A Letter from W.E.B. Du Bois to His Daughter Yolande, Dated "Moscow, December 10, 1958": Introduction and Footnotes

Article excerpt

Published here for the first time is a rare 1958 letter from W. E. B. Du Bois to his daughter, Yolande Du Bois Williams. Du Bois wrote the letter at a sanitarium near Moscow, four months into an extended trip through western and eastern Europe, Soviet Russia, Soviet Central Asia, and China. The letter reveals much about the trip that Du Bois called "the most significant journey" of his life, blending personal concerns with political matters in a casual way rarely found in his published writings. The document conveys a sense of Du Bois's numerous activities at a vital moment in postwar world history: Here Du Bois recalled using the then still-young national health service in Britain; described visiting France as the Fifth Republic was coming into being; told of celebrating the anniversary of the Russian Revolution in Red Square; reported being too ill to travel to the "All-African Peoples' Conference," in Accra, in the newly independent African state of Ghana; and mentioned chatting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The letter reveals much about Du Bois's politics, humor, physical health, and sense of his body at age ninety.

This letter is also important for the insight it provides into the creative process by which Du Bois's last major work was written, the posthumously published Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois. Numerous sentences from the December 10 letter were later incorporated into The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois, some slightly changed, others unaltered. (According to Du Bois's friend and literary executor, Herbert Aptheker, Du Bois wrote the Autobiography in 1958-59 and revised it some in 1960.) Du Bois was an amazingly prolific writer: his published works alone equal about one piece for each 12 days of his long life. In part, Du Bois achieved this by frequently reworking passages from one piece of writing for use in later works, as illustrated by the December 10 letter's relationship to the Autobiography.

This document indicates the extent to which Du Bois was honored and feted in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. The blandishments extended to admired foreign guests by Communist states held considerable appeal for Du Bois, as this letter shows more plainly and more personally than do his published writings. Du Bois collected at least four honorary degrees from universities in Communist countries (two such ceremonies are described in this letter).

The honors so abundantly shown Du Bois by the political-cultural elites of the Communist bloc were altogether denied him in his native land during the 1950s. In Cold War America, Du Bois's race and his radicalism resulted in his being persecuted by the U.S. Government. His peace movement activities and his sympathy for the Soviet Union resulted in his being charged and tried as an "unregistered foreign agent" in 1951. A long and costly defense ended in Du Bois's acquittal, but the American State Department nonetheless denied Du Bois - and numerous other Americans, including Paul Robeson - the right to travel abroad. For seven years the State Department refused to issue Du Bois a passport. In the summer of 1958, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the State Department lacked the authority to deny passports to American citizens who refused to make sworn statements that they were not communists. With his new passport, Du Bois felt like "a released prisoner" and sailed from New York for Europe on August 8, 1958; he returned on July 1, 1959.(2)

Du Bois's Cold War era embrace of the Communist movement has been seen in various and contradictory ways. Some have attributed it to senility; others to bitterness at America's enduring racism and postwar militarism; still others to high moral principle and the wisdom of age. In fact it was the product of Du Bois's complex ideology and considered political judgments, not the result of any single force. Beginning in the late 1940s, Du Bois was a heartfelt and sincere advocate of mid-twentieth-century Communism, believing that it alone could lead humanity toward peace and racial equality; he saw communism as the one real obstacle to a renewed American and European colonialism and a capitalist war drive. …