Editor’s note: For Black History Month, The Root is speaking to the relatives of our most cherished African-American heroes in a series called Living With History. To open the series, we interviewed a descendant of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. Last week we did a Q&A with the descendants of Ida B. Wells. Today we feature Arthur McFarlane II, the great-grandson of W.E.B. Du Bois, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, sociologist, author, scholar, historian and civil rights activist. We spoke to McFarlane about how Du Bois’ legacy inspired his career and what the world needs to know about him.
On March 2, 1958, about 2,000 people gathered at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City to celebrate W.E.B. Du Bois’ 90th birthday.
At the party, he gave a speech among his family members, friends and admirers, addressing his 2-month-old great-grandson, Arthur McFarlane II:
You will soon learn, my dear young man, that most human beings spend their lives doing work which they hate and work which the world does not need. It is therefore of prime importance that you early learn what you want to do, how you are fit to do it, and whether or not the world needs this service.
Although McFarlane was too young to grasp his great-grandfather’s advice at the time, his life’s work embodies the words Du Bois spoke to him that day.
He didn’t become conscious of his connection to Du Bois until he was in elementary school, and when he decided to follow in his great-grandfather’s footsteps, he was overwhelmed.
“It felt like a burden; it felt difficult because he was such a huge figure and did so much at such a young age,” McFarlane told The Root. “I really felt like I had to live up to that reputation and I had to do things in the community that would make the community better.”
McFarlane realized that he didn’t have to do exactly what Du Bois did, but he did need to know what was going on in the black community before he could create his own path. In high school, this quest opened his eyes to the inequalities between black and white people in America.
“I just became more political and really started to speak out and use that place in black history as a pulpit, and that’s basically where I’ve been ever since. And it’s really given me a voice,” he said.
As the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard University and author of the classic book The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois used his voice to contribute to the national discussion on race in America, particularly through the 21 books he wrote, 15 books he edited and over 100 essays he published.
Last week the world was reminded of Du Bois’ achievements when Twitter had to teach the U.S. Department of Education how to spell his name after the agency misspelled it while quoting him in a tweet.
“Education must not simply teach work – it must teach life. – W.E.B. DeBois,” the department posted on Feb. 12.
Thousands of Twitter users responded with emojis, GIFs and 140-character roasts to set the feds straight.
Soon after, the Department of Education posted an apology, which also included a spelling error.
“It felt really obvious to me that they don’t know anything about Grandpa’s work or they would have known that he would not be a supporter of their initiatives and would not have approved of them quoting him,” McFarlane said. “It felt like they were blatantly trying to use his name in the hope that it would make them look better in the eyes of the black community.”
He added that “their apology seemed hollow” and the Trump administration would have to do much more to reach African Americans.
McFarlane said that all of Du Bois’ work, sometimes described as shifting from one position to another, was often directed by his frustration with the way that he was treated in this country and its slow progress. Nevertheless, everything he did was designed to tell the story of who black people were, what they were like and what it meant to be black in America.
“What the African-American community and America need to get from Grandpa in many ways is the message that he was trying to deliver about the wonder, greatness, multiplicity and amazingness of what black people bring to this country, and bring to themselves,” he said. “I think Grandpa spent a lot of his life trying to show both black and white people what black people were doing, what black people were about, what their grace was, what their greatness was.”
For 25 years, McFarlane, who has a Ph.D. in social psychology, worked at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in various positions, starting as a statistician and then working as a senior human resources analyst, asthma manager and program evaluator. He currently works for the Children’s Hospital of Colorado as a population health analyst, a position he has held for almost three years.
During his doctoral studies, he read materials from writers and sociologists such as C. Wright Mills, Alvin Toffler, Frantz Fanon and Du Bois, which sparked his interest in social power.
“When you really start to look at power-related issues, you realize that power comes in many forms, and it was clear to me early on that the power that was the most important was economic power; and that economic power was distributed poorly in the United States,” McFarlane said.
Like his great-grandfather, he uses data to identify, expose and articulate areas of injustice. A lot of his time is concentrated on inequalities related to the social determinants of health, such as socioeconomic status, education, access to health care, food security and physical environment.
In his health research, he collaborates with people of color, the underserved and the disadvantaged to make sure that their voices are heard and that the work being done helps them.
“I believe that health disparities are fundamentally a part of a larger set of disparities that are economic, and that those economic disparities really drive everything about the way our society and our culture works,” he said. “All of these things are caused simply by the fact that you’ve got 1 percent of the population that owns 50 percent of everything.”
Part of McFarlane’s work involves ways to develop and share resources that will raise awareness of inequities such as food insecurity and homelessness, and get people energized about fixing them.
“Let’s take the elephant, carve it down into bite-sized pieces and talk about what everybody can do in order to make this better,” he said. “We spend a lot of time moving that ball forward so we can finally get to that equality place that we’ve dreamed about in this country for many years.”
In the struggle toward equality, McFarlane hopes that the black community will receive this warning from Du Bois during his counsel to him at his party almost 59 years ago:
The satisfaction with your work, even at best, will never be complete, since nothing on earth can be perfect. The forward pace of the world which you are pushing will be painfully slow. But what of that? The difference between a hundred and a thousand years is less than you now think. But doing what must be done, that is eternal, even when it walks with poverty.