NU professor's book highlights W.E.B. Du Bois' contributions to sociology
Northwestern sociology professor Aldon Morris, shown in 2013, has a new book "The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology." (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)
New book says W.E.B. Du Bois is the father of modern sociology — not the U of C's Robert Park
In 1963, Aldon Morris was 14 when the scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois died the day before the historic March on Washington.
Du Bois' death was announced as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was about to deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and the crowd fell into tears. Morris didn't attend the march but the story, recounted by a friend who did, confirmed for him that he was not alone in his admiration for Du Bois, an intellectual giant.
The first black man to earn a doctorate from Harvard. One of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Author of the acclaimed study, "Black Reconstruction in America."
Morris, now a Northwestern professor of sociology, has just published a book, "The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology." In it, he argues that Du Bois is the father and founder of the modern principles of American sociology, which is provocative because the credit always has gone to the University of Chicago and Robert Park, a white sociologist who taught there.
"So the narrative, how should I put it, is that scientific sociology was founded at an elite white university by white males," Morris said. "But Du Bois was doing this 20 years before the Chicago School of Sociology, and his scholarship at the time was superior to what whites were doing."
He said the effort to write Du Bois out of the history of sociology went on for four decades and illustrates the way history is distorted when race is involved.
Although the U. of C. had the country's first sociology department — it opened in 1892 — it's not clear when researchers there began to use the scientific sociological methods used by Du Bois.
So, why is Du Bois important today?
In "The Scholar Denied," Morris writes that in the mid-1890s, the University of Pennsylvania wanted to study a large black community in Philadelphia's 7th Ward. A wave of Southern blacks had moved to the city, creating tension between the new migrants and the black community already in place. A struggle had emerged for jobs, housing and a new way of life.
At the time, Du Bois was teaching at Wilberforce University in Ohio but was unhappy there. When researchers at the University of Pennsylvania asked him to conduct the study, he gladly accepted the offer.
Morris said that Du Bois employed every sociological method used today. Back then it was groundbreaking to combine anecdotal information with empirically based science.
"Du Bois took the time to interview people," said Morris. "He did field work and participant observation. But he also used census data and ethnographic data. He used methods to study the population that hadn't been done in sociology in the United States before."
Morris said Du Bois learned these methods while studying at the University of Berlin between 1892 to1894, when Germans were recognized as the leading social scientists of the world.
Du Bois believed that the reason racism existed and thrived in America was that white people mistakenly viewed blacks as genetically and culturally inferior. Morris said the scholar set out to prove this was incorrect.
"He argued that colonialism in South Africa, and in Asia and in South America was the same as racism in America," said Morris. "He said it was the European and American whites who felt the role of people of color around the world was to serve them and help build empires so they could rule the world."
In 1899, Du Bois, who by then was a professor at Atlanta University, published The Philadelphia Negro, and then moved on to studying rural black communities as well as other northern black ones.
"He was turning out studies every year," said Morris. "They were scientific studies on race and there was nothing like them anywhere else. That attracted young black scholars who worked with him. But his work was marginalized because of racism."
In 1903, Du Bois published his seminal work, "The Souls of Black Folk," in which he coined the notion of African-Americans' "double consciousness" — a "sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity."
Du Bois believed that his role as a scholar was inseparable from his duties as an activist. Morris views his role similarly.
"Certainly there are some tensions between the roles," he told me. "But I think that for quite a few scholars who come from a background where there's inequity and oppression and misery and pain, you identity with that."
In the social sciences and in humanities, he said there's something called "intersectionality studies."
"It looks at ways race, gender, class and sexuality intersect," Morris said. "Some of the feminist scholars of today pioneered that perspective, but Du Bois was the founder of this kind of approach 100 years ago. Du Bois, and later King, raised the notion that poor, working-class white people should unite with poor blacks to overthrow a common oppressor. But race gets in the way."
Morris said he was attracted to Du Bois because he was one of the greatest scholars America has ever produced and one of its greatest activists.
He said it was only natural that Du Bois would become a model and mentor, as he learned how his work was important to sociology but also largely ignored in mainstream or white academia.
"Early on, I made a promise to myself to set the record straight," said Morris. "And one day I would show his fundamental role in the social sciences, especially in sociology."
Morris will talk about the book 2 p.m. Saturday at the Woodson Regional Library, 9525 S. Halsted St., Chicago.
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