The Drama Among Black Folk (1916)

The Drama Among Black Folk (1916)

Hear ye, hear ye! Men of all the Americas, and listen to the tale of the Eldest and Strongest of the Races of men whose faces be Black. Hear ye, hear ye! For lo! Upon this night a world shall pass before your souls, bathed in color, wound with song and set to the dancing of a thousand feet. And this shall be the message of this pageantry: Of the Black man’s Gift of Iron to the world; of Ethiopia and her Glory; of the Valley of Humiliation through which God would she pass and of the Vision Everlasting when the Cross of Christ and the Star of Freedom set atop the Pillar of Eternal Light. Men of the world keep silence and in reverence see this holy thing.

This has been the opening cry of the dark and crimson-turbaned Herald in three presentations of the pageant, “The Star of Ethiopia,” given by colored people in New York, Washington and Philadelphia before audiences aggregating nearly 35,000 people.

The last of these three pageants was given in Philadelphia during the month of May before audiences of eight thousand. It was in many respects the most perfect of the pageants. For while it lacked the curious thrill and newness of the New York production and the mysterious glamour of shadow, star and sky which made the Washington pageant unforgettable, yet Philadelphia in its smoothness and finish was technically the best. As this last production represents possibly the end of the series it is a fitting time to review this effort.

The Negro is essentially dramatic. His greatest gift to the world has been and will be a gift of art, of appreciation and realization of beauty. Such was his gift to Egypt, even as the dark Herald cried in the second scene of the pageant:

Hear ye, hear ye! All them that come to know the truth and listen to the tale of the Wisest and Gentlest of the Races of Men whose faces be Black. Hear ye, hear ye! And learn the ancient Glory of Ethiopia, All-Mother of men, whose wonders men forgot. 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 and sought the Star of Faith and Freedom even as other races did and do. Fathers of Men and Sires of Children golden, black and brown, keep silence and hear this mighty word.

All through Africa pageantry and dramatic recital is close mingled with religious rites and in America the “Shout” of the church revival is in its essential pure drama. The American Negro early turned toward the theatre. Ira Aldridge, their first great actor, was born in Maryland in 1810 and educated in Glasgow. He became before his death the first of European tragedians, honored and decorated by nearly every European government. There was, of course, no career for him in America. Here by the unbending law of exclusion Negro minstrelsy developed first with white men and then with colored actors.

In later days Cole and Johnson and Williams and Walker lifted minstrelsy by sheer force of genius into the beginning of a new drama. White people refused to support the finest of their new conceptions like the “Red Moon” and the cycle apparently stopped. Recently, however, with the growth of a considerable number of colored theatres and moving picture places, a new and inner demand for Negro drama has arisen which is only partially satisfied by the vaudeville actors. Today in Harlem it is being curiously supplied by setting companies of colored actors to playing recent Broadway successes like “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” “Today” and “The Escape.” The next step will undoubtedly be the slow growth of a new folk drama built around the actual experience of Negro American life.

Already there are beginnings here and there, but especially in Washington, where Nathaniel Guy and Laura Bruce Glenn have been at work, and last year produced Angelina Grimke’s strong play, “Rachel.”

I seemed to see this development some years ago, and as a kind of beginning I sketched the pageant, the “Star of Ethiopia,” in 1911. It was not staged until 1913 at the Emancipation Exposition in New York City. There it was made a part of the Exposition and attempted with three hundred and fifty colored actors. I can feel again the strain of that first attempt and the sound of the voice of the Herald crying:

Hear ye, hear ye! Eternal Children of the Lord, ye little ones within whose veins the blood of Ethiopia flows and flames. Hear ye, hear ye! And listen to the tale of the Humblest and Mightiest of the Races of Men whose faces be Black. Behold the Star of Faith so nearly lost, yet found again and placed against high heaven through the crucifixion of God and little children. Sons and Daughters of Men keep silence and hear this beautiful thing.

This first pageant was in audience and acting a great success, “An impressive spectacle,” as the Outlook said, “both from a historical point of view and as a forecast.”

Then came my dream. It seemed to me that it might be possible with such a demonstration to get people interested in this development of Negro drama to teach on the one hand the colored people themselves the meaning of their history and their rich, emotional life through a new theatre, and on the other, to reveal the Negro to the white world as a human, feeling thing.

