by Jeremy Young | 5/25/2008 05:24:00 PM
Blum, Edward J. W. E. B. Du Bois: American Prophet. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. 273p. $28.76.

Most historians consider the African-American scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois to have been an atheist. The evidence for this conclusion is formidable. During college, Du Bois left the Congregational faith of his youth; he was almost fired from Wilberforce University for refusing to lead students and faculty in prayer; he railed constantly against organized white Christianity in America, which he saw as merely an excuse for hideous racial inequality; in old age, he joined the Communist Party, an organization overtly opposed to religious belief of any kind. Faced with such facts, most historians of Du Bois have been content to reach the obvious conclusion: Du Bois was not a religious man.

Ed Blum has a different opinion, and he explains it eloquently in his new book, W. E. B. Du Bois: American Prophet. (Note: When not penning volumes about Du Bois, Blum blogs at Religion in American History.) According to Blum, "Du Bois's life was one full of religious wonder, questioning, and wrestling." Du Bois "was an astute religious theorist who was well ahead of his time. That scholars have failed to address or advance his thoughts on religion" -- here he takes particular aim at David Levering Lewis, whose two-volume biography of Du Bois sports twin Pulitzer Prizes -- "not only warps historical understandings of him but also hinders contemporary society from grasping and applying the many religious lessons Du Bois taught."

Having criticized Lewis and other biographers for neglecting Du Bois's religiosity, Blum sets out to rectify their mistake via a close textual analysis of Du Bois's own writings. He begins with an examination of Du Bois's three autobiographies. "Religious ideas shaped Du Bois's autobiographical works and stood as constitutive elements of his shifting sense and presentation of self," writes Blum. Here Blum does something I really like: he links Du Bois's portrayals of his life journey with the theories of Joseph Campbell, an anthropologist and student of myth who is generally undervalued by today's academics. Unlike many of his fellow historians, Blum treats Campbell's ideas with the respect they deserve, especially his notion of the "monomyth" -- "an all-encompassing meta-narrative at the heart of mythologies that revealed the deep recesses of the human spirit and of cosmic desires." Blum shows that Du Bois's various constructions of self take on the form of the monomythic hero journey; since this journey is generally considered a sacred and religious one, he points out astutely, Du Bois is presenting himself as a religious, Christ-like figure, a "hero with a black face."

This is a smart and subtle bit of analysis, and Blum follows it up with a similar, though more obvious, argument in his next chapter, which covers Du Bois's most famous work, The Souls of Black Folk. Perhaps it's not difficult to imagine that a book with the word "souls" in its title might have some religious significance, but you'd never know it from the previous books written on Du Bois. Blum bravely picks up this torch where others have dropped it, and delivers a full exposition of Du Bois's thoughts on the role of religion and spirituality in public and private life. He conducts a similar analysis regarding Du Bois's historical and sociological works, and another on Du Bois's narratives of black Christ figures (there are more of these than you might think). Finally, Blum tackles the thorniest part of his project: Du Bois's views on religion after his late-life conversion to Communism. Surprisingly, this is where Blum shines most. For Du Bois, the creed of Communism was no more confining than was his lifelong spirituality. According to Blum, the Communist Du Bois maintained a fierce friendship with minister William Howard Melish; he "praised the influence of sacred music in his soul;" he "appeared intent on protecting the image of himself as a spiritual being." This reader, at least, was impressed by Blum's defense of Du Bois on the grounds that he totally rejected all types of orthodoxy of belief, whether organized Christianity or organized Communism.

So what exactly does Du Bois have to tell us about religion and spirituality? Without giving away all the book's juicy bits, here's a teaser from Blum himself: "[Du Bois] had raged against the association of whiteness and godliness; he had connected women and men of color with the divine; he had pushed for peace, disarmament, and universal fraternity; he had claimed ownership of nothing ut a soul, which for him meant everything; he had approached oppression and resistance as spiritual issues; and he had investigated the tangled relationships among religion, society, culture, literature, economics, and racial categories." It's no secret that Du Bois was a thinker ahead of his time, but Blum shows convincingly that his religious thought in particular has never been more relevant than today. Du Bois's respect for individual religious choice, his defense of race-based liberation theology, and his understanding of the complex location of religion in the modern world are all crucial insights we would do well to learn from.

