In 1959, on his ninety-first birthday, W. E. B. Du Bois spoke to an audience at Peking University on “China and Africa.” Du Bois’ words and warnings on colonialism, capitalism, and the self-determination of the “darker races” are as relevant to the Black world now as they were during the Cold War.
W. E. B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois spent four months in the Soviet Union and China in 1959. The purpose of their visit, as Du Bois bluntly stated in a short editorial published in China Pictorial, was to tell Black America “the truth about Communism.” By then in the twilight of his years, Du Bois had long recognized that full citizenship would not soon be granted to African Americans. A century of enslavement in the United States was followed by an emancipation that merely turned Black folk into “a colour caste of serfs.” At the same time, the demise of the slave trade had witnessed the rise of a new “colonial imperialism,” a global system which, as Du Bois wrote in China Pictorial, “sought to reduce most of the world's workers to serfs of Western Europe and North America, and to build civilization on their exploited labour.”
For Du Bois, the revolutions that gave birth to the Soviet Union and modern China provided a threat to this new, white, western imperial order. Yet he recognized that many African people neither realized this, nor recognized what this meant for their future, especially as the Cold War had made it impossible to glean the truth about socialism. “Fantastic tales of the failure of Socialism and the impossibility of Communism fill our periodicals and books,” Du Bois wrote. “Most Americans today are convinced that Socialism has failed or will fail in the near future.” Du Bois wanted to learn the facts.
On February 23, 1959, his ninety-first birthday, Du Bois spoke at Peking University to an audience of more than 1,000 faculty members and students. His address, titled “China and Africa,” was published the following March in the Peking Review. We reprint it below. It is a remarkable historical statement on the intertwined fates and destinies of Africa and Asia, as both continents were struggling for autonomy and self-determination against the yoke of European and US colonialism. But Du Bois also forces us to reckon with the present moment -- a moment where the facts about China are shrouded in racism and imperial bombast, while the question of Africa-China relations are as important as they were during the Cold War.
CHINA AND AFRICA
W. E. B. Du Bois
By courtesy of the government of the 680 million people of the Chinese Republic, I am permitted on my ninety-first birthday to speak to the people of China and Africa and through them to the world. Hail, then, and farewell, dwelling places of the yellow and black races. Hail human kind!
I speak with no authority: no assumption of age nor rank; I hold no position, I have no wealth. One thing alone I own and that is my own soul. Ownership of that I have even while in my own country for near a century I have been nothing but a nigger.” On this basis and this alone I dare speak, I dare advise.
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.
You have been told, my Africa: My Africa in Africa and all your children's children overseas; you have been told and the telling so beaten into you by rods and whips, that you believe it yourselves, that this is impossible; that mankind can only rise by walking on men; by cheating and killing them; that only on a doormat of the despised and dying, the dead and rotten, can a British aristocracy, a French cultural elite or an American millionaire be nurtured and grown. This is a lie. It is an ancient lie spread by church and state, spread by priest and historian, and believed in by fools and cowards, as well as by the down-trodden and the children of despair.
Speak, China, and tell your truth to Africa and the world. What people have been despised as you have? Who more than you have been rejected of men? Recall when lordly Britishers threw the rickshaw money on the ground to avoid touching a filthy hand. Forget not, the time when in Shanghai no Chinaman [sic] care set foot in a park which he paid for. Tell this to Africa, for today Africa stands on new feet, with new eyesight, with new brains and asks: Where am I and why? The Western sirens answer; Britain wheedles; France cajoles; while America, my America, where my ancestors and descendants for eight generations have lived and toiled; America loudest of all, yells and promises freedom. If only Africa allows American investment Beware Africa, America bargains for your soul. America would have you believe that they freed your grandchildren; that Afro-Americans are full American citizens, treated like equals, paid fair wages as workers, promoted for desert and free to learn and earn and travel across the world. This is not true. Some are near freedom; some approach equality with whites; some have achieved education; but the price for this has too often been slavery of mind, distortion of truth and oppression of our own people. Of 18 million Afro-Americans, 12 million are still second-class citizens of the United States, serfs in farming low-paid laborers in industry, and repressed members of union labor. Most American Negroes do not vote. Even the rising six million are liable to insult and discrimination at any time.