I started out to raise three thousand dollars. By contributing five hundred myself and by the wonderful gift of one young woman I succeeded in raising a little over two thousand dollars in cash; my other pledges failed. With this money the Washington pageant was given in the open air with twelve hundred colored participants. It was a wonderful thing. As one white woman wrote: “It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in Washington.” And the President of the Board of Education declared it “A remarkable spectacle of great educational value.”

But with all this it was financially a partial failure and I found myself at the end with my capital reduced one-half. Yet I looked upon it simply as a certain, mild Valley of Humiliation repeating to myself the words of the Herald at the beginning of the fourth scene:

Hear ye, hear ye! All ye that come to see the light and listen to the tale of the Bravest and Truest of the Races of Men whose faces be Black! Hear ye, hear ye! And learn how men of Negro blood did suffer the Pains of Death and the Humiliation of Hell, yet did not die. Listen, Mothers of Men and Daughters of Almighty God beneath whose hearts these dark and beautiful children lie and have lain buried—listen and hear this awful thing.

I determined to make one more effort at Philadelphia. Here in celebration of the One Hundredth General Conference of the African M. E. Church the pageant was given the third and perhaps the last time with one thousand and seventy-eight colored actors. It was to all who saw it a Vision Everlasting like to the Herald’s cry before the impressive scene:

Hear ye, hear ye! All them that dwell by the Rivers of Waters and in the beautiful, the Valley of Shadows, and listen to the ending of this tale. Learn, Sisters and Brothers, how above the Fear of God, Labor doth build on Knowledge; how Justice tempers Science and how Beauty shall be crowned in Love beneath the Cross. Listen, O Isles, for all the pageant returns in dance and song to build this Tower of Eternal Light beneath the Star. Keep silence and let your souls sing with this last and latest word.

“It was,” says the Friend’s Intelligencer, “a signal contribution to the fine art of pageantry.” A white woman writes: “The conception is so noble and the dramatic rendering fine and forceful, and all in exquisite taste and great refinement. There was such freedom from self-consciousness in the actors that it seemed as though they were only doing what they were born to do.” The North American said it was “cleverly” done. The Record noted “many brilliant and colorful scenes,” and a writer in the Public Ledger says: “The intelligent interpretation which the thousand actors in the pageant gave of the author’s thought was proof in itself that the Negro is not the mentally torpid individual that prejudiced white folks persist in considering him.” A settlement worker wrote: “I wish I could find the words I need to thank you for the beautiful thing you have given us in the pageant, but perhaps my best tribute is the very wordlessness, tear-salted eyes with which I watched it, and shall a*ways remember it. It was not only the pathos and the tragedy of the story that made the tears and the wordlessness, something deeper than that.

“In spite of the hurt, you’ll keep right on being a poet, won’t you, please?”

And so it ended beautifully and full of satisfaction, due in greatest measure to the genius and devotion of Charles Burroughs, Dora Cole Norman, Richard Brown and Augustus Dill, my chief helpers, and to hundreds of others. And yet, alas, the whole of my little capital is swept away except a thousand dollars inextricably tied up in costumes and properties. What now is the next step? Already there are faint signs: A Shakespeare pageant in Washington and two masques in Cincinnati. Numerous inquiries from elsewhere have come.

The great fact has been demonstrated that pageantry among colored people is not only possible, but in many ways of unsurpassed beauty and can be made a means of uplift and education and the beginning of a folk drama. On the other hand, the white public has shown little or no interest in the movement. The American Pageant Association has been silent, if not actually contemptuous, and there have been within my own race the usual petty but hurting insinuations of personal greed and selfishness as the real incentives behind my efforts. Unless, therefore, from unforeseen and at present unknown sources I receive help and encouragement I shall lay this effort down and bequeath to new hands crying with the last cry of my Herald:

Hear ye, hear ye! All them that sing before the Lord and forget not the Vision of the Eldest and Strongest of the Races of Men whose faces be Black. Hear ye, hear ye! And remember forever and one day the Star of Ethiopia, All-Mother of Men, who gave the world the Iron Gift and Gift of Faith, the Pain of Humility «nd Sorrow Song of Pain, and Freedom, Eternal Freedom, underneath the Star. Arise and go, Children of Philadelphia—the Play is done.

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1916. “The Drama Among Black Folk.” The Crisis. 12(4):169–173.