Freda Scott Giles spoke about W.E.B. Du Bois in his lesser known roles as sociologist and playwright on Jan. 28, reminding her audience of the importance in learning about the past to change perspectives for the future at the 17th annual University of Georgia Founders Day Lecture.
The man behind the lecture
The Emeriti Scholars approached Giles, a retired associate professor emerita of theater and film studies and African-American studies, to speak at the event. They wanted the lecture to encompass the influence of UGA’s early history on its identity today.
Giles used her position as chosen speaker to highlight the importance of the humanities.
“I decided to talk about a pioneer in the social sciences and an icon of the modern civil rights movement and his work in theater,” Giles said regarding Du Bois. “He doesn’t necessarily inform our history [at UGA], but he informs the history of the U.S.”
Giles reiterated one word she believes embodied what the scholars were looking for in this year’s lecture.
“Sankofa” is an Akan term used by the ethnolinguistic group that mostly resides on the coast of Guinea.
“[The word sankofa reminds you] to look at the past and not get mired in it,” Giles said. “To not let it overwhelm your present or your future, but to ask ‘what is back there that you sent to me as I move ahead?’”
Du Bois is most famously known as a prominent civil rights activist. He secretly wrote plays, scripts, novels and poetry, calling them his ‘illegitimate children,” according to Giles.
“He acknowledged some of them,” Giles said, “but he sequestered others.”
Du Bois went on to be the first black person to earn a doctorate degree from Harvard University, and his experiences with racism and discrimination fueled his writing. He used his experiences to write influential pieces, such as the pageant “The Star of Ethiopia” in 1913 to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“I thought I should talk about the idea of going back and looking with fresh eyes at something that you thought you were familiar with,” Giles said. “Often, we take things for granted, things that we have looked at and thought we’ve covered, but perhaps it’s best to take another look and say, ‘Oh, there’s an aspect of that that I missed.’”
Background and influence
The lecture has become a Founders Day tradition for alumni, students, faculty and members of the community. It was sponsored by the Office of the President, Provost’s Office and UGA Emeriti Scholars.
The Emeriti Scholars is an organization of retired faculty and staff of the university who all have the honor of being named emeritus, an honorary title given to notable retired professors. Their vision is to aid in the academic achievements and involvement of retired faculty.
For Trisha Perez, listening to Giles’ lecture helped her learn more than she originally thought she knew about Du Bois.
“I knew a little bit about him from high school when we would study about him in history books,” said Perez, a freshman intended management information systems and risk management major. “But she gave an in-depth look into who he is rather than just a figure in books.”
Perez appreciated the attention given to De Bois’ many talents. His interdisciplinary studies helped her realize “that Du Bois wasn't just from one area but came from different areas to bring together pieces of work that influenced the black community and the entire U.S.,” she said.
Giles, who has authored articles and papers that focus on early African American theater, the theater of Harlem Renaissance period and contemporary African American theater practitioners, also explained the necessity of reviewing literary works that are now considered controversial.
“I think these works should be engaged, as difficult as they are,” Giles said. “When we look back to them, you don't have to buy in. If you’re not going to engage, then you can’t give the other side.”
The next event in the Signature Lecture series will be the Holmes-Hunter Lecture, hosted Monica Kaufman Pearson on Feb. 7 in the Chapel at 2 p.m.