Dr. Edward Blum, a professor of history at San Diego State University, has written, W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet, just released by the University of Pennsylvania Press. It is a unique work about the most famous intellectual in African American history in that it is the first religious biography of the indefatigable civil rights activist and sociologist. Professor Blum and I became Amazon friends last year. I am excited about his work on Du Bois, one of my intellectual heroes. I am especially eager to know of Prof. Blum’s view of Du Bois’ Calvinistic roots. The professor of history agreed to allow me to interview him for A Man from Issachar.
1. Tell us a little about yourself and your faith background.
I grew up in a small white middle-class suburb of New York City where I attended a Presbyterian Church. I was active in the youth group and went to college intending to become a minister. The Christianity of my youth was inspiring. We were taught to think deeply about the sacred; to care about our community and others; we were taught to share the good news. What I did not realize, though, was that we were also being taught, subtly, that the people of God were all white. With all white people in the church and with visual depictions of white angels and Jesus in mass culture, I think I went to college with a subconscious belief that white people and white souls mattered most to God. I would not have said that at the time, but I think it was there. In college – at the University of Michigan – and then in graduate school – at the University of Kentucky – my entire religious view was changed. I encountered women and men of just about every national background, every hue, every persuasion, and I found that they had so much to teach me about God, about community, about justice and injustice, about how the world really was. At that point, I began a new spiritual pilgrimage: to find the faith that had been shielded from me in white suburbia. And, since I was always interested in history, I did so through historical texts. I began with Frederick Douglass, reading his grand personal narratives of slavery and freedom; I moved on to the liberation theology of James Cone and J. Deotis Roberts; I then read white evangelicals like sociologist Michael Emerson who were searching for ways for true racial integration. Then I found Du Bois and my entire mental landscape was opened. He seemed to unlock the doors separating religion and American society. He showed the connections between what and how people practice their faiths and the implications on society. So, in many ways, I am a white man who practices a black-based Christianity; politically, I am a Democrat; I focus on community over individualism; I see the work of God in the marginalized of the nation and of the world.
2. Prior to your research on Du Bois, you won an award for your dissertation. Tell us about that work, and how your previous research and teaching led you toward the Du Bois project.
My first book, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, was a slight revision of my dissertation, and it is a study of religion’s role in reuniting northern and southern whites after the American Civil War. I found that religious ideas and leaders in particular moments – from Harriet Beecher Stowe and her brother Henry Ward Beecher to Dwight Lyman Moody and Frances Willard, from moments like Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on Good Friday in 1865 to the terrible yellow fever epidemic of 1878 to the Spanish-American War in 1898 – were fundamental in convincing Union men and former Confederates to see themselves as national brethren. Central to this process was the embrace of white supremacy by northern Protestant leaders. Revivalist Moody, reformer Willard, and numerous other Christian leaders endorsed segregation, accepted lynching, and encouraged the retreat from racial justice in Reconstruction.A subtheme of my first book was how African Americans, including Frederick Douglass, Frances Harper, Ida B. Wells, and W. E. B. Du Bois recognized and fought against religion’s role in white reunion and racial discrimination. I saw that Du Bois was the primary leader in a struggle against, what I termed, a ‘”spiritual wage of whiteness,” – that is the belief of whites that their racial category was connected to God in ways that others were not. So my first book led directly into my second.
3. Briefly, how would you describe Du Bois’ journey of faith?
Du Bois always showed a keen interest in religion and faith. He was raised in an interracial Congregational Church in Massachusetts and sometimes attended an African Methodist Episcopal Church. He attended Fisk University in Tennessee and was a regular participant in prayer services and revivals. He also spent considerable time teaching in rural areas and enjoying African American spirituals. As a student at Harvard and then in Germany, Du Bois became quite interested in freethought, a growing philosophical view at the time that privileged scientific observation over spiritual experience. But when he returned, Du Bois went back to Christian denominations, even teaching Sunday school classes. Du Bois always kept his personal faith to himself, but he wrote countless stories about Jesus Christ in the United States and many of his poems invoke the sacred. He saw churches as central to black uplift and pastors as important race leaders. He routinely invoked biblical calls for God’s justice and, even in the 1950s when he was certainly a political leftist, he attended an Episcopalian Church in New York City. At heart, Du Bois showed great attention to a variety of approaches to spirituality and to belief in the divine.
