I never expect much fanfare on my birthday. I wasn’t raised to expect it. My parents were practical, sober, working class people, stable but not particularly affluent. Some years my mom made me a cake on my birthday, which is February 13. Some years I had a small party with school friends. There were three of us girls born not even two years apart, and birthday parties were expensive. I remember cycling through our birthdays, each sister allowed a party every third year.
Even though I didn’t always have parties or receive gifts as a child, the date of my birthday became special to me. At some point, I discovered February 13 was between Lincoln’s birthday and Valentine’s Day. I was born between the birthday of one of America’s greatest, most humanitarian presidents and a holiday dedicated to love. My birthday reminds me of noble causes and compassion. At some point, when asked about my birthday, I started telling people I was born between Justice and Love.
Lincoln is not the only famous person who shares my birthday month. W.E.B. Du Bois was also born in February, and he reports a memory similar to mine; “I do not seem to remember during my boyhood and youth any particular attention was given to birthdays as such.” The first birthday Du Bois reports remembering in his work, In Battle for Peace: The Story of My 83rd Birthday, was when he turned 25. He was a student in Berlin at the time, and he lit candles alone in his room to dedicate his small library to his mother. He was young, and he wrote in his journal a pledge to “take the world that the Unknown lay in my hands and work for the rise of the Negro people, taking for granted that their best development means the best development of the world.”
Du Bois’s youthful aspirations led him to become an international scholar, writer, and seer, and his birthdays eventually turned into public events. His 50th birthday was celebrated at the Civic Club in New York City. His 70th took place at Atlanta University. His 80th birthday was at the Hotel Roosevelt, though afterward, he foreswore birthdays. Du Bois felt the public celebrations were too costly for too many people, and that they “put a most unpleasant emphasis on the meaning of Age in itself.” Other people, Du Bois wrote, saw him as so old he “could hardly be expected to keep sane and busy much longer,” a narrative he rejected.
Even when he was 80 years old, Du Bois knew he still had work to do. He announced he was giving up birthday parties in favor of more serious pursuits. Parties seemed frivolous and consumed too many resources; also, birthday celebrations perpetuated stereotypes about getting old. As a woman counting down the days now until I turn 60, I often contemplate aging gracefully and admire Du Bois’ passion to keep working.
But Du Bois’ dismissal of parties didn’t last. It was only three short years later that he changed his mind. Members of the Council on African Affairs approached him about a celebration for his 83rd birthday that would also raise funds that “would go to maintaining the office…and also for re-publication of some of [his] works long out of print, and new publication of certain unprinted manuscripts.” Du Bois agreed it was a worthy cause, and a spectacular event was planned, listing as sponsors on the invitation, “Dr. Albert Einstein, Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, Dr. Kirtley F. Mather, Langstone Hughes, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Hon. J. Finely Wilson.” The birthday dinner was to be held at Essex House, a swanky place on Central Park South. Over three hundred people made reservations.
Unfortunately, the party did not go off as planned. Du Bois reports that in the weeks before the event, he was indicted by the federal government as an unregistered agent for the Soviet Union—more or less accused of being a spy. Many scholars have seen this as a means to discredit the great black leader and frighten his fellow supporters for social justice into silence during the Second Red Scare. Du Bois eventually won acquittal on the charge; however, not before the Essex House cancelled his birthday dinner by telegram four days before the party was to take place.
You can imagine how this wrecked Du Bois. He hadn’t wanted a birthday celebration in the first place, and he was ready to call the whole thing off. But his friends, supporters, and colleagues insisted that the event must go on. The alternative venue they found was Small’s Paradise, the famous nightclub in Harlem, where seven hundred people showed up to celebrate Du Bois’ 83rd birthday on Friday, February 23, and “paid $6,557 in dinner fees and donations.” Speeches were made, and birthday greetings arriving by letter and cablegram from all around the world were read aloud. The party was standing room only.
It’s never the end until the last piece of cake has been eaten. The pledge Du Bois had taken on his 25th birthday to work for Black people and their best development had been joined by people in America and beyond. In 1951 when Du Bois turned 83, the Civil Rights Movement was on the horizon, and culture on the brink of change, in part due to his leadership. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois lived to be 95 years old; a long life, well lived.
If I got to choose who shares my birthday month, Lincoln and Du Bois would always make the list. It’s a good thing this year that, like Du Bois, I don’t really care much about birthdays. February is a winter month, and during a pandemic, it’s dangerous to host large parties inside. Blowing out candles spreads germs, which has probably always been true. While I don’t really miss the presents or cake, I do miss my friends and family. One good thing about birthdays, I suppose, is the occasion to invite people to gather virtually on Zoom. We can still have balloons and sing the song. To make your Zoom birthday gathering extra special, invite everyone to use filters. Cartoon rabbit ears or a handlebar mustache add so much to the festivities.