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W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet (Politics and Culture in Modern America)
W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet (Politics and Culture in Modern America)
Edward J. Blum
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007
288 pp., 42.50

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Reviewed by Kathryn Lofton

W.E.B. Du Bois and Religion

Revising perceptions of the influential African American thinker.

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Although the white Christ received a large portion of Du Bois' vitriol, the black churches were also subject to Du Bois' critique, as he called upon them to become (in Blum's terms) "spiritual, economic, and political powerhouses." Black churchmen who attempted to do this—like Alexander Crummell and Henry McNeil Turner—were honored by Du Bois as icons of a saintly class. Churches—white and black—needed to throw away old forms and make new ones that would more often produce such vanguards.

This new religion he envisioned would be fronted by men like Du Bois himself, men unflinching before their own mythological selves. Time and again, Blum returns to Du Bois' fascination with his own symbolic status, to the myth that was Du Bois. It is telling that Blum relies so heavily upon the writings of Joseph Campbell to create a picture of Du Bois heroically (mythically) raging religiously against the religious machine while still sustaining an overarching cosmology. Among Campbell's many charms, the most problematic was the conflation of the literary and the historical, making myth an inescapable universal to human experience. For this, Campbell is celebrated as an ecumenist, bringing together multifarious traditions under a relatable assimilation of the human quest for meaning. Blum suggests that Du Bois made himself a hero of a thousand faces: "By casting himself in the model of the hero, Du Bois revealed a spiritualized understanding of his self and also articulated a cosmic understanding of his world." (Blum is not alone in this cosmic casting. Long before W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet, Langston Hughes linked Du Bois with Scripture: "My earliest memories of written words are of those of Du Bois and the Bible." Martin Luther King, Jr., further lauded Du Bois for his "divine dissatisfaction with all forms of injustice.")

Du Bois' representative consequence to the history of African America is indisputable. He was a hero of his own mythological narrative, a narrative which has been taken up by activists and interpreters ever since to accomplish sacred aims within and beyond the scope of his own aspiration. Blum demonstrates that scholars have missed the religious idioms deployed by Du Bois in the drafting and redrafting of this revolutionary set of self-revelations. This is not to say that Du Bois was religious, merely that he was a thinker who relied upon images of religion to convey powerful themes of suffering, of uplift, of grievous transgression. Consider, as an example, Blum's appraisal of Du Bois' late-life Communism. Blum points out that Du Bois framed Communism as the "social realization of Christianity." Blum finds images of salvation and new baptism throughout Du Bois' explorations of Communism. Yes, Du Bois was simultaneously condemning the "fairy tales" of theology and the "conventional lies" of religious custom. Nevertheless for Du Bois "Christ was a Communist," and Russian and Chinese Communism were building new worlds familiar to New Testament students. "Oh beautiful, patient, self-sacrificing China," Du Bois wrote, "despised and unforgettable, victorious and forgiving, crucified and risen from the dead." This is religious ideation deployed for anti-religious purposes.

Such rhetorical structures are evidence of Du Bois' mastery of compelling idiom. Blum is transparent about the fact that this is a book about genre and language, not community, ritual, or creedal commitment, or indeed any manifestations that might be identifiable to historians of religion. Another scholar may choose to pursue the religious reactions to Du Bois' writings, or indeed the religious usages of Du Bois' writings. Among Blum's most exciting claims for religionists is his description of the reception of The Souls of Black Folk:

Souls entered the U.S. cultural landscape as a sacred text. A variety of white and black Americans read it as having spiritual power, and Du Bois was honored time and again as a prophet endowed with sacred insight … . [F]or many African Americans, Souls took a place in their religious canon alongside the Bible, while at least one white supremacist denounced Souls as the fanatical utterances of a man in cahoots with the devil.

This is the stuff of religion: text as sacred object, men named as prophets, scriptures derided as the devil's work. But Blum's goal of studying Du Bois as a religious actor is only possible as a study of Du Bois as a rhetorician. By the end of Blum's survey, W.E.B. Du Bois is shown to be thoughtful and creative on topics religious, to possess a "religious ingenuity rarely recognized." But he is not, in the comparative historical sense, religious. Or, to borrow from Blum's summation, "He was a church reformer who rarely attended church. He was a priest with no church, a prophet who presented his works as history, sociology, and fiction."

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