I had the great honor of interviewing the trailblazing sociologist Troy Duster for Public Culture. Our conversation covers much of Duster’s extraordinary life trajectory, from his childhood on the South Side of Chicago, to his interactions with notable scholars, including Erving Goffman, and with prominent historical figures such as Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. We speak as well about Duster’s grandmother, the brave and fiery journalist-activist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and the influence that her life’s example might have had on his own career.
This month marks what would have been Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s 150th birthday. (She was born into slavery on July 16, 1862). The late activist’s contributions were not always appreciated by her peers–and, sometimes, they went unacknowledged or were even thwarted. In her stellar biography of Wells-Barnett, historian Mia Bay notes that as quiet as it was kept by some, much of the “early twentieth-century civil rights struggle” nevertheless used “strategies pioneered by Wells.”
In this excerpt of our conversation, Duster notes one legacy left to him by his grandmother–his awareness of how activism, intellectual or otherwise, may yield no personal benefits during one’s lifetime and, to the contrary, may produce powerful enemies and strong antagonism. As he puts it, Wells-Barnett is a “representation of what it means to do good works and…to be rewarded for it posthumously.