What is the theme and tone in W.E.B. DuBois' short poem "A Litany at Atlanta"?
W.E.B. DuBois was a deeply religious man, but one who drew very clear distinctions between the theology and the practice of religion. In other words, he was a Christian with a strong sense of faith, but he viewed the practice of Christianity by the whites who dominated society as antithetical to the true tenets of Christianity. One can read "A Litany at Atlanta" has an eerily prescient warning against the church bombing that would occur decades later (specifically, September 15, 1963) in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young girls, but DuBois’ poem was a product of his anger at white hypocrisy and white brutality and its tone would be articulated more scathingly in his essay "The Souls of White Folks," which immediately follows "A Litany at Atlanta" in his Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, the link to which is provided below.
Understanding the distinction DuBois drew between the theology and practice of Christianity is essential for the understanding of "A Litany at Atlanta." It is essential because, reading this poem, one can easily question the author’s commitment to a life of Christ. Read the first lines in this poem, and one can be forgiven for concluding that DuBois was spiteful regarding the existence of a benign divine being:
O Silent God, Thou whose voice afar in mist and mystery hath left our ears an-hungered in these fearful days—
Hear us, good Lord!
Listen to us, Thy children: our faces dark with doubt are made a mockery in Thy Sanctuary.
Our voices sink in silence and in night.
Hear us, good Lord!
In night, O God of a godless land!
DuBois is not, though, questioning the existence of God, or even condemning God for the persecution of blacks. Rather, he is condemning whites who, in the name of God, would violate the fundamental tenets of Christianity. DuBois, in stark contrast to Booker T. Washington, was not willing to go silently into the night and exist at the pleasure of whites, hoping that, by setting a good example, blacks would be eventually treated as equals. DuBois was a fierce advocate of racial equality as it should have existed since the dawn of time, and believed that it was white Christians who had systematically laid the groundwork for the destitution of blacks and for the social dysfunction that was already plaguing black communities. As indicated in the following stanza from "A Litany at Atlanta," DuBois is taking aim squarely at white Christian hypocrites:
“And yet, whose is the deeper guilt? Who made these devils? Who nursed them in crime and fed them on injustice? Who ravished and debauched their mothers and their grandmothers? Who bought and sold their crime and waxed fat and rich on public iniquity?”
The tone is bitterness and righteous indignation. The theme is white perversion of Christianity and the resultant subjugation and alienation of blacks.