After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in July 2020, I participated in a BLM protest in Harrisburg, PA. I brought along my copy of The Souls of Black Folk by Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois. I sat on a step of the State Capitol and read, aloud but quietly, the eleventh essay titled “The Passing of the Firstborn.” I wanted Du Bois to be there to guide those raging and grieving and to instruct the oblivious and naïve, and to chastise the willfully uncivil.

I wanted Burghardt Gomer Du Bois to be there at the Capitol that day, too. Eighteen-month-old Burghardt passed away on May 24, 1899, from diphtheria. Contemporary scholars looked at the state of diphtheria and compared its treatments in Atlanta, where the Du Bois family lived at the time, with the North1. Likely due to a combination of regional inequality and racism, Du Bois was unable to use his considerable networks and assets to persuade a white doctor to risk reputational damage by allowing a Black body into a white clinic to be touched by instruments meant for white bodies.

Another Black life lost—and a glorious one, in his father’s estimation: “A perfect life was his, all joy and love…the world loved him; the women kissed his curls, the men looked gravely into his wonderful eyes, and the children hovered and fluttered about him.”2 He held superlative potential; his father “heard in his baby voice the voice of the Prophet that was to rise within the Veil.”3

Written well over a hundred years later by another Black sociologist, “Dying to Be Competent,” an essay by Tressie McMillan Cottom, is strikingly similar to “The Passing of the Firstborn.” McMillan Cottom describes her infant daughter’s death, yet another Black life lost. Unlike Du Bois, she chose a doctor based on “crude cultural geography:…if it is on the white, wealthy side of town, it must be good.”4 She labored for several days before receiving proper attention, with repeated clinical misinterpretations of her experience. She was told plainly, in fact, that her understanding of her pain wasn’t accurate, and that she was probably too fat. In reflection, she argues that her blackness spoke louder than all her other characteristics, such as education and wealth. Despite status characteristics that “screamed ‘competent,’” the “sticky” characteristic mattered most.

As a child, McMillan Cottom dreamed of competence, of being able to direct one’s own life and take efficacious action in the world. Similarly, Du Bois envisioned an America in which skill, talent, and quality matter more than identity characteristics like race and gender. Du Bois worked for a world worthy of his son, one in which a “mighty morning” would bring justice to America, “a morning when men ask of the workman, not ‘Is he white?’ but ‘Can he work?’ When men ask artists, not ‘Are they black? but “Do they know?’ Some morning this may be, long, long years to come.”5 

A skeptical white reader may wonder why race comes into the story—tragedy befalls white families, too, and white parents also grieve. True, but Black women are 243% more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes than are white women, and Black babies die at over twice the rate of white babies in the first year of life.6 McMillan Cottom is and Du Bois was a Black sociologist, and both shared their personal experiences from a sociological perspective—what C. Wright Mills described as seeing personal troubles as rooted in public issues. Infant loss is very personal, of course, but it takes place in the context of stratified health care access and quality as well as racial and regional inequalities.

Du Bois invites the reader into lament, offering his most vulnerable experience as a possible entrée for a white reader to begin to care about Black lives and the state of racial disharmony in America. His approach is Shakespearean, evoking Prospero’s argument for the humanity of Jews when he asks, “when you prick us, do we not bleed?” In reading Du Bois, the naïve white readers viscerally realize that Black parents love their children just as much as they love their own.

In contrast, McMillan Cottom’s essay concludes with a picture of her sitting “at the end of a hallway with a dead baby in my arms.”7 Her writing is as clinical as the hospital itself. McMillan Cottom expects the reader to know already what Du Bois strives to teach: the value of a single Black life. She withholds herself as an emotional guide to white readers, and explains this strategy: Black women are slotted for care work—as nannies and maids—even while structurally inhibited from caring for themselves.

Whether for one’s lost loved one or over one’s group-level complicity in injustice, emotion (or its absence) may be viewed with a sociological imagination. In Black Like Me,8 white journalist John Howard Griffin passed as Black and traveled across the South. After only two weeks, he found himself outside a shack on the edge of an alligator-infested swamp in the middle of the night in Alabama, crying. The tears came in meeting the children of his hosts, playing out their inevitably truncated futures in comparison with those of his own children. Griffin’s tears did not stem from mere sentimentality; before and after his skin color experiment, he engaged in political and journalistic activism for civil rights, even to the detriment of other topics he hoped to write about.

