Men of Soul: W.E.B. Du Bois and Charles Eastman

This is a photo of Charles Eastman's "Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains," one of the many literary works by Charles Eastman in Amherst's Kim Wait-Eisenberg Collection in Archives and Special Collections.
This is a photo of Charles Eastman’s “Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains,” one of the many literary works by Charles Eastman in Amherst’s Kim Wait-Eisenberg Collection in Archives and Special Collections.

The Kim-Wait Eisenberg Collection, the newest component of Amherst College’s Archives and Special Collections, is indeed a comprehensive collection of literary works from the Native American past, admirable for both its chronological and thematic breadth. However, when we walk into a collection of Native American books, what do we expect to find? In the American imagination, Native American history and experiences in the United States have centered so deeply on the relationship between Native American people and European settlers. This Eurocentric focus can come at the expense of other considerations in Native American Studies, such as the historic relationships between Native Americans and other ethnic minorities.

Today, the rest of my internship team and I have begun to conclude our secondary source research in digital humanities and Native American Studies. When planning a digital scholarship project, it is important not to solely think about the potential digital tools and methods that you could explore, but also to be mindful of the cultural, academic, political and social contexts of your endeavor.

In light of such concerns, I wanted to share how much I’ve been particularly captivated by questions of race, ethnicity, and identity in the field of Native American Studies. There are many works in Amherst’s Kim Wait-Eisenberg Collection that illuminate the relationships and intersections of Native American and Black American history, from Paul Cuffee, a seaman and abolitionist of Native American and African descent, to a  twentieth-centry Black Panther newspaper highlighting Native American political activism. Even the philosophical conception of the “soul” of an ethnic community has roots in both Black and Native American literary legacies. As I was exploring The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature, one particular question caught my attention in the discussion of the Native American literary timeline: “In 1903 and 1911, W. E. B. DuBois and Charles Eastman (Santee Sioux) both used the word ‘‘soul(s)’’ in their titles. What do these early twentieth-century coincidences suggest about capturing the voices and spirit of marginalized groups?” (Kenneth M. Roemer, p. 25) Without a doubt, there is some intellectual and cultural significance in the similarity of the titles of Eastman’s The Soul of the Indian: An Interpretation and Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. Coincidence? I think not.

Considering the diversity of the Kim Wait-Eisenberg Collection, I can envision so many directions that my team and I can take for our digital project this summer. However, I definitely want us to keep in mind the interdisciplinary potential of a digital project that builds bridges between the written works of Native American writers and those of Black writers at that time. Kiara Vigil, one of American Studies professor who specializes in Native American Studies, has already taught a course at Amherst about the intersections of Native American and Black literature. If our digital initiative for the KWE collection also sought to address such intersections, we could bring together scholars and casual visitors from a variety of academic fields and walks of life. We could provide a digital, accessible platform for people to start thinking critically about the story of Native American people in the context of other marginalized communities throughout American history, perhaps encouraging more intersectional and nuanced approaches to Native American Studies in general.

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)- Author of “The Souls of Black Folk”
Charles Eastman (1858-1939)- Author of “The Soul of the Indian: An Interpretation”


*Both of these portraits were acquired through Wikimedia Commons, a database of freely accessible media files.

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