Du Bois: Religious Modernist?

What better way to celebrate July 4th week than to give due attention to one of our great American patriots -- W. E. B. Du Bois. We began with some extended attention to Ed Blum's new work -- see below, the entry for July 3. Today, a contrarian view, from a student of mine, Patrick Butler. In class we read Souls of Black Folk, a chapter from Blum's analysis of Du Bois, and little chunks of other stuff which gave contrasting views of Du Bois. Then I posed this question:

Based on the evidence you see in SBF, how do you interpret Du Bois's relationship to religion? Would you see him as a religious thinker primarily (or secondarily)? What seem to be his views of Christianity? Of other religions? Why does he so frequently invoke the religious category of "Souls"?

One student took issue with Blum's argument, and prepared this interesting journal entry. It raises worthy questions of whether there can be such a thing as a religious modernist. I stand with Blum that there can be, and that Du Bois was one, but Patrick raised some some good questions on this point:

W.E.B. Du Bois employed religious rhetoric throughout his writings, yet scholars have commonly interpreted Du Bois as antireligious. [Some authors] posit that although Du Bois was raised a Christian, in adulthood he altogether abandoned not only Christianity, but religion in general. . . . . Du Bois himself even claimed to not believe in the “Christian god. Bucking historical convention, in his chapter “Violence and the Sacred Imagination of Du Bois,” American Historian Edward J. Blum suggests that Du Bois was in fact religious. Blum explains:"Du Bois had far more respect for Christian and biblical narratives than scholars give him credit. Yet, if the contents of Du Bois’s stories about Jesus in America reveal anything about his one personal faith, it showed that Du Bois was a religious modernist—one who appreciated and endeavored to uphold the social ethics of Christ’s teachings, yet was not beholden to Christian traditions that focused on miracles and an alternate reality for its explanations of the sacred."[2]

Since the Civil War, evangelical white Christians used their religion to validate black subjugation and continued persecution. Blum argues that in response, Du Bois used biblical Christianity to highlight the plight of black Americans. Du Bois emphasized that Jesus was part of a persecuted ethnic minority similar to the situation of black Americans, essentially using the story of Jesus and his teachings as a metaphor for undermining white attempts at Christianizing racism.

While Blum’s argument is compelling, I remain somewhat dubious. The “religious modernist” that ostensibly captures Du Bois’s metaphysical perspective actually obfuscates the question as to his religiosity. As Blum describes it, Du Bois was a religious modernist because he, essentially, used religious metaphors and allusions to critique white America. How, then, does that make Du Bois religious? Using religious language to strengthen an argument does not equate believing that religion was in someway true. I would like to know in Blum’s opinion what constitutes first, a religion, and also religious belief. Souls of Black Folk, in my view, is a clear example of Du Bois’s irreligiosity. Du Bois recognized the power of religion in the lives of most Americans, whether black or white. Thus, it was rhetorically brilliant for Du Bois to use that language to strengthen his arguments. . . . . Du Bois acknowledged that there plausibly could be, not the Christian anthropomorphized god, but a transcendent god-head type of force. This small religious acquiescence, however, seems more like sincere intellectual agnosticism than a spiritual tendency.

UPDATE: Since posting this, another former student from this class sends along the following response and rebuttal -- am I a lucky professor, or what?

Reading the first chapter, Blum's analysis of Du Bois' "Credo" caused me to view "The Conservation of the Races" in a different light. Blum suggests that Du Bois "Credo" references Acts 17:26 when he affirms God created "of one blood all nations" (28). Then in chapter three, Blum suggests Du Bois' The World of Africa echoes his "Credo." He includes the following quote from The World of Africa. "'I dream of aworld of infinite and invaluable variety; not in laws of gravity oratomic weights, but in human variety in height and weight, color andskin, hair and nose and lip. all possible manner of difference, toppedwith freedom of soul to do and be'"(130). One could argue that this quote references the second half of Acts 17:26. Subsequently, one could also argue the Du Bois derived his understanding of race identity from second half of Acts 17:26. In "The Conservation of the Races" Du Bois reconciled that racial differences could coexist with equality because he defined equality as the unrestricted opportunity for all races to develop the talents God desired them to bestow upon their country. He writes: "as a race we must strive by race organization, by race solidarity, by race unity to the realization of that broader humanity which freely recognizesdifferences in men, but sternly deprecates inequality in their opportunities." Indeed, Du Bois refers to African Americans' souls as a means to reinforce divine conception of race identity as well as equality among races with diverse gifts. Perhaps a good way todescribe the relationship between human souls and race identity is touse clay as a metaphor. According to Du Bois, every race possesses the same ball of clay that contains their spiritual potential. How God chooses to mold each race determines racial identity. Given this interpretation, could one not argue that the second half of Acts 17:26 speaks not of a physical constraint, but rather a race's obligation tocomplete their divine purpose on earth or service to their country? Indeed, the first statement of the "Academy Creed" seems to reference the second half of Acts 17:26. It states: "We believe the Negro people, as a race, have a contribution to make to civilization and humanity, which no other race can make." Subsequently, the second statement suggests it is the duty of African Americans to maintain their race identity until "human brotherhood" is accomplished. Thus, could one not argue "The Conservation of the Races" was in part DuBois attempt to reconcile the dual interpretation of Acts 17:26? In short, racial differences did not justify inequality.


newer post older post