The Story of Africa


W.E.B. Du Bois


March 1, 1914

Once upon a time there lay a land in the southern seas; a dark, grim land, walled well against the world. And in that land rose three rivers and a fourth, all flowing out to seek the sea. One river was born amid the Lakes and Mountains of the Moon, sun-kissed, snow-capped, and fled to the northward silent, swiftly; it clambered over the hills and swam the marshes. It threaded the sands—the narrow, choking sands that grew hotter and narrower as it went; yet the river swept on to wider, greener fields, to a laughing plain until through many mouths it burst like a rocket to the Middle Sea with all its myriads of men.

In the wake of the river came dark men creeping, dancing, marching, building, until their pyramids and temples dotted the land and dared the Heavens, and the Thought of their souls and cities was the Beginning of the World.

Far, far away to westward another river leapt and sang and lightly turned its back upon the Sea, rushing to northward. But the grim desert shrieked in its fastnesses crying “Not here!” So the river whirled southward till the black forests cried in their gloom, “Not here!” The river bowed and circled westward. Sullenly, silently, yet proudly, she swept into the western sea. As she swept she sang low minor melody; as she sang she scattered gold carelessly to the black children. But ere she died in the depth of the sea she gave to her strongest and blackest sons, Iron—the precious gift of Iron. They fashioned it cunningly and welded it in faery forms and sent it to the ends of earth to make all men awake. And men awoke. They awoke on the cunning breast of the river’s self and kingdom on kingdom arose until the empire of the Songhay rivaled the empires of the world. The sound of the might of Negro land echoed in Carthage and grew in Numidia and gave fairy tales to the Middle Sea.

Away to the south and eastward and below the Mountains of the Moon the third broad river heard her sisters hurrying seaward. North and westward they had gone but she turned to the eternal east. Golden she lifted up her golden hands and stretched to Ophir, Punt and Tarshish her long, lithe finger. Her voice rose mighty in song until with a million stars in her throat she dropped wild singing in the southern sea and shuddered to the vastness of its silence.

Her black children sat in mine, fortress, temple and flowering field and traded with dark traders beyond the India Sea, till lo: out of the north came a cry, a cry like the anguish of a soul. For back in the bowels of the land men heard the running of three rivers and rushed away madly; for they were those that would not hear and could not see. On they ran, on, on and eastward ringing their spears and crying their great, awful cry of war. As locusts swarming they passed the north of the glooming forest with its dim red faerie; eastward they looked upon the inland oceans and southward they sent their war cry reeling to the Mountains of the Moon.

There came a shouting in the wilderness and again as swarming bees onward they came, and again the war cry echoed to the stars. Over the ruin of things that were passed that black and human flood until its angry surf dashed into the vast, red Heart of the Land, and knew the haunted spell-cursed realm of the Last River. Mighty was this last of rivers—a river of rivers, an endless lacing and swirling and curling and swelling and streaming of wild, weird waters beneath the giant jungle, where the lion, the leopard and the elephant slept with the long, slim snake.

Hand in hand and voice to voice these waters whirled in one vast circle within the bosom of the land saying their incantations. They shouldered past the mountains and sang past all the seas, then shunning the glaring desert and ingathering themselves to one swarming flood they thrilled and thundered on the sea. Snake-like and lion strong they gathered the children, the little dark and weeping children, and lo, beyond on swelling waters rose a hoarse, harsh cry and slim and sail-like fingers beckoned to the westward deeps. The river paused and rose red and reeking in the sunlight—thundered to the sea—thundered through the sea in one long line of blood, with tossing limbs and the echoing cries of death and pain.

On, on! the bloody waters, with those pale ghost fingers of ship and sail, with gold and iron, hurt and hell, rolled, swelled and tumbled, until the laughing islands of the western sea grew dark and dumb with pain and in the world, the great new world a Sorrow was planted and the Sorrow grew.


For attribution, please cite this work as:
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1914. “The Story of Africa.” The Crisis 8 (5): 234–35.