I am a daughter of Fisk University. #FiskForever for sure. But that’s not the reason why I return over and over again to a little book entitled “Prayers for a Dark People.” A collection of prayers from the heart of W. E. B. DuBois, they were written for the children and young people enrolled in the Old Atlanta University. (This was the predecessor to the current Atlanta University Center, I think. Only the old university was comprised of elementary grades, high school, and college.)
Editor Herbert Aptheker notes that DuBois was writing to students who hailed from largely rural areas. They were the children and grandchildren of this country’s formerly enslaved people. The prayers were written between 1897 and 1910. It doesn’t really matter to me that DuBois may have been agnostic in his later years; what matters to me is that he made the effort to “speak” the people’s language – prayer.
Reading these prayers often, my mind travels from the book’s pages to the spaces of imagination and hope about the matters and the people weighing heavy on my own heart and on my own life. Some of BuBois’ prayers were written on scraps of paper and others were typed and numbered. Isn’t that how it happens? In every room of my house are my journals stuffed with papers and prayers inspired by scripture, representing the weights and joys of my heart.
Over the years, two of his prayers have been “mushed” (yes, that’s a word) to become the one I hold on to tightly. Or, maybe it holds me? I’ve changed words over the years for my heart’s sake; moved phrases around, and centered on the repetition of certain words in my devotional time. DuBois’ two prayers for Dark People have become my one prayer for the strength to persevere. I speak it over myself especially when I feel like quitting. And I do – feel like quitting, that is. Never mind the reasons why, the truth is I am speaking this prayer over myself in this season with the hope that “day calling upon day” will be clearer to me.
I’m grateful to the students who inspired DuBois to lead them in prayers that embraced race and space and circumstances – in the name of God. May their people – their children and grandchildren remember their names and stories.
Anyway, here it is – the prayer DuBois wrote over a century ago that has become my heart’s plea.
“Give us grace, O God, to dare to do the deed which we all know cries to be done. Let us not hesitate because of ease, or words from the mouths of others, or our own lives. Mighty causes are calling us – the freeing of women, the loving of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty and war – all these and more. But they call with voices that mean work and sacrifice and death — yet with joy, yet with hope – the prayer of my soul is a petition for persistence; not for the one good deed, or the one single thought – but deed upon deed, thought upon thought, hope upon hope, love upon love, prayer upon prayer, and work upon work until Day calling unto Day shall make a life work living.
I want to know the joy and grit of a people who refuse to be beaten, who never own defeat, who work to snatch success and victory out of the teeth of failure by keeping everlastingly at work – powerfully dependent upon God’s grace – and never giving up. Never giving up. Never giving. up. Give me, O God, to walk with the One who never turned his back but marched forward, never doubting the clouds would break. Lord, let the clouds break.” Amen.Inspired by Prayers for a Dark People, W. E. B DuBois.
Here are the original versions of DuBois’ prayers:
Give us grace, O God, to dare to do the deed which we well know cries to be done. Let us not hesitate because of was, or the words of men’s mouth’s, or our own lives. Mighty causes are calling us – the freeing of women, the training of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty – all these and more. But they call with voices that mean work and sacrifice and death. Mercifully grant us, O God, the spirit of Eshter, that we say: I will go unto the King and if I perish, I perish – Amen. Esther 4:9-16 (Prayers for Dark People, by W. E. B. DuBois. Edited by Herbert Aptheker, p. 21)
“The prayer of our souls this night is a petition for persistence; not for the one good deed, or single thought, but deed on deed, and thought on thouts til day calling unto day shall make a life worth living. We want these young people to grow the grim grit of men who never know they’re beaten, never own defeat, but snatch success and victory out of the teeth of failure by keeping everlastingly at work and never giving up. Give us, O God, to walk with him who “never faltered but marched forward, never dreamed tho right were vanquished, wrong would triumph, held we fall to rise, and baffled to fight better – sleep to wake.” Amen (Prayers for Dark People, W. E. B. DuBois. Edited by Herbert Aptheker, p 71.)