Known facts are not always representative of unknown truths. Does that mean they should be ignored? Not at all. It does, however, indicate a need to exercise caution when speaking or writing as if only a single interpretation of documented events in an individual’s life is possible.
Take the example of a recent Wikipedia article on “Common Misconceptions,” in which the author was kind and erudite enough to offer the following:
“African American intellectual and activist W.E.B. Du Bois did not renounce his U.S. citizenship while living in Ghana shortly before his death, * as is often claimed. *** In early 1963, due to his membership in the Communist Party and support for the Soviet Union, the U.S. State Department did not renew his passport while he was already in Ghana overseeing the creation of the Encyclopedia Africana. After leaving the embassy, he stated his intention to renounce his citizenship in protest. But while he took Ghanaian citizenship, he never went through the process of renouncing his American citizenship, * and may not even have intended to.*”
Anything which helps prompt discussions about the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance is worthwhile and the above passage accomplishes that. This account corresponds with the one offered by David Levering Lewis’s in W.E.B. Du Bois, The Fight for Equality and The American Century, 1919-1963, part two of his Pulitzer Prize-winning tome on the great leader and humanitarian (Lewis, pp.567-570). The Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance is presented as one of the texts in which the “misconception” regarding Du Bois’s actions and intentions occurs.
The word renounce, it may be argued, need not include the stipulation of a formal declaration. Nonetheless, it is true that as far as we know the ailing 95-year-old Du Bois did not get around to going through a formal process of declaring and documenting the renunciation of his U.S. citizenship. What no one, including the author of this blog, can ever know is how many times he likely renounced it in his heart while waiting an entire lifetime to see if African Americans would ever be accepted by White Americans as equal citizens with equal rights in his homeland.
He died knowing it had never happened because at the time of his death, even though President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9808 had been signed in 1946 to outlaw lynching, Whites who were so-inclined could still get away with hanging, burning, shooting, or bombing African Americans at will and not suffer any legal repercussions for it. His own status as a renowned educator and political advocate had largely insulated Dr. Du Bois from such direct physical threats but their extended implications were far from lost on him. Moreover, some might contend that the U.S. Government’s refusal to renew his passport and block access to the medical treatment he needed so desperately was a kind of lynching.
Freedom and Dignity
Other events––big powerful important ones like the forced integration of the U.S. military in 1948, and organization of the March on Washington that would take place one day after his death––were already making definitive marks on history. But not the political, social, or ethical transformation that would confirm and secure the simple validity of Black People’s fundamental humanity. There were also activities throughout his adult life, particularly via his intellectual camaraderie with educators, social theorists, and political leaders across the globe, as well as his support of several Pan-African Congresses, where it was evident enough that he lived as a citizen of the world rather than as one of a single country.
It was and is more than a matter of semantics. Documented accounts are not necessarily known certainties and their meanings are as subject to interpretation as anything which has not been experienced or witnessed first-hand. At the core of the issue was a matter of reality when it came to how much a man or woman could claim to be a citizen in the first place if in fact his or her life could be erased on a whim solely because of the color of their skin. And at the heart of that reality for W.E.B. Du Bois was the battle to live, and eventually die, with as much freedom and dignity as possible. Ultimately, that battle ended in Ghana, Africa.
© September 2016
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Supporter of principles advocated by PEN American Center and the Academy of American Poets, Aberjhani is also the Choice Academic Title Award-winning co-author of the world's first Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.