GREAT BARRINGTON — Genius is to be prized, says historian and biographer, David Levering Lewis, and W.E.B. Du Bois was an extraordinary mind.
The author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of the civil rights pioneer will present "Du Bois' Long Road Back to Great Barrington" as inaugural keynote speaker at the W.E.B. Du Bois Educational Series. The free event will begin at 7 p.m. April 28 at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington.
When Du Bois was born in 1868, Levering Lewis noted, Great Barrington had some 40 families of color, many of them landholders or employed in service industries. It was an easy place for him to live, given the town's relative enlightenment in matters of race — prejudice was mostly against the Irish and Slavs — and the encouragement he received from public school Principal Frank Hosmer.
A longtime Rutgers and NYU professor, Levering Lewis visited Great Barrington often while researching his two-volume biography, which won The Pulitzer Prize in 1994 and 2001. He conducted extensive interviews and followed local controversies about acknowledging the town's "most significant native son."
As a lot of people have moved to Great Barrington since then, he noted, "one can talk about Du Bois in ways that, back in 1973, you would have been very careful if you mentioned the man's name."
Du Bois advocate and parent John Horan brought the new program idea to her attention, Monument Mountain Principal Marianne Young said. A committee of area Du Bois scholars, educators and multicultural activists modeled the series after the highly successful Dowmel lectures which the school hosted for 15 years and which "was so impactful for students and the community," Young said.
Students at Monument Mountain study Du Bois across the curriculum in English, social studies and U.S. and Berkshire history classes.
"We make sure students are introduced to these ideas and ways of thinking that challenge the status quo," Young said, "to look at what they're doing and ask questions about their role in the world and how they can impact their own lives and the lives of others."
Young sees the series, which is a community initiative funded through private donations, as an opportunity to talk openly and frankly about race and racism.
"We're trying to build that connection that race remains an issue in this country and in our community, and through education we will continue to fight it and to change," she said, "to raise your voice not as yelling but to speak, to find courage and convictions."
Du Bois "recognized the power of education to influence how we eradicate racism and recognize individuals and humanity," she added.
Alongside two public talks each year, the series also offers students year-round opportunities to explore related social issues.
In March, filmmaker Kathleen Foster presented her documentary "Profiled" about racial profiling by police and the judicial system around the country. "The students were in awe of what her film was portraying," Young said.
An exhibit on Du Bois from University of Massachusetts Amherst can be viewed before the lecture, which will be introduced by members of English teacher Mike Rosenthal's "Mass Hysteria" spoken word support group, who will read poetry and prose written and influenced by Du Bois.
"Principal Young wanted new voices to herald Dr. Levering Lewis," Rosenthal said. "It's really wonderful to draw attention to these students who are willing to step up and express their souls in a very courageous way."
"Du Bois means social justice, using writing or literature to inspire a nation to stand up for civil rights," said senior Kenneth Sour-Olaverria, 18. "The fact that he's from this area proved that change doesn't have to be in some faraway land."
"[Du Bois] has a very strong and powerful voice," said Genevieve Naylor, 15, who sees poetry as an outlet, a way "to express how you think [so] people can understand and feel through the words."
While somewhat apprehensive about speaking before such a large, local crowd, she said, "these people are here to listen."
Every decade has another Du Bois, Levering Lewis said. "Sometimes race is to the forefront, sometimes it's economics or labor. It forces you to ask yourself as he does, what really matters and how to make it come about. That's the challenge of Du Bois."
"He begins his life asking a question about race, and he ends his life asking a question about economic democracy," he added. "That's where we are, and that's what I intend to bring to Great Barrington."
If you go ...
What: Inaugural lecture of W.E.B. Du Bois Educational Series
Who: David Levering Lewis, author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies about the civil rights pioneer
When: 7 p.m. April 28
Where: Monument Mountain Regional High School, Great Barrington