But this, Africa, relates to your descendants, not to you. Once I thought of you Africans as children, whom we educated Afro-Americans would lead to liberty. I was wrong. We could not even lead ourselves, much less you. Today I see you rising under your own leadership, guided by your own brains.
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. This the American Negro has failed so far to learn. I am frightened by the so-called friends who are flocking to Africa. Negro Americans trying to make money from your toil, white Americans who seek by investment at high interest to bind you in serfdom to business as the Near East is bound and as South America is struggling with. For this America is tempting your leaders, bribing your young scholars, and arming your soldiers. What shall you do?
First, understand! Realize that the great mass of mankind is freeing itself from wage slavery, while private capital in Britain, France, and now in America, is still trying to maintain civilization and comfort for a few on the toil, disease and ignorance of the mass of men. Understand this, and understanding comes from direct knowledge. You know America and France and Britain to your sorrow. Now know the Soviet Union and its allied nations, but particularly know China.
China is flesh of your flesh and blood of your blood. China is coloured and knows to what a coloured skin in this modern world subjects its owner. But China knows more, much more than this: she knows what to do about it. She can take the insults of the United States and still hold her head high. She can make her own machines or go without machines, when America refuses to sell her American manufactures, even though it hurts American industry, and throws her workers out of jobs. China does not need American nor British missionaries to teach her religion and scare her with tales of hell. China has been in hell too long, not to believe in a heaven of her own making. This she is doing.
Come to China, Africa, and look around. Invite Africa to come, China, and see what you can teach just by pointing. Yonder old woman is working on the street. But she is happy. She has no fear. Her children are in school and a good school. If she is ill, there is a hospital where she is cared for free of charge. She has a vacation with pay each year. She can die and be buried without taxing her family to make some undertaker rich.
Africa can answer: but some of this we have done; our tribes undertake public service like this. Very well, let your tribes continue and expand this work. What Africa must realize is what China knows: that it is worse than stupid to allow a people's education to be under the control of those who seek not the progress of the people but their use as means of making themselves rich and powerful. It is wrong for the University of London to control the University of Ghana. It is wrong for the Catholic church to direct the education of the black Congolese. It was wrong for Protestant churches supported by British and American wealth to control higher education in China. The Soviet Union is surpassing the world in popular and higher education, because from the beginning it started its own complete educational system.
The essence of the revolution in the Soviet Union and China and in all the "iron curtain" nations, is not the violence that accompanied the change: no more than starvation at Valley Forge was the essence of the American revolution against Britain. The real revolution is the acceptance on the part of the nation of the fact that hereafter the main object of the nation is the welfare of the mass of the people and not of a lucky few.
Government is for the people's progress and not for the comfort of an aristocracy. The object of industry is the welfare of the workers and not the wealth of the owners. The object of civilization is the cultural progress of the mass of workers and not merely of an intellectual élite. And in return for all this communist lands believe that the cultivation of the mass of people will discover more talent and genius to serve the state than any closed aristocracy ever furnished. This belief the current history of the Soviet Union and China is proving true each day. Therefore don't let the West invest when you can avoid it. Don't buy capital from Britain, France and the United States if you can get it on reasonable terms from the Soviet Union and China. This is not politics; it is common sense. It is learning from experience. It is trusting your friends and watching your enemies.
Refuse to be cajoled or to change your way of life so as to make a few of your fellows rich at the expense of a mass of workers growing poor and sick and remaining without schools so that a few black men can have automobiles.
Africa, here is a real danger which you must avoid or return to the slavery from which you are emerging. All I ask from you is the courage to know; to look about you and see what is happening in this old and tired world; to realize the extent and depth of its rebirth and the promise which glows on yonder hills.
Visit the Soviet Union and visit China. Let your youth learn the Russian and Chinese languages. Stand together in this new world and let the old world perish in its greed or be born again in new hope and promise. Listen to the Hebrew prophet of communism:
Ho! every one that thirsteth; come ye to the waters; come, buy and eat, without money and without price!
Again, China and Africa, hail and farewell!
W.E.B. Du Bois, “China and Africa,” Peking Review (March 3, 1959). Available in the W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
All images reproduced from the W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries under fair use policy.