- W. E. B. Du Bois Looks at the Future from Beyond the Grave
W. E. B. Du Bois died in Ghana on the eve of the historic March on Washington in 1963. At the time of his death, he had renounced his American citizenship and become a citizen of the brand-new black nation of Ghana. In 1961, Du Bois joined the Communist Party. For years during the McCarthy era, the United States government persecuted him and seized his passport for not registering as an agent of a foreign government, charges for which the United States court exonerated him. The un-American activities of the American government drove Du Bois to leave the land of his birth. His actions, however, led some people to believe that Du Bois was a traitor. When I chose Du Bois for the topic of my Ph.D. dissertation, a faculty member at the University of Mississippi refused to serve on my committee because he claimed Du Bois’s actions treasonous. Fortunately, other more open-minded faculty came to my defense and formed my committee.
In what is an interesting piece of flash fiction, Du Bois once more proves his forward thinking and creative genius. In this heretofore unpublished story, “A.D. 2150,”1 Du Bois imagines the future and does so with uncanny accuracy. A well-known political activist and often considered a radical, a revisionist historian, pioneering editor, groundbreaking sociologist, esteemed professor and scholar, Du Bois was also a poet, novelist, and patron of the arts. At the turn of the last century, he edited The Moon Illustrated Weekly and although the publication folded after only one year, lasting from 1905 to 1906, Du Bois had seen the need for a black journal at what he called, “A critical time for the darker race” (“Proposal” MS 312). He wanted the journal patterned after Harper’s Weekly but with fewer pages. Harper’s began publication in 1857 calling itself “A Journal of Civilization.” Undoubtedly, Du Bois had the same idea in mind for The Moon. In his proposal for the new journal, Du Bois reasoned that there were “3,562,387 Negroes who could read and write” (“Proposal” MS 312). Therefore, there was a readership that could sustain the publication. The Moon was not a financial success, however, and in a letter dated June 11, 1957, Du Bois answers a query by Dorothy Porter, Librarian of the Moreland Collection at Howard University, mistakenly addressing her as Mr. Porter, but explaining that The Moon, a weekly journal published in Memphis, was financially undone. He also writes that The Horizon is the “spiritual successor” (“Proposal” MS 312). The Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line remained in publication until 1910 when Du Bois became editor of Crisis, the official journal of the NAACP.
While he is most remembered for his political wisdom and agitation for civil and human rights, his political philosophy finds expression in his creative writings. In 1976, Arnold Rampersad became the first critic to treat seriously Du Bois’s creative works. In The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois, Rampersad concludes, “In the context of his life’s achievements, Du Bois’s poetry is an invaluable source for his private thoughts” (109); and as it turns out, all of his creative writing provides access to his personal and political contemplations. The poem “Death” dated December 1907 reveals what Rampersad identifies as “a deep emotional identification with the drama of death” (109). Throughout Du Bois’s long life, death is a topic he would return to in his creative works. Death appears to be an overarching motif. [End Page 53]
By the time Du Bois was sixty years old, he thought surely that he would soon die. Each birthday became a time of reflection on his life and saying goodbye. In the poem “Emancipation: 1863 January First 1913” and published as “Easter Emancipation: 1863-1913” in Crisis, death and freedom are mentioned throughout, but the poem ends with the lines, “I saw the Face of Freedom— / And I died” (288). In the poem, “Ghana Calls,” he writes, “I cried to heaven as I died” (74).