The following is a translation of a tribute to Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois written by the prominent 20th century Chinese writer Bing Xin (冰心) upon news of his passing on August 27, 1963. Bing Xin was a part of the New Culture Movement, a group of writers and scholars in the 1910’s who saw their struggle as against the corrupt Qing dynasty and imperialist powers supporting it. The New Culture Movement strived to progress language and art closer to the poor masses of China, eventually leading to the May Fourth Movement, led by Sun Yat-sen, which birthed a new China free of feudalism and imperialism.
By the end of his lifetime, Du Bois had made three trips to China: in 1939 while traveling to the Soviet Union, in 1959 for his 91st birthday, and lastly in 1962, the year before his death. One of many tributes to Du Bois published in China, Bing Xin’s eulogy honoring Du Bois’s lifelong commitment to the human struggle for freedom, peace, and justice is a testament to Du Bois’s enduring mark on and importance to the Chinese people and the world’s darker peoples. Long live Dr. Du Bois!
Bing Xin | Du Bois’s 91st birthday celebration in Beijing, 1959.
Mourning Dr. Du Bois
The first time I saw Dr. Du Bois was in the early spring of 1959, above the Beijing Hotel, in the birthday hall where Dr. Du Bois had his 91st birthday. In the joyous and lively atmosphere—walls covered with congratulatory scrolls, red candles flaming high—this dignified and charming, steady and kind, brown-skinned old man who looked only sixty or so. One wouldn’t have thought of his dedication to his dear people, the black freedom movement, which already had a history of more than sixty years. During the evening celebration of this day, while Dr. Du Bois and his wife conversed cheerfully with the Chinese friends around them, I sat aside in silence, heart and mind swelling with the many things I’d seen and heard about the life and struggle of the American Negroes.
I remember when I was only five years old, my uncle would tell me the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin* every night. The cruel and inhuman brutality inflicted by those known as civilized Americans upon Negroes left an extremely deep and bitter impression in my mind. Every night, I would always hold my tear-soaked handkerchief tightly, tossing and turning, unable to go to sleep soundly.
When I was in my twenties studying abroad in the American North, I encountered many injustices which infuriated me. Although I didn’t meet many Negroes in the North, I knew these acts of injustice were common in America.
We had a Negro classmate in our college dorm who was an outstanding student and Honor Society member, but no one ever talked to her. I once had a conversation with her during breakfast and found her to be so lovely. I visited her that evening. She was so happy and thanked me over and over again for coming. She said, “You know, our college still allows a few Negroes with excellent grades to come and study here. In the South, don’t even dream about it… I’m lonely, holding in tears of isolation, but when I think about what I can do to help my people after I gain knowledge here and graduate, I feel a sense of comfort.” Her words made me feel immense sympathy, resonating deeply with me. Thereafter I would visit her often to talk. Some of my white classmates disapproved, and others who knew me better told me frankly, “Don’t waste your time and feelings on a Negro!”
Once, a pastor invited me to his house for a weekend. The female chef in his family was a Negro and only in her twenties. After dinner, I went to the kitchen to help her wash the dishes and chatted with her. It turned out that in her spare time, she was studying and had even joined a drama club. We had a lively conversation about their rehearsal of Shakespeare’s plays. The next morning, when the pastor and his wife invited me to the church for worship, I also ran to invite her. With a very surprised and thankful look, she shook her head repeatedly and said, “Thank you, I can’t go. The pastor and his wife never let me worship with them. We have our own church…” I was shocked. I remembered when I attended “Sunday School” in Beijing Missionary Middle School. In our lecture hall, there was a picture of Jesus with children of all skin colors: a Chinese child was wrapped in Jesus’s arms, a Negro child was leaning on Jesus’s shoulder, and rather, the white child was farthest away, sitting at the front of Jesus’s feet on the floor. It turns out that this painting was painted for Chinese children to see! If racial segregation could be practiced in the place where God was worshipped, could it still be a religion that promoted freedom, equality, and brotherhood? At that moment, she pushed me from behind, “Go by yourself, they are waiting for you. You are too naive. You have seen too little. You do not understand!”
On another occasion I visited Washington D.C. and stayed with the National Women’s Party. After returning one evening, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution approached me to chat. I brought up how whites and Negroes were segregated on the D.C. trolley, a fact which shocked me. Flushed with sudden emotion she said, “This isn’t at all surprising. If you were to go south, you’d see much harsher things. You should know, Negroes are simply not human. They lack human reason and human emotion. In short, they should all leave America.” And these words coming from a “revolutionary daughter”! The snow-white dome of the Capitol, brightly illuminated by piercing lights, suddenly became bleak and dismal in my eyes. Seeing her teeth gritted like a vicious dog, I suddenly remembered the famous Negro singer Paul Robeson’s singing in the auditorium of our school some days ago: “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen.” His voice was so impassioned, so throbbing to the heart and soul. The discrimination and abuse faced by American Negroes was so wretched and ruthless, yet all that I’d heard and witnessed was only a fraction.
