Du Bois Redux -- or, Blogging on Blum


Previously I mentioned Ed Blum's new book W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet. While just barely off the press, the blogosphere has taken up Ed's work already, with interviews and blogged reflections. One blogger has started a series of reflections on DuBois and religion, based on Ed's book, which he is posting here. Here's a brief excerpt:

Blum’s work uncovers multiple religious selves in Du Bois, and charts the evolution of his relationship to faith, spirituality, and Christianity. Blum canvasses Du Bois’s corpus, and thematically investigates The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois’s sociology of religion, his understanding of Christianity and Communism, the uses of religion in Du Bois’s creative work, and the reception of the spiritual Du Bois.

I look forward to a continuing series of reflections on the book, as well as Ed's interview which should appear on that blog soon. Ed's interview reflections with another blogger also provides significant insight into the kind of scholarly passion which infuses the work. My own review of the book included the following summary:

The manuscript addresses a paradox at the heart of Du Bois’s life that many readers over the years have noted, and many scholars have commented on in various ways, but one that has never to date been satisfactorily explored or
explained – that is, how one may reconcile the side of Du Bois that was a rationalist, an empiricist, a social scientist, and (later in his life) a Communist with the side of Du Bois that produced that deeply soul-searching (in every sense of that term) essays in Souls of Black Folk and Darkwater. Moreover, based on the sheer quantity of spiritual or “religious” writing that DuBois produced – much more so than I was aware of, actually – that paradox appears even more keen and interesting now than it was before. My general understanding of this subject, to the degree I had one, comes from Du Bois’s writings in Souls of Black Folk, when he discusses how the irrational ferocity that he witnessed in the Sam Hose [Wilkes] lynching persuaded him that something beyond social scientific explanations would be required to understand the depth of this inhumanity. But that was, of course, early in Du Bois’s lengthy career, and I’ve never been able to comprehend how the leftward-moving Du Bois could fit his Socialist and, later, Communist views in with the fact that he remained a writer given to spiritual exploration. It just seemed a contradiction. Blum explores, illuminates, and resolves this apparent contradiction, by showing the consistency and depth of Du Bois’s spiritual explorations through his intellectual career, down very nearly to his dying breath, and certainly down to the ways his life was eulogized both in Africa and in America following his death in 1963.

The trope of the “prophet,” or “an American prophet with spiritual insight into cosmic realities,” works beautifully to tie everything together. Finally, Blum effectively employs an expansive definition of “religion,” and of “spiritual writings,” to illuminate Du Bois’s relationship with religion. He demonstrates the inadequacy of previous interpretations that placed Du Bois as areligious, or irreligious, or anti-religious, simply because he was a critic of organized religion. But most of America’s most profound religious thinkers have been critical of organized religion, so because Du Bois had some biting things to say about white churches and segregation, or about jackleg black preachers, hardly qualifies him as anti-religious. Rather, the spirituality that was deeply embedded in his own prose shows him as a prophetic thinker at times, a deliverer of jeremiads, a composer of creeds, an appreciator of the spirituality of everyday folk, and a visionary who anticipated trends in black theology and womanist theology.

Blum is, of course, taking on a dominant view of Du Bois as anti-religious, one that David Levering Lewis enshrined in his magnificient two-part biography. The sociologist Phil Zuckerman is another proponent of this view of Du Bois -- interesting given his worthy work of compilation, Du Bois on Religion (a collection of DuBois's writings on the subject). Du Bois spent the better part of his adult life blasting conventional organized religious institutions, famously refused to pray when called upon to do so in Wilberforce's chapel, expressed secular humanist views on a number of occasions, and was a little cagey on whether he believed in God (sometimes he claimed to be an atheist). The question here is really what is meant by "religion." By a conventional and narrow definition, Du Bois was certainly a- or anti-religious; by a more expansive definition, Blum has convinced me that Du Bois was one of America's most profound religious thinkers.
Oh, and don't forget the DuBois doll -- perfect Christmas present for your little urchin, courtesy of the Unemployed Philosophers' Guild.

Update: since the next few posts will be devoted to DuBois and American religion, be sure to check out the new North Star: Journal of African American Religion, now located at the University of Rochester and edited by Anthea Butler. They're looking for some takers on books that need reviewing.


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