Du Bois used a Black Mary (and religion) to comment and editorialize about life in Jim Crow America in the 1930s, a brutal reality compounded by the economic hardships the Great Depression brought. As mentioned in a previous post she appeared in “The Son of God” and “The Gospel According to Mary Brown,” and in his creative writing Du Bois often voiced the political and the prophetic with women.
The contents of today's post comes from a short piece titled “Magnificat, 1931,” and Du Bois’s religious editorial appeared in the January 1932 issue of The Crisis.
Du Bois began this editorial by quoting from Luke 1 where Mary meets Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and of Mary Elizabeth exclaims: “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”
In a response to suffering that reads much like Job’s remarks to Yahweh in the midst of his season of calamity, Mary Black reeled off to God a litany of questions, calling him to account for frustrated ambitions, unfilled promises, and a penetrating silence in the face of murder, mayhem, and disenfranchisement. Mary could not fathom another baby as a blessing since “none of us [have] a job.” “Blessed,” scoffed Mary, “How come? I can’t understand you and God and I don’t see no call for this soul of mine to magnify nothing! Look here: You see how we’ve slaved and worked and kept decent and gone to church and nobody calls us blessed,—they curse us.” Instead of blessing, Mary found nothing but rejection.
Owing to spending a lifetime in and around churches, in this story Mary acknowledged God’s power, holiness, and might, but had little time to contemplate theological concepts. Mary wanted to know what God could and would do in the temporal realm; she longed for mercy, meals, and peace and quiet. “But how about me? How about that mercy on them that was afeared of you from generation to generation?,” Mary asked God, “Didn’t Ma and Pa serve you? Didn’t Grandpa preach your Word? Ain’t I tried to do right? Well, how about me, then?”
While Mary longed for mercy to alleviate the suffering in her own life, and from a historical perspective in the lives and generations of her family, in what sounds similar to Jesus’ disciples James and John, Mary wished to call fire down from heaven on her enemies. She desired justice for the oppressed, and mercy for the marginalized.
In desperation, Mary ended her litany of questions at the pinnacle of frustration; she was hungry, poor, cold, broke, and angry. Bitter about the disparities created by Jim Crow, Mary screamed, “What do you do about it? I’ll tell you: You fill the rich and white with good things and the poor and black you send empty away, or lynch them. You don’t even help the Jews as you promised Abraham when he helped you. And now—my god!—and other baby!”
Set in the Great Depression, Du Bois entertained a question of theodicy, giving voice to Black frustration through the life of a woman.
With "Magnificat, 1931," Du Bois continued to identify white supremacy as a spiritual evil with unholy fruit of segregation and exploitation. Voicing passages and proclamations from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, Mary said: “You got strength in your arm—you can scatter the proud—well, why don’t you put down some of the might white folks from their seats and exalt a few black folk of low degree—why don’t you?”