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  • The Witch of Endor Slept Here:W. E. B. Du Bois and the Crisis of the George Washington Bicentenary
  • Lurana Donnels O’Malley (bio)

Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.

—Thomas Jefferson (Autobiography 77)

[T]he Priest or Medicine-man ... early appeared on the plantation and found his function as the healer of the sick, the interpreter of the Unknown, the comforter of the sorrowing, the supernatural avenger of wrong, and the one who rudely but picturesquely expressed the longing, disappointment, and resentment of a stolen and oppressed people.

—W. E. B. Du Bois (Souls 132)

In Rochester, New York, on 5 July 1852, the former slave and noted orator Frederick Douglass delivered his speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”1 He had been invited to speak by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. In Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July (2006), James A. Colaiaco notes that since “the Fourth of July is the most important day in the American ‘civil religion’” (7), “Independence Day became an occasion for abolitionists not so much to celebrate the past and preserve tradition, but to remind the nation of its betrayal” (8). In fact, if blacks observed the holiday at all, they often did so on the fifth of July as a form of protest.

Douglass addresses his audience throughout as a plural “you,” calling the holiday “the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom” (4). Later in the speech, he makes clear that the black American has no reason to celebrate. Although the speech is at times a model of careful rhetoric, Douglass sometimes flares into rage and frustration: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed” (20). “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. . . . The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn” (15). Eighty years later, W. E. B. Du Bois—writer, historian, activist, and [End Page 32] founder of the black theatrical pageantry movement—similarly noted that African Americans were not included within the pale of another patriotic celebration: the George Washington Bicentenary celebration of 1932. That year, Du Bois published a short, subversive play: George Washington and Black Folk: A Pageant for the Bicentenary, 1732-1932. Just as Douglass modified the standard July Fourth oratory, Du Bois revised the nationalistic and assimilationist conventions of American pageantry. The orator employed “scorching irony”; the playwright created an intertextual play that converses with both the American nationalistic pageantry tradition and foundational documents of US history. It also criticizes the “father” of the country. Not surprisingly, this play was not produced as part of the Bicentennial festivities. In the atmosphere of fervent patriotism and Washington mania in the United States in 1932, Du Bois’s revisionist look at George Washington would likely have been seen as seditious if publicly performed.

George Washington and Black Folk sets out to challenge the adulatory ideological project of the George Washington Bicentennial Commission. This short but rich play is a transgressive revision of the George Washington myth, both adopting and subverting the traditional narrator figure through the powerful black Witch of Endor while desanctifying Washington himself. Du Bois chose this Witch, an interpreter of the unknown turning the pages of the book of fate, in order to upend a received history and to express both the pride and dispossession of African Americans in the United States.

While George Washington and Black Folk de-emphasizes Washington as the nation’s father, it illustrates the positive contributions of black people in the Americas, with particular focus on the heroism of Crispus Attucks and Toussaint L’Ouverture. As his narrator, Du Bois chose the Witch of Endor, a figure from the biblical book of Samuel with the power to communicate with the dead. This veiled witch transforms Du Bois’s play from a straightforward recitation of history into an incantatory displacement of the power of George Washington. She represents a type...


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pp. 32-54
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