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Classical Tradition and Black Nationalism in W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Star of Ethiopia

Influenced by the Ethiopian Movement, a wave of newly formed independent African churches under the umbrella of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Du Bois penned The Star of Ethiopia in 1911. In this massive historical pageant, excerpts of which he published in The Crisis in 1916, Du Bois celebrated the glory of ancient Africa, and I argue that in so doing, he employed Classics as a model for asserting his own people’s cultural legitimacy and positioned the ancient past of Africans and diasporic peoples alongside the Classical past of contemporary European nations.

Du Bois’s pageant, which traces the history of African civilizations from the prehistoric Nok invention of iron-smelting, through Egypt and Ethiopia, and into the 19th-century struggles of African Americans, outlines an emerging black nationalism that depends on an ancient past. This approach was inspired by Du Bois’s engagement with ancient Greek and Roman history and myth, as well as his keen awareness of the value placed on these historical roots in contemporary European national identities (on the latter, see, e.g., Stephens and Vasunia 2010). Though African Americans and other members of the African Disapora had been cut off from the history of the African continent, Du Bois asserted that they too were descendants of a glorious (African) past, thereby creating a parallel to the classical heritage. Accordingly, the dark Herald who narrates Du Bois’s pageant announces before the second episode “Hear ye, hear ye! And learn the ancient Glory of Ethiopia, All-Mother of men, whose wonders men forgot” (Du Bois 1916: 169). In an attempt at making black history visible again, the Herald next exhorts the audience to “see how beneath the Mountains of the Moon, alike in the Valley of Father Nile and in ancient Negro-land and Atlantis the Black Race ruled and strove and fought” (1916: 169). Du Bois’s pageant thus presents ancient African civilizations as the root for the great cultures of Atlantis, described by Plato, and of Egypt, which provided an important basis for the histories of Greece and Rome. He thereby both creates a historical lineage for the ancestors of African Americans and other diasporic people, and credits them with laying the foundations of Western Civilization. Just as the appropriation of the Classical Tradition had become a powerful instrument for asserting the distinguished heritage of various nations in Europe, the history of African civilizations served as a beacon of cultural worth and dignity for a fledgling Black Nationalism.

While this depiction of the ancient African past obviously diverges from Classical traditions focused on the ancient Mediterranean world, it conspicuously includes depictions of Egypt that prefigure the Bernal-Lefkowitz debate (Bernal 1987; Lefkowitz 1996). Though Du Bois’s rhetoric is clearly invested in the study of classical authors, and those Western societies that are their descendants, he also views Classics as a methodology in itself. The specific legacy of the ancient Mediterranean, though obviously important to Du Bois, provides a functional model for constructing a unified identity for diasporic and marginalized peoples by forming a coherent and integrated historical narrative from ancient origins to contemporary history. In establishing a long and continuous history of Africa, then, which connects diasporic peoples to a cultural legacy that has existed alongside venerable classical civilizations, Du Bois appropriates Classics not simply as an academic discipline, but as a theoretical political framework for articulating national identities.