Writing the Struggle – The Return of the Native: Why Du Bois chose to come back to Africa
It’s not just coincidence that one of the greatest black American thinkers, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, died in Ghana in 1963.
For him, it was the fulfillment of a dream, a dream that many others such as Marcus Garvey had – that of one day casting away the slave shackles and returning to Africa.
Du Bois chose Ghana in 1961 largely because then it was a shining light in the independence agenda across Africa and was inspiring an entire continent to kick out colonialism.
Many a time, people have compared the lives of and the struggles waged by Du Bois to those of Marcus Garvey.
Both where children of slave descendants; both were well read and educated; both believed in the journey back to Africa; and both lit the Pan-Africanism fires.
Du Bois was born in Massachusetts’ Great Barrington in 1868. In his autobiography titled “A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century” says about the place of his birth:
“I was born by a golden river and in the shadow of two great hills, five years after the Emancipation Proclamation which began the freeing of American Negro Slaves.”
Raised by a single-mother, Du Bois’ life was shaped by African songs and fire-side stories which made him realise at an early age that he was not the ordinary boy next door.
Just like Garvey, Du Bois started his journalism work at a tender age, thereby earning himself great respect within his community despite the fact that he was of mixed race.
Later when he took up teaching posts, Du Bois also realised that the America he called home was not so homely.
Here he encountered racial abuse and the suffering of blacks long before slavery had ended. He saw the enactment of segregatory laws and an increase in lynching incidents which led to the 1906 Atlanta Race Riots where white supremacist mobs attacked blacks over unsubstantiated claims of sexual assault on four white women by blacks.
The riots gave Du Bois an idea about his poem “Litany at Atlanta”, which was a clarion call to armed struggle.
He wrote in the poem:
“We are not better than our fellows, Lord, we are but weak and human men. When our devils do deviltry, curse Thou the doer and the deed: curse them as we curse them, do to them all and more than ever they have done to innocence and weakness, to womanhood and home.
“A city lay in travail, God our Lord, and from her loins sprang twin Murder and Black Hate. Red was the midnight; clang, crack and cry of death and fury filled the air and trembled underneath the stars when church spires pointed silently to Thee. And all this was to sate the greed of greedy men who hide behind the veil of vengeance!”
Disillusioned, Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement which was followed by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).
He used these organisations to voice his concerns against an economy which benefited from exploiting blacks as well as on a legal system that protected one race at the expense of the others.
Du Bois widened his fight against injustice by including all the oppressed blacks across the world.
Armed with the belief that ‘the cost of liberty is less than the price of repression’; and that ‘the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the colour line’, Du Bois fought against white oppression.
At one time, Du Bois asked: ‘I do not laugh. I am quite straight-faced as I ask soberly: But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it? Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!
Now what is the effect on a man or a nation when it comes passionately to believe such an extraordinary dictum as this? That nations are coming to believe it is manifest daily. Wave on wave, each with increasing virulence, is dashing this new religion of whiteness on the shores of our time. Its first effects are funny: the strut of the Southerner, the arrogance of the Englishman amuck, the whoop of the hoodlum who vicariously leads your mob.’
Unlike Garvey who sought to work with mass movements, Du Bois was not much liked abroad and in 1961, he sought citizenship in Ghana.
The act of leaving the US for Africa had long been captured in the poem 1920 “In Darkwater” where he wrote:
I hate them, Oh!
I hate them well,
I hate them, Christ!
As I hate hell!
If I were God I'd sound their knell