McMillan Cottom’s book title, Thick¸ uses the word as a double entendre. “Thick” is a way of describing a Black woman’s body, and way of being, that is “too much.” Thick is also a quality of sociological research, from Clifford Geertz’s definition of ethnography as “thick description.” For Christians, I offer a third layer: thickness of moral will. Different than white nationalism or explicit racism, the thickness is a fog or inertia. It’s that which holds us back from living the Golden Rule in response to the loss of any baby, because we also care for our own babies; to do unto those of other groups as we do unto those of our own groups; to engage the competence, and prioritize the status characteristics, of others as we would like them to do to us.

Loss is a thick experience—simultaneously private and public, personal and social. Personal loss is a thread in the fabric of life-long race work for both Du Bois and McMillan Cottom, and it has such implications for each of us. For example, the recent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol has brought loss both to the families of people who died there and to the whole nation. Each Black life lost does the same, becoming a kind of grief that accumulates over time from enslaved people to DuBois to McMillan Cottom. The book of James advises us to be “quick to listen” (James 1:19). One hundred twenty years—the time that passed between Du Bois’ devastating loss, and McMillan Cottom’s—is anything but quick.

In the 1890s, Du Bois chastised the nation for its slowness to adequately incorporate former slaves as full citizens. With respect to poor education for Blacks and malformed education for whites, he wrote in The Souls of Black Folk words that apply equally to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol: “To stimulate wildly weak and untrained minds is to play with mighty fires; to flout their striving idly is to welcome a harvest of brutish crime and shameless lethargy in our very laps.”9

In his day, that harvest arrived in lynchings and Jim Crow discrimination. Today it continues in white nationalistic politics, hate crimes, and quotidian discrimination. With concern, good-hearted people scroll through media, emoting disgust, hope, and sadness, but to what end? In a cacophony of digital slogans shared in a world of actual violence that is held up by a history of racial and many other injustices, it is hard to forge a path of right and efficacious action.

We may start with our own experience, or those of friends from other social groups, and make the sociological move from personal trouble to public issue. As Du Bois admonishes, “the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.”10  In this, what seems separate is brought close. The color line is not eradicated, but is at least mitigated, when Self treats Other as Self. Death is not reversed, but its sting softens when we work to make the world worthy of all who have departed, whether loved dearly by us or by others. Means and ends fuse into a single path of action characterized not by anxiety and rage, but by love, vigilance, and tenderness.  

Resources:

Cottom, Tressie McMillan. Thick: And Other Essays. New York: Good Reads. 

Karp, R.J. and B. Gearing. 2015. “The Death of Burghardt Du Bois, 1899: Implications for Today.” Journal of the National Medical Association 107(1): 68-74. doi: 10.1016/S0027-9684(15)30011

Du Bois, W.E.B. Souls of Black Folk. New York: Barnes and Noble

For a recent CSR extended book review about race see https://christianscholars.com/the-color-of-compromise-an-extended-review/. For a recent blog post see https://christianscholars.com/why-we-cannot-ignore-institutional-racism/

 

Footnotes

  1. Karp, R.J. and B. Gearing. 2015. “The Death of Burghardt Du Bois, 1899: Implications for Today.” Journal of the National Medical Association 107(1): 68-74. doi: 10.1016/S0027-9684(15)30011-
  2.  Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903) 2003. Souls of Black Folk. New York: Barnes & Noble.
  3. Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903) 2003. Souls of Black Folk. New York: Barnes & Noble.
  4.  Cottom, Tressie McMillan. 2019. Thick: and Other Essays. New York: The New Press.
  5.  Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903) 2003. Souls of Black Folk. New York: Barnes & Noble.
  6. Cottom, Tressie McMillan. Thick: And Other Essays. New York: Good Reads, 87, 89.
  7.  Cottom, Tressie McMillan. 2019. Thick: and Other Essays. New York: The New Press.
  8. Griffin, John Howard (1961) 2003. Black Like Me. New York: New American Library.
  9.  Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903) 2003. Souls of Black Folk. New York: Barnes & Noble.
  10.  Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903) 2003. Souls of Black Folk. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Jenell Paris

Messiah University
Jenell Paris, Ph.D., is Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Messiah University in Grantham, PA.

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