Du Bois’ profound cultural influence

W. E. B. Du Bois has been described as many things. Sociologist. Historian. Author. Public intellectual. Civil rights activist.

Soon, there will be one more description on that list: Honorary Emeritus Professor.

At Penn’s Feb. 17 Board of Trustees meeting, Du Bois is expected to be posthumously bestowed with an Honorary Emeritus Professorship in Sociology and Africana Studies. Penn will also be holding a daylong conference on Feb. 17 to honor the life and scholarship of the historic scholar. The conference runs from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the G17 Auditorium, Claudia Cohen Hall, 249 S. 36th St.

The conference and professorship will honor Du Bois’ considerable contributions to several fields of study—contributions that were fostered at Penn, when he worked as an assistant in sociology at Wharton from August of 1896 through December of 1897. During that time, Du Bois researched and wrote “The Philadelphia Negro,” a social scientific study of the black community in the city.

“The Philadelphia Negro” was Du Bois’ second major monogram, and helped to establish him as an important young scholar, according to Tukufu Zuberi, professor of sociology and the Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations in the School of Arts and Sciences.

“W. E. B. Du Bois had the courage to be scientific in a world that wasn’t necessarily prepared for scientific explanations of human relationships,” says Zuberi. “He did that by applying the science of sociology, which was new at the beginning of the 20th Century, to ... the study of the African-American population in Philadelphia. He did this at the invitation of the University of Pennsylvania, which was already in itself a historic event.”

Historic, because at that time in the United States, as an African-American man, Du Bois “would not have even been considered that intelligent,” Zuberi says.

Even though Penn reached out directly to Du Bois, most of the faculty were ambivalent about the scholar, at best, and dismissive, at worst. Some, Zuberi says, debated whether to include Du Bois’ name in the University’s annual written record. When he was on campus, Du Bois wasn’t given an office.

“This conference is to … celebrate the opportunity that the University seized upon to use that genius to produce [‘The Philadelphia Negro’], but also to go back and say we can now do more than we did,” says Zuberi. “We understand that the times were different then. The consideration of an African American as being a full human being is relatively new in the context of the University.”

Most people familiar with Du Bois’ writing may recognize his seminal work, “The Souls of Black Folk”—a work with themes that Zuberi says Du Bois touched upon in “The Philadelphia Negro.”

“‘The Philadelphia Negro’ is both a classic and a trailblazing text simply because he did a scientific study of a group that was not studied scientifically by most other scholars in the United States,” says Zuberi. After Du Bois left Penn for Atlanta University, his more than 15 volumes of social scientific work that followed were modeled on “The Philadelphia Negro.”

In addition to panel discussions, the Feb. 17 conference will include a tour of the art show, “The Philadelphia Negro Reconsidered,” as well as a musical tribute, “Art Songs in the Kingdom of Culture,” from Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., Penn professor of music.

“[Du Bois’] influence on me is so profound that I hear him all the time. I read him all the time,” says Zuberi. “His work is profound because of the breadth of it, because of his use of scientific methodology, and because of his ability to overcome some of his own biases and the biases of his day.”

For more information about the conference, go to: www.sas.upenn.edu/duboisprofessorship.

Originally published on February 16, 2012