January 1, 2021
After my passing, I’ll miss three things: 1) consciousness (a mixed blessing), 2) reading late at night and into the wee hours of the morning), 3) jogging along the Coney Island seashore. The rest of life’s offerings passed me by.
I started W.E.B. Du Bois’s last autobiography (he wrote three, having lived much longer than he expected). The first pages, in praise of communist Russia and China, are cringeworthy. They read as if written by a Central Committee. But once he begins narrating his childhood, it’s such a beautiful book, its prose a gentle breeze in a broad meadow. Even as he’s Black in a majority white community, he experienced, as he tells it, little to no racism. He’s just a very smart and sweet boy. One can’t but reflect how life truly was more humane a century ago in its simplicity: friends and neighbors who looked out for you, makeshift games and amusements, naivete and innocence. On this, I think Rousseau was right. Most of our troubles are of our own making as we depart from Nature: “It is not without difficulty that we have succeeded in making ourselves unhappy.”
A line from Du Bois’s introduction that resonated: “No American university … has ever recognized that I had any claim to scholarship.” Du Bois was a first-rank scholar. I am not. Still, I nodded.