Today, as the Trump era closes and the Biden era opens, I found myself thinking about W.E.B. Du Bois.
In 1918, Du Bois wrote a column entitled “Close Ranks,” in which he urged Black people to “forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens” while World War I raged.
In 1919, with the war concluded, Du Bois wrote another column entitled “Returning Soldiers,” in which he essentially said that, now that Black people had done what had been asked of them, the bill was due.
“We stand again to look America squarely in the face and call a spade a spade. We sing: This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land,” he wrote. After running through a litany of America’s sins—”it lynches,” “it disfranchises its own citizens,” “it encourages ignorance,” “it steals from us,” “it insults us”—Du Bois concluded with these famous words:
We return from fighting.
We return fighting.
Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.
The analogy to today is, as so many analogies are, hyperbolic and imperfect. Most things pale in comparison to the sheer horror of World War I, and Du Bois was speaking to a specifically Black audience about the challenges ahead.
But still. 400,000 people have died from COVID in America in the past year, and white supremacists have been on the march, and great waves of pain have gone out in every direction, and we are all, in one form or another, reeling from the Trump years.
Now Trump is gone. There will be an impulse to breathe a sigh of relief and then say, “that’s that then.” Just like a century ago, the language of returning is in the air.
But if this is a return from whatever we have all just been through, we must return fighting. Our problems did not begin with Donald Trump and they will not end with him, and Joe Biden is, at the very least, a flimsy basket to put our eggs into. He will kill people abroad. He will harm people at home. This is what American presidents are about. Du Bois may have been addressing Black people, but a century later, it is everybody’s job to stay in solidarity with each other, and to struggle anew.
The U.S., incidentally, did not live up to its end of the bargain that Du Bois had implicitly offered in 1918. The country greeted the end of World War I and the return of Black soldiers from overseas by embarking on what amounted to a nationwide pogrom against Black people. This is a country capable of great cruelty, of imposing new traumas even as it lays old ones to the side. Something to remember.
So yes, lay down your arms. Then pick them up again.