The Star of Ethiopia (1915)

The Star of Ethiopia (1915)

I wrote it four years ago. I called it, or rather it called itself by various names. Finally it decided to be called “The Star of Ethiopia.” I acquiesced. My friends looked upon it with lack-luster eye. I did not blame them. The more I read it myself the more it seemed wanting: And yet as I turned over my rejected manuscripts this always bobbed up with a certain insistance, a kind of “Why not try me” tone. Its first resurrection came in 1913 when we were celebrating, in New York, Emancipation.

What a task that was! I have been through a good many laborious jobs and had to bear on many occasions accusations difficult to rest under, but without doubt the New York Emancipation Exposition was the worst of all my experiences. Such an avalanche of altogether unmerited and absurd attacks it had never been my fortune to experience. Yet through it all one thing became clearer—the Pageant must be tried. We must attempt, at least, this one new thing in the dead level of uninteresting exhibitions. We had our ups and downs with it. It was difficult to get hold of the people; it was more difficult to keep them. There were curious little wranglings and bickerings and none of us will forget that dress rehearsal. If there had been any reasonably convenient method of escape the Pageant would never have seen the light of day.

And then it came—four exhibitions, singular in their striking beauty, and above all in the grip they took upon men. Literally, thousands besieged our doors and the sight of the thing continually made the tears arise. After these audiences aggregating 14,000, I said: the Pageant is the thing. This is what the people want and long for. This is the gown and paraphernalia in which the message of education and reasonable race pride can deck itself. And yet a year went by and another year. I had upon me somehow the fear of doing. When one has done a thing and done it fairly well it seems like tempting fate to try it again. And then, after all, there was no money. There was war and there was trouble. So another year passed, and then with a start I felt that I was letting something go that was really worth while—letting it die because of certain moral cowardice and so I girded myself and looked around the world and hit upon Washington at once the most promising and the most difficult of places; the largest Negro city in the northern hemisphere and yet for that very reason exceedingly hard to reach and interest with a new and untried thing.

The few that came out to the preliminary meetings listened with interest. They even showed enthusiasm at times and they promised cooperation and they kept their word. I had the whole matter carefully planned but I early found that the best laid plans needed a curious personal joining together on the part of the one who has the vision of what he wants and cannot adequately tell it.

I remember that Friday when I opened the office. The beautiful sign which Richard Brown had painted was going up and I was helping boost it. A good friend came by and looked at me. There was pity way down in his soul. “Are you still encouraged?” he asked. His question was a revelation. The whole city doubted. A thousand actors, gowned and trained in three weeks? “Impossible!” said the city. Nevertheless they worked loyally.

My helpers came to town on the dot. Mr. Burroughs, with his deliberate genius and unwavering faith; Mrs. Norman with her great mastery of men—or rather of women—and Mrs. Curtis who came almost concealed under thousands of yards of cloth. Already in the field was the tireless Mrs. Glenn and eventually came Mr. Davidson. Richard Brown had long been working. So we started and our troubles started with us.

The School Board was slow but when it moved it moved generously. The rehearsals hitched and for interminable days we had a hundred people where we needed a thousand. The music went awry and it seemed an absolutely impossible task properly to advertise the thing we were doing and get the mass of the people to know and to think about it. And then the weather—oh! the weather! The pains of hell gat hold upon me and the terrors of the damned during that week of cold, drizzly weather that preceded the week of our entertainment. I was at the very nadir of my faith, and wondered rather helplessly why it was I could never let well enough alone, but was always pushing out into some frontier of wilderness endeavoring to do the impossible. Then (by what miracle who knows), came three nights, each more perfect than the other and sandwiched in between rains. Some said God did it and I am not disposed to dispute.

But the money. The way the funds rained through my fingers was quite unbelievable. I saw ahead of me the most shocking bankruptcy, the most unbelievable extravagance. Everything seemed to be costing just twice as much as it should. Final hitches came on the very end of our endeavor. The music looked dubious; the regulations of the ball field seemed about to interfere with even our walking firmly on tha grass; the electric lighting got into inextricable tangles. The tickets were late. The costumes were later and the properties latest of all. New expenses kept cropping up, and finally, when the ciyy inspector dropped around very late one evening and casually remarked that he might have to hold up the whole thing because a few red lights were missing, it seemed as though the cup of misfortune was full.

Then it was as it always is in things of this sort. Suddenly a great new spirit seemed born. The Thing that you have exorcized becomes a living, mighty, moving spirit. It sweeps on and you hang trembling to its skirts. Nothing can stop it. It is. It will. Wonderfully, irresistably the dream comes true. You feel no exaltation, you feel no personal merit. It is not yours. It is its own. You have simply called it, and it comes.

I shall never forget that last night. Six thousand human faces looked down from the shifting blaze of lights and on the field the shimmering streams of colors came and went, silently, miraculously save for the great cloud of music that hovered over them and enveloped them. It was no mere picture: it was reality.

The Herald cried, “People of Washington arise, and go. The Play is done.” And yet the play was not done. Some things are quite too beautiful ever to be finished. So I walked home alone and the joys of God.

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1915. “The Star of Ethiopia.” The Crisis. 11(2):91–93.