Dr. MaryNell Morgan sang sorrow songs from W.E.B. DuBois' "The Souls of Black Folks" to illustrate the power of song to carry a message.
PLATTSBURGH — When talking about the famous civil rights activist, make sure you call him Dew-Boys, not Dew-Bwah, said SUNY Plattsburgh guest speaker Dr. MaryNell Morgan.
The W.E.B. DuBois scholar’s presentation brought to life with sung verse an essay from “The Souls of Black Folk,” where DuBois wrote on the significance of sorrow songs, sometimes called spiritual songs.
Morgan said songs make a direct connection to lay people, the ordinary folk who aren’t embroiled in philosophical and legal discussion. Through the medium of song, those people are likely to pay attention to the message and propagate it.
People who don’t think of themselves as having a singing voice will be swept up in the message. People won’t read along with you, but they sure will sing.
And the people in her audience did respond generously to the songs Morgan sang out, though they didn’t know all of them. She closed with “Go Down Moses,” which though it wasn’t included in DuBois’ essay was one of his favorites, said Morgan. It was apparently one of the audience’s favorites, too, as it got the loudest singing response of the evening.
DuBois passed rather poetically on the eve of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, “as if he planned it that way,” said Morgan.
The local Underground Railroad Association helped bring the guest speaker to the college, said association Board Member Peter Slocum.
“We don’t march to essays or books, we march to songs,” said Slocum. “That’s a wonderful, inspiring connection.”
DuBois wrote many works in his life, and the man never seemed to tire, said Morgan. His incredible productivity and commitment to his cause are central to his prominence as an activist, she said.
The accomplished scholar rocketed through his higher education, earning his first bachelor’s at Fiske well ahead of his classmates. He took Harvard by storm, earning his bachelor’s there in two years and a doctorate in two more. He made history as an anthropologist, publishing a study of the black people of Philadelphia, the first such study of a city population.
Another job title DuBois held was journalist. He felt propaganda pronounced by Morgan with a long O sound like propane — not the dirty word that people often make it out to be today — would be the deciding factor in ending racism. All that was needed was for people to know about lives and struggles of black people and discrimination would end. That wasn’t as successful as he’d hoped, and later he decided action was as important as words.