I'm generally impressed with Blum's book and with the depth and insightfulness of his analysis. Nevertheless, Blum makes a couple of choices that limit his volume's scope and power. Chief among these is the uneven and fragmentary context in which he places Du Bois's writings. For a volume purportedly about Du Bois's religious contributions, American Prophet spends an inordinate amount of time examining its subject's responses to key African-American issues and very little about his relationships with other contemporary schools of religious thought. We learn all about how Du Bois felt about "Judge Lynch," but nothing about his views of Shailer Mathews, Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, William Bell Riley, Billy Sunday, or Robert Ingersoll. The implication here is that Du Bois was writing chiefly or even exclusively for a black audience, which may be true but is not explicitly stated in the volume. Even if this were the case, as a learned academic, Du Bois would surely have been aware of the writings of Mathews, who headed the University of Chicago Divinity School and believed that the afterlife could only be achieved through a Darwinian "evolution of personality." (Du Bois, as Blum acknowledges, did not believe in an afterlife.) Are Du Bois's writings, published and unpublished, really devoid of mention of these individuals? Were his ideas unconnected to theirs? If so, that in itself would be an important piece of evidence regarding his engagement with religious ideas. The same is true when discussing Du Bois as an autobiographer, a novelist, and a magazine editor. Blum focuses on African-American contributions to these genres, while ignoring works by whites that Du Bois would certainly have known and by which he might well have been influenced. (An exception is Blum's frequent discussion of the racist writings of Thomas Dixon, which were surely important but hardly representative of all white contributions of the time.) More discussion of these interconnections would have made for a stronger book.

A more minor weakness, perhaps, but one important to me personally, is Blum's decision to ignore the question of whether Du Bois was actually religious in any conventional sense. "This book refuses the audacious assertion that anyone can know such information," writes Blum. Perfectly true, and yet I would have liked a bit more exploration of how Du Bois saw himself in the context of religious affinity. In today's terms, Du Bois was clearly some sort of religious humanist, who embraced spirituality while rejecting organized religion. But did he actually believe in a deity? The book clearly shows that Du Bois was not an atheist like Clarence Darrow, the hard-hitting and eloquent defense attorney who was the 1920's equivalent of Richard Dawkins. But was he an atheist like Robert Ingersoll, whose opposition to organized religion embraced a humanism very similar to that of Du Bois? Those who consider Du Bois within a chiefly racial context, as does Blum, would do well to remember that he belonged to another important historically-oppressed group: individuals who do not publicly belong to a particular faith. Though it may be selfish of me, as a member of that group, I would have liked to learn once and for all whether the man I consider the most eloquent English-language author of the twentieth century achieved that distinction with or without belief in a deity.

Despite these criticisms, American Prophet is a well-written and important work. Blum's close readings of Du Bois's writings virtually ensure that future biographers will not neglect the religious and spiritual overtones of the author of The Souls of Black Folk. Furthermore, if I may be allowed a bit of editorializing, I wish the historical profession would produce more books like American Prophet. The current tragic split between scholarly and popular history can only be healed by scholarly books that address topics of wide popular interest, in more depth and with greater insight than do similar works by popular historians. American Prophet fits this bill wonderfully. Blum is not afraid to cover well-traveled ground in describing a famous figure such as Du Bois, yet his reading of the historical figure is deep and nuanced in a way most popular biographies lack. The rest of us in the profession would do well to follow Blum's example, engaging with the interests of our fellow Americans while aping Blum's remarkable scholarly depth and attention to detail. Bravo to Ed Blum for this excellent volume!



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Blogger Ahistoricality on 5/26/2008 12:30 AM:

Nice review.

I wonder, though, whether your final reservations -- about Blum's lack of attention to Du Bois' religious faith itself -- reflects the fallacy of authenticity? Which is to say: given that he was publicly areligious and there's no obvious evidence to gainsay that, what's to be gained by asking the question if Du Bois was really an atheist?


Blogger Jeremy Young on 5/26/2008 1:18 AM:


You're right that it's one of my weaker arguments. I guess the problem for me is that some of Blum's evidence does seem to call into question whether Du Bois was areligious (the stuff about the black Christs, for instance). Since he raised that specter, I wish he'd dealt with its implications more overtly.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 5/26/2008 1:20 AM:

By the way: I should mention here (and maybe later in a more prominent place) that I won't be writing book reviews for ProgressiveHistorians any more. I promised this to Ed by February, and you all see how long it took me to actually produce it. I had similar problems with a few reviews last year. I've promised Ralph Brauer a review of his next book when it comes out (and will gladly provide that), but that's it.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 5/26/2008 2:27 AM:

It seems to me that Blum's (and Du Bois', I think) invocation of Joseph Campbell suggests a way to resolve religious imagery and rhetoric with areligiousity. Campbell's argument about the fundamentally human and translatable nature of myth suggests that any myth (like that of a White Christ) can be (and probably has been) transmuted and countered (with something like a Black Christ) and found in other forms elsewhere.

Myth's power doesn't come from faith as such, but from a combination of didactic simplicity and the recognition of its narrative truths. You don't have to believe the literal truth of a myth to accept its message or be affected by it.

I think.

(Now I have to go write a book review, myself. Mine was only due in March....)


Blogger Jeremy Young on 5/26/2008 2:34 AM:

You're right. But to belabor the point just a bit, Du Bois's extraordinary preference for Christian allegory, as opposed to any other kind of allegory, makes me wonder whether it's reflecting merely a learned fluency or a deeper religious significance.

Good luck with the review!