When it has struck me, in past years I have marked major holidays with reflections from or on some of the historical figures I’ve studied. Last year I commented about James Baldwin, for example, and also posted a Du Bois prayer about Christmas.
Well, it is the holiday season, and Du Bois returns for this series I’m calling Christmas with Du Bois (this picks up, I suppose, where my short-lived “Devotions with Du Bois” left off in 2007—or rather, never really got off the ground.)
I plan to post once or twice weekly until Christmas, offering my thoughts on what Du Bois had to say about Christmas while editor of The Crisis between 1910 and 1934. In my research I found that Du Bois not only had to say tons about religion (as this book so smartly details), but much about Christmas—and Thanksgiving and Easter, too. Du Bois often narrated Christmas through fiction and non-fiction.
Today’s comments come from a fictional short story, “The Sermon in the Cradle,” which appeared in the Christmas 1921 Crisis number (I’ve posted about this story before in the context of my teaching).
This story retold Jesus’ birth as if it happened under British colonial rule in Benin.
Wise men came from the East to inquire about this “new Christ,” which then troubled the Prime Minister and other officials. In the story, Du Bois rewrote the Nativity prophecy from Isaiah: “And thou Benin, in the land of Nigeria, art not the least among the princes of Africa: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my Negro people.” The star later guided the wise men to the birth site (“in a house”), and upon seeing this new African Christ, worshiped and presented gifts—“gold and medicine and perfume,” presents with symbolic significance and practical value. All of the wise men then left (warned by God in a dream not to return to London), except one black wise man who was from Benin. He “lingered by the cradle and the new-born babe,” Du Bois wrote.
Eventually “the multitudes” showed up and the black Christ child broke into sermon, as Du Bois reconfigured Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are the poor folks for they shall go to heaven. Blessed are the sad folks for someone will bring them joy. Blessed are they that submit to hurts for they shall sometime own the world. Blessed are they that truly want to do right for they shall get their wish. Blessed are those who do not seek revenge for vengeance will not seek them. Blessed are the pure for they shall see God. Blessed are those who will not fight for they are God’s children. Blessed are those whom people like to injure for they shall sometime be happy. Blessed are you, Black Folk, when men make fun of you and mob you and lie about you. Never mind and be glad for your day will surely come. Always the world has ridiculed its better souls.
There are several important points to make about this inventive, creative story. First, the date of publication in the December 1921 issue. Many of Du Bois’s short stories about a black Christ appeared at particular times of the year—in December and in April. Du Bois himself understood the significance of Christian celebrations and the liturgical cycle, and some of his readers no doubt did as well.
Second, “The Sermon in the Cradle” is yet another instance of Du Bois retelling the life of Jesus as a black Christ. Other offerings on this score include Du Bois’s short stories “The Son of God,” published in the December 1933 edition of The Crisis, and “The Gospel According to Mary Brown (1919), among others.
Third, Pan-African and anticolonial movements were underway during the 1920s, and Du Bois understood World War I to be in part a colonial conflict and sought and pursued solidarity internationally. What’s more, Du Bois organized the first Pan African Congress in Paris in 1919 and another in 1921 and so this story is a clear indication that these issues were on his mind at the time. And of course it is significant that Du Bois chose the story and teachings of Jesus as one way to creatively narrate these larger global concerns. Du Bois did not find salvation in Bethlehem, but in Africa.
Fourth, and finally, the reformulated Sermon on the Mount highlights Du Bois’s explicit focus on the ethical dimensions of Jesus’ teaching. There are no miracles and “The Sermon in the Cradle” is devoid of divinity. Du Bois emphasized and hoped social and economic justice would eventually come for those subject to hurt and wrong. Even though there existed a deep thirst for vengeance, Du Bois placed God on the side of Black Folk since “the world has ridiculed its better souls.”