It’s a moment that Arthur McFarlane, who is the maternal great-grandson of civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois, describes as “heart stopping.” When he was 21 and still in college, he went to Baltimore to visit relatives. On Sunday, they took him to church where, after the service, a little old lady came up to him, took both his hands in hers, looked him straight in the eye and said, “You are a prince of our people, and you need to carry that.”
“She was squeezing my hands,” he remembered. “It was clear to me how great an impact my great-grandfather had had on her life and the choices she’d made. I didn’t know how to respond, but I tried to take in the depth of the message she was delivering. I don’t think I got it until later, after more people like her said how honored they were to meet me, and told me of the impact Grandpa had had on their lives.”
In 1895, W.E.B. DuBois became the first African American ever to earn a PhD from Harvard. He was an educator, writer, and researcher who conducted the first serious sociological studies of life in Black America. He was also something of a firebrand, challenging the prevailing ideology within the Black community of accommodation as a means of eliminating segregation. To end racism in America, he preached, blacks needed to mobilize and agitate. A founding member of the NAACP, many today consider him to be the father of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
McFarlane first met his famous forbear in 1958, when he was just three months old. “It was at his 90th birthday party at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City,” he said. “He addressed his speech to me, and offered words of advice to do work you enjoy and that the world needs to have done.”
McFarlane didn’t hear a lot about DuBois when he was growing up. “It wasn’t pushed on us,” he said. “But in high school, it became a bigger deal. I started giving talks about him. My freshman year in college I was invited to speak about him at a convention of the Congress of Racial Equality.”
Born and educated in New York, McFarlane moved to Colorado in the 1980s to do graduate work at CU. Today he’s an evaluator for the State Department of Public Health. But he also maintains a kind of second career giving talks about DuBois once or twice a month, not only here in Colorado, but all over the US, and even in places as far away as Istanbul, Turkey.
“When I’m done talking about him, people always ask me what his words mean for us today. What would his advice be for people in our time?” McFarlane said. “DuBois believed that the problem of the 20th Century was the problem of the color line. I think the problem for the 21st Century is how we deal with our differences: religious, ethnic, racial, sexual orientation. You can see that every single day. That’s what we wrestle with in our time. Our differences are important and we have to respect them, not blow them up and use them to separate us from one another. So I think if he were alive today he’d probably say, ‘Talk to somebody who’s different than you. Ask them to tell you their story. In that way we can learn our similarities, and maybe make the world a better place.”
Taking on the mantel of his iconic ancestor has not been without its difficulties. “It’s been a hard journey,” McFarlane said. “DuBois cast such a great shadow, it was sometimes hard to see who I was apart from him. But to know that people are hearing his story and that there’s still a place for his thoughts and example in our lives – keeping that alive has been honorable work.”
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