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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

W.E.B. Du Bois in the People's Republic of China, 1959

Premier Zhou Enlai with Du Bois and his wife the writer Shirley Graham (third from left). First and second from right are Vice-Premier Chen Yi and his wife Zhang Qian

W.E.B. Du Bois, the scholar, civil rights activist, historian and communist was born in 1868 in Massachusetts. He died in 1963 at age 95 in Ghana after a remarkable life that took him around the world in his fight for justice, equality and freedom.

In 1959 he visited the People's Republic of China and was actually there for his 91st birthday in February which was celebrated at a couple of large public gatherings.

In March, 1959 Du Bois wrote an account of his trip and his reasons for visiting both the People's Republic and the USSR which also looks at his background, slavery in the US and the civil rights struggle at the time of his trip. We republish it here:

Our Visit to China

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 descendants 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.

Nevertheless our people for three hundred years have had to struggle for recognition as American citizens, because most of our folk were in slavery or worked as low-paid serfs for exploiting whites. Many whites joined us in our struggle, and thus our people have gained important victories in our fight for equality in the last two centuries. This battle still goes on and must be continued until Negroes are recognized as equal to other American citizens.

Why did such a conflict ever arise? It was because of the greed of mankind. Because despite the abundance of a rich new continent, slave labour was found to provide a few persons with wealth and power created by this exploited labour. When the nobler souls of America, conceived this continent as the home of a new democracy where workers would share the wealth which they created with their fellows on equal terms, they were faced by the contradiction of Negro slavery. For eighty-seven years after they had declared “All men are born equal,” this nation refused to abolish slavery. Then came Civil War, not to abolish slavery but to stop its expansion to parts of the nation where the workers were free. This could not be accomplished until the slaves helped the free-soilers at the price of their freedom. This they secured in 1863.

But even since then the nation, instead of giving the black slaves full freedom, tried to turn them into a colour caste of serfs, and this is the so-called Negro Problem of the United States today. Negroes have progressed in their fight for equality, but their battle is not yet won. The cause is that when the African slave trade ceased, there arose Colonial Imperialism which 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. To this scheme the rising socialism of the Soviet Union and China is a fatal threat; but this fact the mass of American Negroes do not yet realize. To be able to tell them the truth about Communism, I and my wife have been in the Soviet Union and China for four months, and intend to stay until May Day. Here I have spent my ninety-first birthday. And here we have met sympathy and welcome for which we are deeply thankful.

Visits like this, on our own part and on the part of all Americans ought to have been made during the last 25 years. Indeed I visited the Soviet Union in 1926, 1936 and 1949. I had a brief glance at China in 1938. But just when knowledge of the rise of Socialism would have been most valuable, the "Cold War" started and for ten years American citizens have been not only limited in their right to travel, but even in the right to learn the truth about the Revolution which is sweeping the world. Fantastic tales of the failure of Socialism and the impossibility of

Communism fill our periodicals and books. Most Americans today are convinced that Socialism has failed or will fail in the near future. But not all Americans and few Europeans believe this. 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.


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