African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

W.E.B. Du Bois, "Easter-Emancipation 1863-1913"/ "Children of the Moon" (1913)

Editor's Note: This poem was originally published in The Crisis in April 1913. A version of it was reprinted as "Children of the Moon" in Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (1920). 

I am dead;
Yet somehow, somewhere,
In Time's weird contradiction, I 
May tell of that dread deed, wherewith
I brought to Children of the Moon 
Freedom and vast salvation.

I was a woman born
And trod that streaming street
That ebbs and flows from Harlem's hills
Thro' caves and canyons limned in light
Down to the twisting sea.

That night of nights
I stood alone and at the End
Until the sudden highway to the Moon,
Golden in splendor,
Became too real to doubt.

Dimly I set foot upon the air;
I fled, I flew, thro' thrills of light,
With all about, above, below the whirring
Of almighty wings. I found a twilight land
Where, hardly hid, the sun
Sent softly saddened rays of
Red and brown to burn the iron earth
And bathe the snow-white peaks
In mighty splendor.

Black were the men,
Hard haired and silent slow,
Moving as shadows
Bending with face of fear to earthward;
And women there were none.

"Woman, woman, woman!"
I cried in mounting terror.
"Woman and Child!"
And the cry sang back
Thro' Heaven with the
Whirring of almighty wings.

Wings, wings, endless wings,
Heaven and earth are wings;
Wings that flutter, furl and fold,
Always folding and unfolding,
Ever folding yet again;
Wings, veiling some vast
And veiled face,
In blazing blackness,
Behind the folding and unfolding,
The rolling and unrolling of
Almighty wings!

I saw the black men huddle
Fumed in fear, falling face downward;
Vainly I clutched and clawed,
Dumbly they cringed and cowered,
Moaning in mournful monotone:
   O Freedom, O Freedom,
   O Freedom over me;
   Before I'll be a slave
   I'll be buried in my grave
   And go home to my God
   And be free.

It was as angel music
From the dead,
And ever, as they sang,
The winged Thing of wings, filling all Heaven,
Folding and unfolding, and folding yet again,
Tore out their blood and entrails
'Til I screamed in utter terror
And a silence came:
A silence and the wailing of a babe

Then at last I saw and shamed;
I knew how these dumb dark and dusky things
Had given blood and life
To fend the caves of underground
The great black caves of utter night
Where earth lay full of mothers
And their babes.

Little children sobbing in darkness.
Little children crying in silent pain.
Little mothers rocking and groping and struggling,
Digging and delving and groveling
Amid the dying-dead and dead-in-life.
And drip and dripping of warm, wet blood
Far, far beneath the wings.
The folding and unfolding of almighty wings.

I bent with tears and pitying hands
Above these dusky star-eyed children.
Crinkly haired, with sweet-sad baby voices
Pleading low for light and love and living— And I crooned:

   Little children weeping there,
   God shall find thy faces fair;
   Guerdon for thy deep distress.
   He shall send His tenderness;
   For the tripping of thy feet
   Make a mystic music sweet
   In the darkness of thy hair;
   Light and laughter in the air—
   Little children weeping there.
   God shall find thy faces fair!

I strode above the stricken bleeding men.
The rampart 'ranged against the skies.
And shouted:
"Up I say, build and slay;
Fight face foremost, force a way,
Unloose, unfetter and unbind;
Be men and free."

Dumbly they shrank
Muttering they pointed toward that peak
Than vastness vaster,
Whereon a darkness brooded,
"Who shall look and live," they sighed;
And I sensed
The folding and unfolding of almighty wings

Yet did we build of iron, bricks and blood;
We built a day, a year, a thousand years.
Blood was the mortar,blood and tears
And, ah, the Thing, the Thing of wings,
The winged folding wing of Things,
Did furnish much mad mortar
For that tower.

Slow and ever slower rose the towering task
And with it rose the sun.
Until at last on one wild day,
Wind-whirled, cloud-swept and terrible.
I stood beneath the burning shadow
Of the peak.
Beneath the whirring of almighty wings
While downward from my feet
Streamed the long line of dusky faces
And the wail of little children sobbing under

"Freedom! " I cried.
"Freedom! " cried Heaven, Earth and Stars,
And a Voice near-far
Amid the folding and unfolding of Almighty wings
Answered "I am Freedom—
Who sees my face is free—
He and his."

I dared not look;
Downward I glanced on deep bowed heads and closed eyes,
Outward I gazed on flecked and flaming blue—
But ever onward, upward flew
The sobbing of small voices;
Down, down, far down into the night.

Slowly I lifted livid limbs aloft;
Upward I strove:
The Face, the Face ;
Onward I reeled:
The Face, the Face!
To Beauty wonderful as sudden death
Or horror horrible as endless life—
Up! Up! the blood-built way
(Shadow grow vaster!
Terror come faster!)
Up ! Up to the blazing blackness
Of one veiled face
And endless folding and unfolding,
Rolling and unrolling of Almighty wings:
The last step stood!
The last dim cry of pain
Fluttered across the stars—
And then—

Wings, wings, triumphant wings,
Lifting and lowering, waxing and waning,
Swinging and swaying, twirling and whirling,
Whispering and screaming, streaming and gleaming,
Spreading and sweeping and shading and flaming—
Wings, wings, eternal wings,
'Til the hot red blood Flood fleeing flood,
Thundered thro' Heaven and mine ears
While all across a purple sky
The last vast pinion
Trembled to unfold.

I rose upon the Mountain of the Moon;
I felt the blazing glory of the Sun.
I heard the Song of Children crying "Free!"
I saw the Face of Freedom—
And I died.

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