However it was around this time when I discovered that the birthplace of W.E.B Du Bois, leader of the black freedom movement, was in the same state as my college—Massachusetts. He was a warrior who charged forward fearlessly against imperialism and defended world peace. As early as during the First World War, he understood imperialism as the root cause of war, and that peace could only be ensured when imperialism was eradicated. He was an even more fearless spokesperson for American Negroes fighting for freedom and equality.
He researched history and the social sciences in order to write many academic works about Africa and Negroes. At the same time, he endlessly wrote many works that reflected the black struggle and inspired the will of Negroes. At the university, he taught, edited publications, and started and participated in many black liberation activities… He constantly struggled for the liberation of American Negroes…
It was not until forty years later, in Beijing, the capital of New China, that I paid tribute to this African American writer, poet, and warrior. I felt an indescribable excitement and honor!
My second meeting with Dr. Du Bois was even more memorable. It was a winter night in 1962 in a small, warm restaurant of the Beijing International Club, where we gave Dr. Du Bois and his wife a farewell dinner. They had spent a few months in China and were about to return to Ghana. He underwent two prostatitis surgery operations in London not too long ago, so I assumed he would look tired. To one’s surprise, this 94 year old warrior, apart from needing someone to help him walk in and out of the room, was cheerfully talking and laughing, the crinkles of his eyes brimming with kindness and humor, and his appetite undiminished. He said he enjoyed the Chinese food, Beijing, and loved everything about New China. He spoke of how he was currently writing an encyclopedia of Africa in Ghana, and how Africa in the European and American mind is smeared and distorted. It was not the truth of Africa. He intended to dedicate the remaining years of his life to the cause of introducing African civilization and culture to the world. Watching him talk with such animation and joy, we felt comforted by his good health and fearless spirit.
This year, on August 29th, the bad news came that Dr. Du Bois passed away this month on the 27th in Accra, the capital of Ghana!
A black giant has fallen! Before his death, the late U.S. Communist Party leader William Foster once gave him the following praise: “The new and brilliant leader of the Negro people, Du Bois, for at least a generation largely shaped the main line of struggle along which the Negro people have made splendid progress … For decades, many of the very best fighters and thinkers produced by the American Negro people have been actively grouped around Du Bois.”
A black giant has fallen! However, the big flag—under which he fought for black liberation, opposed imperialism, and defended world peace—and which he held high, will now at the insistence of his fellow comrades and the vast majority of people of all races of the world continue to be held high. The sound of his bell-like call to the Negroes of the United States and Africa to fight for their own liberation will be like that of the far-reaching sounds of the African drums traveling through the forest wilderness, reaching over rivers and oceans, and spreading across Africa and other continents.
With grief yet comfort we read about Dr. Du Bois’s lover and comrade, Shirley Graham, who after reading Chairman Mao’s statement in support of the struggle for African Americans, spoke excitedly to our Xinhua News Agency report in Accra, “Never has the leader of a powerful country issued such a call to the world”, “My husband Dr. Du Bois and I express our gratitude to the great leader and friend of humanity, Chairman Mao.” We all remembered that the last time he came to China, Dr. Du Bois himself said enthusiastically, “The dark continent can depend on the friendship and sympathy of China.” The Chinese people will always remember their words of gratitude, and will double their efforts to oppose imperialism and support the cause of the black struggle, forever pushing forward.
Yet, we are happy for Dr. Du Bois. As Shirley Graham said in her reply to Premier Zhou’s message of condolences, “During his life, he witnessed American Negroes rise up and rebel against the unbearable conditions of America in which they lived. When he was on his deathbed, his ears were filled with the resounding sound of marching footsteps.”
The struggle of American Negroes is vibrantly unfolding. Dr. Du Bois’s decades of hard work have budded and blossomed. We would like to be with Shirley Graham, American Negroes, as well as the people of the world to continue the struggle with the same perseverance and determination until we achieve the final victory.
“Victory is our final tribute to him”!
Dr. Du Bois lives forever in our hearts!
(This article was originally published in the September 1963 issue of World Literature.)
*Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Chinese is literally translated as ‘Black Slaves Call to the Heavenly Roads’