W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet (Politics and Culture in Modern America)
Edward J. Blum
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007
288 pp., 41.67
Reviewed by Kathryn Lofton
W.E.B. Du Bois and Religion
We make our heroes what we need them to be. For Edward Blum, what the world needs now is a religious W.E.B. Du Bois. Such a Du Bois would not only be a historical marker in the history of African American intellectual life, or an intriguing artifact of turn-of-the-century African American sociology, but also would offer a usable model for the religious liberal in the modern world. W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet provides more than an examination of the religious keywords within the massive corpus of Du Bois' output. It proposes that a religious ontology for racial reconciliation might be gleaned from this survey.
Such a thesis stands strikingly against the historical consensus about Du Bois' relationship to religion. As Blum explains, the critical view on Du Bois is that "he had little, if any" religion. To be sure (scholarship concedes), Du Bois was shaped by his boyhood church, and as an African American man he could hardly escape the institutional dominance of Protestantism. But he never attended church regularly, nor acknowledged any private practices. Moreover, Du Bois displayed open discomfort with religious expression and performance. "It frightened me at first," Du Bois wrote of the worship practices of rural Tennessee adherents. "I thought they were going crazy." Such evidence, coupled with a lifetime commitment to social scientific criticisms of religion, led the major biographers of Du Bois to conclude that he was an ardent observer of religious life. Religion for him, so we've been assured, was emphatically not a site of personal exploration or social revelation
Yet this received account collapses under the weight of counter-evidence discovered by Blum. After all, religion abounded in Du Bois' life: he taught Sunday school classes, had favorite hymns, founded the study of African American religion, and cried out for the "Prince of Peace" to "vanquish the warmongers." He authored prayers and befriended many clerics. Most important to Blum is the religious language pervading Du Bois' bibliography. God, Christ, female messiahs, good and evil, and apocalyptic visions pervade the texts of W.E.B. Du Bois. In Blum's rendering, The Souls of Black Folk supplied "a literary act not only of theological and cultural defiance but also of religious creation." W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet shows that whatever Du Bois was, he most certainly was not dismissive of religion. If anything, the material of this volume suggests he was obsessed by it.
Blum organizes his tackle of the Du Bois bibliography by genre: autobiographies, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois' historical and sociological studies, his poems and fiction, and his advocacy for Communism. Each pile of subdivided primary material is trolled for invocations of theology, religious imagery, and moral formulations. From this pursuit, Blum creates "one of America's most profound religious thinkers," a Du Bois whom Blum calls "the nation's holy seer" and one of American history's "brightest religious stars." Within the writings of a man deemed irreligious by some, Blum finds "multiple religious selves": reformer, apostate, prophet, agnostic, and priest. Blum imagines a Du Bois who consistently used religion, in his life and work, as a framing mechanism for an iconoclastic moral imaginary.
Central to this imaginary for Du Bois was the race problem. "Seeing the religious drama of American and black history through his prophetic eyes," writes Blum, "[Du Bois] contended that African Americans had access to the divine and were holy." By contrast, whites were complicit with an obscuring of Christ's racialized identity. In his fictional writings, Du Bois "linked Christ's crucifixion with the lynching of African American men and drew on a variety of religious concepts to reveal the democratic spirit of white America and to reassure the black community of its access to the sacred and divine." In a 1913 article in The Crisis, for example, Du Bois wrote that Christ "was poor and we are poor; He was despised of his fellow men and we are despised; He was persecuted and crucified, and we are mobbed and lynched."
Du Bois devoted quite a bit of ink to the deconstruction of the white god and the rituals bent on idolizing this god. This wasn't the project of an elitist gadfly. For Du Bois, antagonizing white Christianity was the task of every black American. His individual "prophetic calling" was part of the "the larger anointed status of all black people." African Americans had a "messianic role" to guide America to Christian ground. Like black intellectuals before him, Du Bois denounced white Christians as inauthentic Christians, blasphemers who used Christian language to mobilize an evil ideology of segregation and oppression. Melded with this was a social scientist's delight in Christ's own racial complexity, since the latest research suggested to Du Bois that Jesus was a "Syrian Jew" who may have "even inherited Ethiopian blood."
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."
Students of U.S. religious history will be well-served by reading Blum's book, returning to their classrooms with his infectious, admiring passion as a touchstone for their lessons on The Souls of Black Folk, a book long anthologized and used in undergraduate religious studies classrooms to convey a certain profile of African American religiosity. Moreover, Blum's portrait of Du Bois usefully maps onto other pictures of religious critics, like William James and Felix Adler, who share Du Bois' mesh of social science and visionary epistemology. Yet perhaps Blum's most important contribution is not a religious remapping for Du Bois but rather an academic reimagining of religious biography. A myopic modernism has informed a generation of Du Bois biographers. Blum's accomplishment is to lasso a widely scattered body of evidence showing that when it comes to religion, biographers of Du Bois (and, we fear, others) are routinely tone-deaf to subjects sacred. May Blum's biography stand as the necessary rejoinder, inspiring future writers to find ways between the drily agnostic and the inevitably sacrosanct Du Bois. "His plans for a new world were spiritual plans," Blum writes of Du Bois. It is for future writers, and dogmatic believers, to translate those plans from the genius of the written page to the real of the political now.
Kathryn Lofton is a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.
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