Journal-January 10, 2021
I lost a special friend tonight. It’s a bittersweet loss. I completed W. E. B. Du Bois’s Autobiography. It was my close companion the past few days, we, in intimate dialogue. I looked forward each night after work sneaking in an hour or two just relaxedly reading its pages, heedless of what page I was on, in no hurry to finish. On each page as I read his words, I compared myself and my life’s course. It summoned forth a flood of memories, sad and happy, from my youth. I see in my mind’s eye a college freshman, aged 17, sitting on a ladder in the college bookstore. He went there every day for several weeks and pulled off from the bookstore shelf this large volume, Eric Bentley’s Thirty Years of Treason. It was mostly a compilation of testimonies by accused Communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Even the most defiant defendants were not especially brave or inspiring. I still remember that college freshman’s disappointment at Pete Seeger’s testimony. (Seeger was a childhood hero. He later rued his weak-kneed defense.) Except Paul Robeson. His unbowed words stirred my soul. “I will not retreat one-thousandth part of one inch,” he told the Inquisitors, and he didn’t. I will forever be grateful for the gift that was those years in my life, and to Robeson, for fixing me on my life’s resolve, never to retreat one-thousandth part….
Du Bois’s biographer observes of Robeson and Du Bois during the McCarthy hysteria, “The pariah years had annealed an unbreakable emotional bond from their respect for each other.” Robeson shows up on many pages in the last chapters of Du Bois’s Autobiography. Du Bois recalls with barely concealed contempt that “Negroes of intelligence and prosperity had become American in their acceptance of exploitation as defensible, and in their imitation of American ‘conspicuous expenditure.’ They proposed to make money and spend it as pleased them. They had beautiful homes, large and expensive cars and fur coats. They hated ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ as much as any white American. Their reaction toward Paul Robeson was typical; they simply could not understand his surrendering a thousand dollars a night for moral conviction.” (In 1948, Robeson’s annual income was $200,000. In 1949 it plummeted to $6,000, a place from which it never recovered.) The Black poet Langston Hughes folded like a chair during the McCarthy hearings. This pitiful groveler even called for the burning of his own books if found to be tainted by communism. Du Bois recalls that “Langston Hughes, who wrote of Negro musicians and deliberately omitted Robeson’s name—Robeson who more than any living man has spread the pure Negro folk song over the civilized world.” (Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,/ Coming for to Carry Me Home.) My name never appears in scholarly books on the Israel-Palestine conflict, not even in the exhaustive bibliographies. Except once, I have never been asked to review a scholarly book on the Israel-Palestine conflict, not even by the Journal of Palestine Studies. I have never been asked to blurb a scholarly book on the Israel-Palestine Conflict. My last major work, Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom, was published by a university press. It was my magnum opus. The back cover was graced with ringing endorsements by the leading scholars in the field. It came out just as the Great March of Return in Gaza began. My publisher, University of California Press, sent out 250 review copies. It received two reviews, one in the Journal of Palestine Studies (submitted by an old friend of mine, which the journal couldn’t refuse without embarrassing itself) and the other by Noam Chomsky. Langston Hughes would not have had to write out my name, as it was never written in.
The last chapters of the Autobiography read like an elegy. Prosecuted as an agent of a foreign entity, manacled, at age 83, abandoned by his “friends.” But
Du Bois continued, relentlessly and fearlessly, to speak his mind:
All this made my enemies and the Federal government take a determined stand to insure my destruction. The secret police swarmed in my neighborhood asking about my visitors; whether I entertained and whom. When we entertained a Soviet diplomat, his wife and daughter, and Paul Robeson, the whole borough of Brooklyn, New York, was declared “out of bounds” for Soviet diplomats. My manuscripts and those of Shirley Graham [Du Bois’s wife] were refused publication by reputable commercial publishers. My mail was tampered with or withheld. Negro newspapers were warned not to carry my writings nor mention prominently my name. Colleges ceased to invite my lectures or my presence at Commencement exercises. From being a person whom every Negro in the nation knew by name at least and hastened always to entertain or praise, churches and Negro conferences refused to mention my past or present existence. The white world which had never liked me but was forced in the past to respect me, now ignored me or deliberately distorted my work.… The central office of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which Du Bois had helped found] refused to let local branches invite me or sponsor any lectures. I was refused the right to speak on the University of California campus, because of NAACP protest. In fine I was rejected of men, refused the right to travel abroad and classed as “controversial figure” even after being acquitted of guilt by a Federal court of law.
It was a bitter experience and I bowed before the storm. But I did not break. I continued to speak and write when and where I could. I faced my lowered income and lived within it. I found new friends and lived in a wider world than ever before—a world with no color line. I lost my leadership of my race. It was a dilemma for the mass of Negroes; either they joined the current beliefs and actions of most whites or they could not make a living or hope for preferment. Preferment was possible. The color line was beginning to break. Negroes were getting recognition as never before. Was not the sacrifice of one man, small payment for this? Even those who disagreed with this judgment at least kept quiet. The colored children ceased to hear my name.
“I met my brother the other day/I gave him my right-a-hand,” Paul Robeson used to sing. “And as soon as ever my back was turned,/He scandalized my name./Call that a brother?/Nooo, Nooo/Call that a brother?/Nooo, Nooo./Scandalize my name.”
All those “brothers” are now forgotten. And “colored children” now hear his name again. He “bowed before the storm but did not break.” It is small consolation, but it need be said, that the Earth is a sweeter place because W. E. B. Du Bois once walked it.