IV: W.E. Burghardt Dubois & Me

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How do you explain your life’s story in America if you’ve lived here in this country for 350 years, are white, straight, Protestant, and hard-working, and still remain pretty much working class? Back in the 1960’s, my pipe fitter father starting working on our family tree. Active anti-war leftist that I was back then, looking to the past seemed like a waste of time at best when there was a whole new future being born. Given how eccentric the old man was, I just added genealogy to his list of wacko topics.

A few years later, when that progressive future I labored for fell apart with the rise of Ronald Reagan, I stayed at my father’s house long enough one weekend for him to pull out the eight-foot length graph paper on which he’d traced the Burghardts, all the way back to the early 1600s and New Amsterdam. Hey this is kinda cool, I thought, even if it doesn’t do anything. It was fun to see all those people way in the past, lines connecting this way and that, right on up to me and my twin sister Betsy and brother David. Right then, the past of old Dutch ancestors looked better than the future promised by a President who somehow had ended up with the very same nickname.

My father had spent the seventies traveling to cemeteries scattered in villages and towns of the Berkshires and eastern New York, scouring church registries and town records to learn all he could about our ancestors. In his crabbed handwriting, made difficult from the thick calluses covering his weathered hands, he’d detailed what he’d learned about all those Burghardts, Hollenbecks and other related folk of centuries past.

It was a great read, as sparse as an old New England church spire, and just as striking. 1600’s or 1900’s, these white Americans, as native to America as Protestants from New England can be, were all pretty much the same: farmers, mill hands, more farmers, farm hands, homesteaders. Most owned a little land, a few none at all. Not a famous name in the lot, nor any of a class or status above the slightly respected white yeomen of any town, any place, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

But there was Conraad Burghardt, my direct grandfather five times removed. He was somebody, a Great Barrington, Massachusetts mover and shaker back during the Revolutionary War and well beyond. My dad had the photocopied, faded clippings and mildewed book chapters to prove it. Seemed he owned a lot of property, got spoken to as a town father about land issues and plans for expanding the town. He was a somebody.

Little did I know.

Conraad Burghardt was a Massachusetts slave owner. He happened to‘own’ the grandfather of W. E. Burghardt Dubois, who secured his freedom during the Revolutionary War.

Over four centuries in America, and the one rich Burghardt had become so by owning slaves.

I learned about the source of his wealth after reading WEB Dubois’s “Autobiography” as he discussed growing up in Great Barrington. Both thrilled at the discovery and appalled at the connection, I approached my father for what he knew about “the Black Burghardts.” After all, while born in Washington State, he’d lived in “Barrington” from 1918 up until the 1940’s. Had he ever met the great man? Did he or others in the family go to school with other Black Burghardts? Did our long-ago great-grandfather have more slaves?

Because of his speech defect, even on the happiest of occasions my father spoke in phrases, not sentences; when angry, he barely could get words out at all. The mere mention of WEB Dubois infuriated him; my questions turning his garbled words into incoherent rage. Sitting in our tiny yellow kitchen, his back to the handmade blackboard with tomorrow’s tasks in chalk, he rose out of his captain’s chair as if to strike me, his forehead suddenly red with perspiration. Don’t ever talk about them…he had it so easy…they think they’re special…who did he think he was, Harvard degree.He waved me away, fed up with a conversation he clearly had had somewhere in his past.

A day or so later, I tried a second time, only to be rebuffed. Leave it alone, he said, comfortable once more with the phrases he’d used time and again to navigate throughout his unhappy life. The old hurt behind the anger was back, a shifting mix of sadness and fury that he thrust at me from time to time like Sunday night castor oil. On this evening, I looked across the speckled Formica table as he took a quick drink of Scotch, case closed, and was stunned by what at last had become clear. My father hated WEB Dubois not because he was a Communist, not because he fought white racism, not because he left America for Africa, but because he was such a success. The phrases that had tumbled out two nights before were bitterly edged not because of his politics but his progress, progress far beyond what any white Burghardt has ever accomplished.

Why would one so vehemently begrudge a Black man’s achieved? Why would a white man deny the connection, as painful as it was, to one who had done so much for so many, whose voice had enriched America’s story? Why would the dominant emotions be anger and denial, rather than momentary shame and lifelong responsibility? In 2008, as a Black man may ascend to the highest position in our nation, perhaps we can all reflect on these and other questions so that our common histories, rather than being denied and divisive, become acknowledged and discussed. Maybe then all of us, no matter the color of our skin, can truly begin to heal…together.


The inability of one person to celebrate the achievement of another regardless of kinship ties or race is a crisis for humanity to solve. Its genesis is in the fabric of eurocentrism, capitalism and greed which places value on objects rather than other members of the human race.
I experience this painful phenomenon all the time from my family, when they can't listen to any of my accomplishments at work or school because my success reminds them of their lost opportunities attributable either directly or indirectly to white supremacy and oppression; or from my colleagues who feel threatened enough to sever collegial ties as they bunker down in their turf to safeguard their positions, even if it means putting their knee in my neck. That's the american way...one class rises on the backs of another. Its a sad human condition and one that we've got to address in a sustained systemic and ecological way.

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Burghardt published on July 28, 2008 12:44 PM.

III: The Misplaced Longing for Scarlett O'Hara was the previous entry in this blog.

To Dwell or Not to Dwell that is the Question… is the next entry in this blog.

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