere, particularly Africans and Asians in colonies. He was an ardent peace activist and advocated nuclear disarmament. The United States’ Civil Rights Act, embodying many of the reforms for which Du Bois had campaigned his entire life, was enacted a year after his death.

Du Bois was committed to social justice, but unfortunately many of the problems with racism he confronted over 100 years ago we are still dealing with today. I was grateful for this serendipitous opportunity to learn more about him, and I look forward to reading his book.

But more importantly, I hope some of his ideas about social justice and how we treat others finally come into existence. The arc of justice may be long, but I also believe it bends towards justice, and that one day the dream will be true.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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