W. E. B. Du Bois

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What is the theme and tone of W.E.B. Du Bois's poem "Litany of Atlanta"?

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The theme of "A Litany at Atlanta" is the perversion of Christianity and its impact on blacks. The tone is bitterness and righteous indignation.

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The theme of the poem "A Litany of Atlanta" by W.E.B. Du Bois is the (already in 1906) long, terrible history of injustice and violence perpetrated against African-Americans. Du Bois literally sounds out a litany of these travesties: black women have been "ravished and debauched" and both female and male black bodies have been "bought and sold." All of this inhumanity has left a "black and rolling smoke of sin" lingering over the country. Du Bois looks at the landscape of Atlanta after the city had been roiled by riots and sees the violence that white Americans had perpetrated on black Americans for centuries coming back to haunt and hurt whites. In a line very similar to a famous quote from Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice about the cycle of violence, Du Bois notes of the difference between white and black violence, "They train a hundred crimes while we do cure one." The tone of the poem is one of righteous anger, of frustration, of a people calling out to a god in remonstrance for sins gone unpunished. Du Bois even at a point worries that his tone is too extreme, as he implores god to "forgive these wild, blasphemous words." The poem also uses the call-and-response structure common in worship ceremonies in black churches and Catholic masses alike. As the poem comes to a pleading end, language from the Catholic requiem mass is included, echoing back to the phrase "the day of death" in the subtitle of the poem. Theme and tone ultimately fuse in rage.

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William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois wrote "Litany of Atlanta" in response to the 1906 race riots that swept through Atlanta and represents one of the most heart-felt manifestations of his transition from social scientist to social activist.  An educated historian and sociologist, Du Bois was growing exhausted from the evident lack of social progress being made across the American South in the wake of Reconstruction.  The cumulative effect of continued lynchings and forced, institutionalized segregation with all the inherent indignities that involved motivated his transformation.  As he would later write in "Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept":

"Two considerations thereafter broke in upon my work and eventually disrupted it: first, one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved; and secondly, there was no such definite demand for scientific work of the sort I was doing."

Litany of Atlanta is, consequently, not a scientific exploration of racism; it is an impassioned plea for a “Silent God” to hear the prayers of black people:

“Listen to us, Thy children: our faces dark with doubt are

Made a mockery in Thy sanctuary.  With uplifted hands we

Front Thy heaven, O God, crying:

                We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!

. . .

Sit no longer blind, Lord God, deaf to our prayer and

dumb to our dumb suffering.  Surely Thou art not

white, O Lord, a pale, bloodless, heartless thing?

                Ah! Christ of all the Pitties!

The theme of Du Bois’ poem is the hopelessness blacks felt regarding white racism and white repression and a system of justice that ignored their plight, and the anguish this deeply religious community felt over their suffering at the hands of others.  The tone is, understandably, angry and bitter.  The decades after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery – and Du Bois was born only three years after the war’s end – had witnessed continued oppression, enforced by white governments across the South, including the State of Georgia, where he was now based.  He saw for himself the indignities and the brutality to which blacks were routinely subjected, and he’d had enough.

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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.

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