The Descendants: W.E.B. Du Bois' great grandson says legacy helped him understand own identity

theGRIO Q&A - W.E.B. Du Bois was a prominent scholar and civil-rights activist who co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People...

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For Black History Month, theGrio decided to track down the descendants of well-known African-American historical figures to find out what it is like being descended from some of most the influential people in American history. Here is what Arthur McFarlane II, the great grandson of W.E.B. Du Bois, had to say about the joys and burdens of bearing a  famous ancestor’s legacy.

W.E.B. Du Bois was a prominent scholar and civil-rights activist who co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

His great-great grandson, Arthur McFarlane II, 55, is currently an evaluator of public health programs for the State Department of Public Health and Environment in Colorado and he gives speeches regularly on Du Bois legacy during Black History Month.

How did you find out you were related to W.E.B Du Bois?

Arthur McFarlane II: When I was three months old and Du Bois was 90 years old, I was at his birthday party in New York City and I was the guest of honor at the event. I met him and knew him when I was young child growing up all the way until he left to go to Ghana. My mother would tell stories about him because she grew up with him and actually lived in his house with him.

 What is something people don’t know about W.E.B Du Bois? 

One story that I had always found interesting was that he used to give talks around the country and would stay with folks in NAACP chapters or churches.

One of the churches invited him to talk in Colorado Springs and the pastor that invited him was actually the father of his second wife [Shirley Graham]. Typically black people had to stay in the host’s home because they couldn’t stay in hotels, so Grandpa had to sleep in Shirley’s bedroom because that was the next best bedroom besides the pastor’s bedroom.

Grandpa ended up sleeping in Shirley’s bed when she was only a teenager. It seems like a crazy story if you don’t tell the rest of it, but kind of a funny family story.  Two of them got married on Valentine’s Day in 1952.

Is having his legacy a burden or an inspiration?

There was definitely a lot of pressure, I think for me when I was young. It didn’t start to build until I got to junior high school, then high school and then undergraduate school and then I really started to feel it.  Here’s this huge set of expectations about who I was supposed to be and how smart I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to do in the world, how I was supposed to change things, how I was supposed to lead… There were a lot of times when I didn’t even talk about it.

I didn’t want people to have those sorts of expectations, and I wanted them to view me in the light that here’s who I am and I just wanted to be myself. I struggled for a long time and I just wanted to be both. Then I finally came to a better understanding, of who I was, that gave me a better sense of what my role was and what I wanted to do and how I was going to live up to people’s expectations.

How are you or your family keeping W.E.B Du Bois’ legacy alive?

Grandpa’s theory called “The Talented Tenth” where he put forth that there would be a tenth of the African American race that would act in a leadership roles. I think a lot of what he said has been misunderstood and I would like to see us re-conceptualized [the theory] in a way. I took away that those ‘ten’ were supposed to be of service to the people and to the world in general, and I think that piece of the puzzle is what I’ve taken as being my part keeping grandpa’s legacy alive.

All of the things my grandpa stood for, I stand for in many ways. I think that’s a big part of how I became myself. In regard to The Talented Tenth theory that was so misunderstood, I’d like us to really revive that sense of service, that sense of we have a job to do to make sure the world is a better place.

 How would you hope W.E.B Du Bois would be remembered today?

I think one of the ways a lot of people relate to Grandpa is his concept of double consciousness… People struggle at different times to be something and something else – whether it’s a woman or American, black and American, or gay and American. We see these American values that are put out there of what America is about. Then, we as African-Americans, gays, Latinos are treated differently. We’re not treated as equal.

It’s hard to be American because there’s so much going on in America that says I’m not equal or I’m not the same. I feel a lot of people struggling with that… When we think about those issues we can relate to what Grandpa says, even though he says that almost a hundred years ago.

I just hope people will look at Grandpa’s legacy that he had a lot to say and a lot of it still applies today and get to the point where we really do reach across racial lines and seek understanding and seek to bring understanding through a lot of very contentious issues.

To read more profiles from The Descendants Project, click here.

Follow Brittany Tom on Twitter @brittanyrtom