William Edward Burghardt Du Bois on China

How often do we conceptualize contemporary China and African relations in terms of its rich history, particularly among the sharing of ideas among intellectuals and activists? Recently, I stumbled upon a speech given by Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois traveled throughout Russia and China in the late 1950s and lived in Ghana in 1961. In Our Visit to China, privately published in Beijing in 1959, Du Bois discusses his identity:

I am an American in the sense that I was born in the United States where my forbears have lived for two centuries. We have worked and voted there, paid taxes and served in the armed forces. We have made some contribution to American culture. On the other hand, I am in the fifth generation, an African. In the eighteenth century, a Dutch trader seized my great-great grandfather on the coast of West Africa, transported him to New Amsterdam, which is now the state of New York, and sold him as a slave. He gained his freedom by fighting in the American Revolution to free America from Great Britain. The great-great-granddaughter of this Tom Burghardt married the great-grandson of a French Huguenot, who had migrated to America in the seventeenth century and some of whose descendents had gone to the West Indies to avoid fighting England. One of these had a mulatto concubine and his grandson married my mother. I am their son, hence my French name. My wife Shirley Graham was also born in America, of African and Scotch-Irish descent; and her grandfather was a Cheyenne Indian. Few persons have better right to call themselves American.

He then proceeds to explain why he visited the Soviet Union in 1926, 1936 and 1949 and China briefly in 1936: “The threat of war today is because so much of the world is convinced that private capitalism is doomed and fighting its last failing battle with a past based on human degradation for most people in the world. We are here to learn the facts in this crisis of modern civilization.” Here are excerpts of a speech he gave when he visited China with his wife, Shirley Graham, and spoke to more than 1,000 faculty members and students at Peking University on his 91st birthday.:

China after long centuries has arisen to her feet and leapt forward. Africa arise, and stand straight, speak and think! Act! Turn from the West and your slavery and humiliation for the last 500 years and face the rising sun. Behold a people, the most populous nation on this ancient earth which has burst its shackles, not by boasting and strutting, not by lying about its history and its conquests, but by patience and long suffering, by hard, backbreaking labour and with bowed head and blind struggle, moved up and on toward the crimson sky. She aims to “make men holy; to make men free.” But what men? Not simply the mandarins but including mandarins; not simply the rich, but not excluding the rich. Not simply the learned, but led by knowledge to the end that no man shall be poor, nor sick, nor ignorant; but that the humblest worker as well as the sons of emperors shall be fed and taught and healed and that there emerge on earth a single unified people, free, well and educated.

Africa does not ask alms from China nor from the Soviet Union nor from France, Britain, nor the United States. It asks friendship and sympathy and no nation better than China can offer this to the Dark Continent. Let it be given freely and generously. Let Chinese visit Africa, send their scientists there and their artists and writers. Let Africa send its students to China and its seekers after knowledge. It will not find on earth a richer goal, a more promising mine of information. On the other hand. watch the West. The new British West Indian Federation is not a form of democratic progress but a cunning attempt to reduce these islands to the control of British and American investors. Haiti is dying under rich Haitian investors who with American money are enslaving the peasantry. Cuba is showing what the West Indies. Central and South America are suffering under American Big Business. The American worker himself does not always realize this. He has high wages and many comforts. Rather than lose these, he keeps in office by his vote the servants of industrial exploitation so long as they maintain his wage. His labor leaders represent exploitation and not the fight against the exploitation of labor by private capital. These two sets of exploiters fall out only when one demands too large a share of the loot. This China knows. This Africa must learn.

**All parts of the speech and writing can be found at “Black Thought and Culture.” Copyright © 2009 Alexander Street Press, LLC. All rights reserved. PhiloLogic Software, Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago.

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