Du Bois and Hall on Segregated Sociology

This post was contributed by Angela Howell, student in Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies. Angela attended the Birkbeck Social Sciences Week, “For a Sociological Reconstruction: W.E.B. Du Bois, Stuart Hall and Segregated Sociology” on Wednesday, June 17

Du-Bois-and-Hall-blog-webIntroductions to the evening’s event was given by Dr Yasmeen Narayan lecturer in Cultural and Postcolonial Studies, from the Department of Psychosocial Studies for the MA Culture, Diaspora and Ethnicity, Race Forum annual Lecture. Dr Narayan explained that the race forum at Birkbeck is a public space which holds discussions on ‘race’, ‘racism’, class, sexuality, multicultural and postcoloniality and stated that one of the aims of the department in her words is ‘to bring students and academics from different disciplines and institutions together, with others from outside the academy to discuss histories and legacies of empires’. As well as seeking to address how local debates on ‘race’ and ‘racism’ are shaped by the global geopolitics of the 21st Century.

Dr Narayan’s introduction of Professor Les Back

When introducing the guest speaker Professor Les Back, Professor of Sociology at Goldsmith College, University of London, Dr Narayan detailed his written contributions as:

  • ‘The Sociology of Racism’.
  • ‘Popular Culture’.
  • ‘Multicultural’.
  • ‘Music and Sound Studies’.
  • ‘Urban Life’.
  • ‘Social Theory’.
  • ‘Sociological Methods’.

Also giving us insight into the many books written by Professor Back such as:

  • The Art of Listening
  • The Auditory Cultures Reader, with Michael Bull
  • Out of Whiteness, with Ron Ware
  • The Changing Face of Football, with Tim Crab and John Solomos
  • New Ethnicities and Urban Culture
  • Race Politics and Social Change with John Solomos

Dr Narayan offered her gratitude to Professor Back for his consistent work in postcolonial Culture Studies and British Cultural Studies.   Also for his outspokenness not only on historical moments such as in days following the murder of Mark Duggan, the war on Gaza, and the silent code that governs academic life. She also took time to thank the coordinators of the event.

Professor Back Speaks

Opening with his connection with Birkbeck, Professor Back informed the audience that his first position in academia was at Birkbeck, for that he is still extremely grateful.

Moving on to the presentation itself, Professor Back began by stating that he always felt the need to check his privilege as a ‘white professor’ when speaking about ‘race’ and ‘racism’, with the narrowing of the sociological imagination. Which he felt has a radicalised dimension with new forms of academic writing being colonialized by white semantics norms in universities. Which he felt was a storm brewing with a limit point about to be reached.

Professor Back then referred back to Dr Narayan on her writing about black feminism scholars such as herself and racialized expectations of each. Citing ‘Why Is My Curriculum So White’ by Nathan Richards, which documents the underrepresentation of people of colour inside universities.

In revisiting the tradition of important writers, Professor Back offered a possibility to rethink history and its tradition, in particular by looking to Du Bois as an illustration and the connection with Stuart Hall. Here he explained his interest in Du Bois and Hall, as both being developed critics within the limits of sociology. Also stating that both men argued that slavery, empire and racism were integral to understanding the US and UK social formation. Both were open to articulation of gender and sexuality and both operated in a wider mode of writing and telling about society.

Discussion on W.E.B. Du Bois

Du Bois was born on the 23rd February 1868, and died on 27th August 1963 – which happened to be the eve of the first civil march on Washington. He has had an incredible influence on what is now American sociology. Writing close to 2000 biologically texts, Du Bois’ work spanned an incredible range of genres, which included novels, social history, poetry, pamphlets and newspaper articles.

Du Bois would speak about the problems he thought were most pressing to society. He graduated in History from Harvard 1890 and also studied at the University of Birmingham from 1892-4. Receiving a Doctorate from Harvard in 1896, making him the first black person to do so. His Harvard commencement speech was on the topic of slavery using the figure of Jefferson Davies the President of the Confederate States. The Nation Magazine reporting on his speech stated that Du Bois spoke with ‘absolute good taste, great moderation and almost contemptuous fairness’.

