W.E.B. Du Bois on “Your Country”

All the white conservative talk lately about conventional white-racist framing (e.g., in regard to “welfare”) of African Americans and indeed about “taking back our country” calls to mind the eloquent reply to such ethnocentric racism given by the great W. E. B. Du Bois more than a century ago in his sharp and still highly relevant Souls of Black Folk book (see here). He accents the many positive black impacts on this country:

Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit.

Around us the history of the land has centered for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation’s heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of Right.

Nor has our gift of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation,—we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving?

Would America have been America without her Negro people? Even so is the hope that sang in the songs of my fathers well sung. If somewhere in this whirl and chaos of things there dwells Eternal Good, pitiful yet masterful, then anon in His good time America shall rend the Veil and the prisoned shall go free. Free, free as the sunshine trickling down the morning into these high windows of mine, free as yonder fresh young voices welling up to me from the caverns of brick and mortar below—swelling with song, instinct with life, tremulous treble and darkening bass. My children, my little children, are singing to the sunshine, and thus they sing: Let us cheer the weary traveller, Cheer the weary traveller, Let us cheer the weary traveller Along the heavenly way. And the traveler girds himself, and sets his face toward the Morning, and goes his way.

Reference: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (pp. 125-126). Public Domain Books. Kindle. (Free version here)

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