4. Academically, Du Bois, first and foremost, was a sociologist. How did his faith contribute to his sociological research on the church?
In my book, I suggest that Du Bois considered himself a moral sociologist, that he viewed religious beliefs as central to how people make decisions, that he saw churches as primary organizations of social change, and that he considered faith a powerful social force that could change economic or political structures. In many ways, by the end of his life, Du Bois was a Marxist sociologist who revised Marx by including religion as central.
5. Du Bois spent his entire adult battling racial discrimination and fighting for civil rights in America. How did his faith inform his quest for a different America for African-Americans?
Du Bois always believed that there was a divine force that would judge and punish injustice. He always believed that God had a message for the world through the lives and experiences of African Americans. Du Bois maintained that, because of their oppression and religious institutions, African Americans were the truest Christians in the United States and that whites should learn to follow their lead. Religion was at the core of Du Bois’ hopes for a new United States, one beyond the legacies of slavery and segregation, the destructiveness of big business and the mayhem of imperial wars.
6. Other writers have documented that Du Bois’ early religious background was New England Puritan Calvinism, but later he embraced Communism. What happened to his Calvinism over the course of his struggle with the race issue?
Du Bois became disenchanted with Calvinism because he found that both whites and blacks used God’s power as an excuse not to change or to act. And, if you notice, Du Bois always ended his stories about Jesus with the crucifixion, not the resurrection. That was not to denigrate Christ; it was as a moral to whites and blacks – that they must rely on their own actions, not on the divine, to make social change. And Du Bois’ embrace of Communism has been completely misconstrued by scholars. It was not a rejection of religion, not at all. In fact, in the speeches Du Bois gave in the early 1950s, he was quoting the Bible and looking to God more than ever. Du Bois saw no contradiction between Christianity and the idea of state-controlled and directed economies. He even described Jesus as the first Communist.
7. What could evangelicals learn from Du Bois about faith and race (relations) in America?
Ah, for that answer, you will have to read the book. The entire book is focused on that – everything from why pictures of a white Jesus may be evil to how church segregation warps white Christianity.
8. Although it is only speculation, how might Du Bois look at attempts at reconciliation by evangelicals’ in the last 15 years, such as the work of Promise Keepers or the apologies offered to African Americans by mainline denominations?
I think Du Bois would be pleased with the acknowledgments of wrong by whites and the desires for reconciliation, but in the end he would want to know what were white Christians doing with their financial, social, cultural, and intellectual resources to help African Americans. He would want to see people giving from their depths, not just making hollow verbal claims. I think he would lament what happened to the Promise Keepers – that once they showed a real interest in integration, white men and churches lost interest. Du Bois would have wanted to know, how are these churches using the power they have to truly empower others – to help with infant mortality rates, to help African Americans accumulate homes and jobs equal in some way to whites. But Du Bois also would have been critical of the gospel of prosperity circulating among some African American Christians. To Du Bois, the joy of the life was to be found in ideas, in conversations, in interaction – not in commodities or lavish lifestyles.
9. Which one of Du Bois’ works would you recommend to a young scholar or pastor as a must-read work, and why?
Most people begin with The Souls of Black Folk, but I actually found that for scholars Darkwater would be more informative and for pastors Prayers for Dark People would be fabulous. Darkwater is a series of essays that Du Bois published in 1920. It has an autobiographical account; it has some poetry; it is has some short stories, including one essay called ‘Jesus Christ in Texas,’ which is just amazing. Prayers for Dark People is a collection of prayers that Du Bois wrote for his students while at Atlanta University. I often use these prayers myself, for in them Du Bois looks to God to help with discrimination, global violence and mayhem, and peace. I find them so inspirational.
10. What most excites you about your biography about Du Bois?
To the world today, I think Du Bois has so much to teach about the role of religion in society, culture, personal lives, community development, politics, and international affairs. I think that our nation desperately needs to hear Du Bois words. I really hope that my rendering of him will show that the religion of our country is connected to our blindness about racial problems (the outcomes of Hurricane Katrina); to environmental issues (unwillingness to admit global warming and make changes); to international relations (our use of force rather than friendship); and to why we still have not gotten over the legacies of slavery and segregation. I think people will find not only a new Du Bois here, but also a new approach to religion.