Also in the same year Du Bois would work on his historic book ‘The Philadelphia Negro’ published in 1899. This study by Du Bois was met with acclaim and a fare amount of disquiet from white reviewers. It detailed the experience of African Americans at the end of the 19th Century, showing how their lives were structured by ‘racism’. In essence, providing a blueprint for what American Urban Sociology would become.

When moving to the University of Atlanta, Du Bois undertook sociological research spanning more than 18 years, including the writing of two autobiographies. Du Bois we are told wanted to broaden the study, sharpen the tools of investigation and perfect the method of work, to give a scientific fact rather than a vague mass of so called ‘Negro problems. Du Bois hoped to make the laws of social living clearer, surer and more definite. Feeling that world wanted to learn the truth and felt the world would support his effort. Professor Back gave us an insight to his commitment to social science.

Professor Back goes on to relay to audience the story of Sam Hose, which would make Du Bois realise the height of white supremacy at the time and bring him to a turning point. Sam Hose was accused of killing a white farmer his employer and attacking his wife, without trial. Sam Hose would be lynched and his knuckles placed on public display.

This event would change Du Bois’ thinking on the limits of politics of this type of research, including his writing of the realities of black lives, leading to the publication of ‘The Souls of Black Folk’. Published in 1903, multi-voiced quality and situated across a variety of genres combining history, fiction, sociology and autobiography. When reflecting on the death of his son, Du Bois expressed a feeling of gladness. Noting that his son had been spared the life constrained by the vales of colour and the legacy of the Jim Crow racial caste system.

Discussion on Stuart Hall

Hall was born on 25th December 1929, and died on the 10th February 2014. A tribute by Professor Henry Louis Gates Jnr stated that Hall was ‘the Du Bois of Britain’. Although belonging to different historical moments they both had the ability to discuss ‘race’ in a compelling way, often noting its ambiguous relationship with sociological tradition.

Hall left his homeland of Jamaica and came to Britain in 1951 on a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Merton College, Oxford. Although not completing his Doctorate, he stayed to make his life in Britain; here we are informed that Hall never completely felt at home.

Professor of Sociology at the Open University until his retirement in 2002, and recognised as a culture figure, Hall made sociology TV programmes on the nature of British culture. Which is captured particularly well in ‘The Stuart Hall Project’ documentary screened during Social Sciences Week. Hall, we were told, never considered himself as a Sociologist.

Writing the essay ‘Letters for New Left’, Hall first had a dialogue with Stewart Wright Mills (the letter was found later by Maggie Tate). Professor Back relays to us the contents of the interview with Stuart Hall in which they discussed the issues of ‘race’ and ‘racism’ in the contexts of Britain and the United States. During the interview, Hall discussion focused on ‘racism’, skin colour, how they mattered and who are classed as ‘others’? The discussion led to the roots of ‘racism’, equal opportunities and legal defences of people’s rights, in which Hall stated ‘that Britain will never again be a humongous monoculture society’.

Professor Back discussed the tools and resources that would be required to embrace the change. At the end of the conversation Hall discussed ‘bending the twig’, stating that the ‘twig’ needed to bent in the direction of understanding the full outcome of the new phrase, ‘difference’.


Professor Back ended the lecture by stating that both Hall and Du Bois offered an opportunity to expand a sense of sociology – politically and aesthetically – with Du Bois writing a way of doing sociology differently, and Hall’s approach being directly opposed to what passes as sociology today.

Professor Back made his feelings clear that Hall today would not be hired by a American Sociology Department. Here noting the narrowing that he began with and citing the work of Patricia Hall Collins dealing with slavery, as Hall’s difference mentioned in his interview. In conclusion Professor Back left us with the fact that sociological segregation weakens the field.

The floor was then opened to the audience for questions.

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