We ventured out into town on a Friday afternoon. We meaning me and my children (Anna, 9 and Lucian, almost 7). Town meaning Great Barrington, which can be brutal on a Friday afternoon. But, I promised them ice cream and “something special” before the sun set on the week. Of course, I wasn’t sure what that something special was going to be, but, as always, we found it with no problem.
The ice cream actually wasn’t ice cream at all. It was gelato. Good, cheap gelato from Alex Café in the “hallway” on Main Street. For $2 a scoop (a generous scoop at that) we were treated to the heavenly rich flavors of coconut, coffee, vanilla and some rich, dark chocolate that was nearly impossible to remove from Lucian’s face. Oh, and the very kind, grandmotherly Greek woman behind the counter brought out two huge jugs of sprinkles and let the kids have at them.
“No charge,” she said. “No charge, they should have as much as they want.”
And they did. We strolled down Railroad Street almost in complete silence. The gelato was working its magic on the children. As we made our way back to the car, both of the kids stopped dead in front of the newly painted Du Bois mural.Lucian got excited.
“Look, Ma, there’s Obama and Martin Luther King. And who’s that guy?” He was pointing to the slim-faced, spray painted rendering of W.E.B. Du Bois.
“That’s Du Bois,” I said. “If it weren’t for him, the other two probably wouldn’t even be on this mural.”
Anna perked up, veering her attention away from her ice cream.
“What’d he do? I mean, he must be a pretty big deal if Martin Luther King was inspired by him.”
I gave them my account of Du Bois as I knew it. I’d read “The Souls of Black Folk” many times ( I was a high school English teacher in a former life) and had given countless lectures
Anna gets thoughtful as she contemplates the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois
to countless teenagers on why Du Bois was so instrumental in the Civil Rights movement that followed him.
They were getting bored.
“You know what,” I said. “I’ll take you to his house where he grew up.”
They were astonished.
“Will we need to fly there?” Anna asked.
“Nope. Just get in the car; it’ll take less than ten minutes.”
We arrived at the W.E.B. Du Bois Homesite on Route 23 just as the sun was settling low on the horizon. The path to the site was ablaze with orange pine needles and the smell of autumn was unmistakable.
“Where’s the house,” Lucian asked.
“It’s gone,” I said. “It’s been gone for a long time, but this is the place where the house was.”
The air around us became still. Anna’s face turned pensive.
“I can feel why this is an important place,” she said, reading the signs along the short trail. “It’s hard to imagine him as a boy going to school and just being a kid,” she said.
“Yeah, because we’re just kids, too.”
We were all silent; the weight of the place hit us at the same time. Just think, these very children will grow to be something, maybe a Du Bois, maybe a Dr. King, maybe an Obama. And I think they will remember that golden autumn afternoon when they realized that such a thing was possible.
We live in a place rich with history. Don’t ever forget it.