From The North Shore Weekend newspaper
Chant doesn’t mince words; it throws them all together in a wok and lets the adjectives fall where they may. On a late fall morning, Aldon Morris is seated at “the trendy upscale casual dining restaurant”—brevity be damned—on E. 53rd St. The Asian fusion restaurant falling within the boundaries of the South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park.
Outside, traffic was snarled around the city’s midsection. The last vestiges of an Indian summer found people coat-less and scarf-less, as the sun poked its head through a wooly layer of clouds. Some were invariably students; the University of Chicago’s campus, with its prestigious Department of Sociology, is only a few blocks from where Morris and I were seated.
It’s there, at the University of Chicago, where Robert E. Park—an urban sociologist long considered one of the major architects of modern-day sociology—is credited for developing one of the leading schools of sociology. A school of thought that is still practiced by modern sociologists to this day.
Morris, the Leon Forrest Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, sipped on a glass of pinot noir and took bites of his fried catfish sambal. He swirled around his wine glass. He lectured, at some length, as a professor is wont to do. And our conversation inevitably gravitated towards the University, to Park, and to the black sociologist and activist, W.E.B. Du Bois.
That’s because Morris’ recent book levels no small claim: Instead of Park, and the Chicago School, Morris argues it was Du Bois—long marginalized by the field for the last century—who should be credited as the primary founder of modern sociology in America; flipping the discipline’s history on its head.
“The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology” builds on the scholarly research that has come to the foreground in recent decades on one of America’s finest intellectuals. In that way, Morris is not a lone wolf prowling the halls of history but a stalwart lion defending the black scholar’s contribution to the discipline.
With the “Scholar Denied” he is now putting himself out in front, leading the charge.
Morris’ words, tinged with a subtle southern drawl, cut through the air like a knife: “Let me be clear about something, I’m not saying that University of Chicago didn’t do important early social scientific work. But I am saying that Du Bois was among the first to do it. He was the most innovative and he foreshadowed what the discipline has become.”
Morris was born in rural Tutwiler, Miss. One of his earliest memories was the lynching of 14 year old Emmett Till, a Chicagoan visiting Money, Miss. less than 30 miles from where he grew up.
Living in the heartland of Jim Crow racism informed his perception of the world; but it wasn’t until he moved to Chicago with his family and attended Southeast Community College on the South Side that he learned about Du Bois from “an elderly black professor from the South.” Then and there he decided to become a sociologist.
But to Morris’ dismay, when he attended graduate school at Stony Brook University, Du Bois was noticeably absent from the sociological canon. While “The Scholar Denied” took over 10 years of writing and extensive research, Morris admits that he has been writing this, off and on, for most of his adult life.
“What I am doing in this book is [to] resurrect, [to] reconstruct his scientific school of sociology and to argue it has a place in the canons,” said Morris. I asked if he was ever, at one point, included in the canon, and when exactly the intellectual lacuna took place. “It’s not that he’s been forgotten,” responded Morris, “it’s that he was never remembered.”
Du Bois was the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University. A prolific author, his writings range from sociological works to poetry, short stories, journalism, and fiction; an ardent civil rights activist he helped co-found the Niagara Movement, Pan-African Congresses, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “He was one of the most highly educated Americans, period. But because of racism he couldn’t get a job,” noted Morris.
That led him to Atlanta University, where a Du Boisian school of thought emerged—and was effectively disparaged and ignored by the leading white institutions and Booker T. Washington, the wealthiest, most powerful black man in America between 1895 and 1915.
“His argument, radical at the time, was that blacks were at the bottom due to institutional racism, discrimination, and lack of economic resources,” said Morris. Despite the outright suppression against him, sociology has only recently caught up with where Dubois was at the turn of the 20th century.
In 2005, Morris successfully organized a small group of his peers to head a campaign to persuade the American Sociological Association to rename its top award for Du Bois. As a result, the most prestigious award in the field was renamed the W.E.B. Du Bois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award.
Added Morris, “In a way, this book is a follow up to that kind of political activism that got that changed.” In the spirit, certainly, of the great American sociologist.
As Morris talked, I couldn’t help but notice a quotation written on the wall behind him. Attributed to Buddha, it read: “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else: You are the one that gets burned.” And what if that person releases the coal and, instead, grabs a pen? Like the phoenix, they burn, and burn brightly, and inspire others to fan the flames from the ashes of the past.
The North Shore Weekend newspaper is published weekly.