Response to Reviews
Edward J. Blum
What an honor it is to have the Journal of Southern Religion review my religious biography of W.E.B. Du Bois and to have three amazing scholars do so. Professors Rabaka, Martin, and Willis are fantastic scholars of race and religion in the United States (indeed, the world). To have them evaluating my work is a joy and pleasure.
I am grateful for their praise of the project and their insights about Du Bois on religion (and the problem of why so many who write on him dismiss religion in his life and times). I am delighted to see that they feel we need more work, much more work, on religion and Du Bois in particular and race and religion in general. And I am intrigued by their critiques, from questions about the use of the word "prophet" to the importance of Africana philosophies and theories.
I think Professor Willis makes a brilliant point, for instance, when he suggests that the modernist Du Bois stood out in his nonfiction and the mystic Du Bois stood out in his fiction. Sure, this bifurcation does not work perfectly, but it's not a bad start. I have long been intrigued by the moments when mysticism invaded Du Bois's historical and sociological work. Consider Black Reconstruction. Out of the blue, Du Bois invoked the idea of seeing God and Jesus as one walks the streets of New York City. I am fascinated by these vignettes of religious brilliance within even his most academic of works. It shows that the modernist Du Bois and the mystical Du Bois sometimes occupied separate space, but sometimes occupied the same body.
So let me take up some of their questions and challenges. First, the notion of the prophet and the prophetic concerns Professor Martin (as it does Professor Curtis Evans in another review). Martin is correct that the idea of a prophet is subjective. It is an ambiguous category, but certainly it entails the use of religious or transcendent language or motifs to challenge perceptions of injustice and evil in the world. The prophet, as a category, is one who invokes the almighty to challenge the mighty, who casts visions for a future and better world, and who uses religious language to speak against the tide of everyday culture.
The notion of the prophetic is also the theme that kept repeating itself throughout Du Bois's life. It was not I who declared Du Bois a prophet, but so many of his contemporaries. From 1903 when he published The Souls of Black Folk to the 1950s when novelist Truman Nelson wrote about him, black and white Americans used the word prophet to respond to him. The list of individuals who considered him to be a "prophet" who spoke in a "prophetic" voice includes Martin Luther King Jr., James Cone, Langston Hughes, William Howard Melish, Georgia Douglas Johnson, many readers of The Crisis and African American churchgoers and ministers. Du Bois himself, when writing about his decision to join the NAACP, referred to it as a call from the "Voice without Reply." I also found it interesting that perhaps his most well-known line—that the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line—was itself considered a prophetic statement by many (including Du Bois). With all due respect to Martin and Evans, this critique seems to indicate a cursory reading of the book.
There were other titles I considered. One was "the Saint," since Du Bois invoked the idea of "Saint Orgne" in a commencement address. But saintly status seemed far too hagiographic. I considered the idea of a monk, since Du Bois often cloistered himself and adored Martin Luther. But that seemed outside of his African American religious heritage. The prophet, I believe still, is the best way to characterize him and the most enduring way he was seen by his contemporaries. Historically and presently, the conception of prophecy and the prophetic is very important. My study joins David Chappell's recent analysis of prophetic religion among African Americans in the Civil Rights movement, while much of the furor in response to Reverend Jeremiah Wright's preaching has orbited around whether he is a prophet or not. We need to think more about Du Bois's prophetic role, not less.
Second, Professor Rabaka believes that my work suffers from inattention to African Studies and African religious history. I dare to acknowledge that he is correct. My personal reading in African history and African religious history is nowhere near as strong as my reading in United States history. I was already connecting with United States history, African American studies, critical race theory, religious studies, sociology, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism. Sadly, my interdisciplinary mind may have hit a limit. But Rabaka is right to make his criticism. To be blunt, I will never read as widely or as deeply as Professor Du Bois did in his lifetime. This is one of the difficulties about writing a book about a genius, when one is not a genius. I could never keep up with Du Bois. I invite, and look forward to seeing, further readings and evaluations of Du Bois's religiosity within Africana frameworks. I hope those doing this will send me their chapters, articles, and books. I am eager to learn (and Professor Rabaka's studies are a great place to start).
I do think that Professor Rabaka overstates my focus on Du Bois's attention to "white" religious thinkers at the expense of African American leaders. I pay just as much attention, if not more, to Du Bois's intellectual relationships with Richard Allen, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner, Alexander Crummell, Langston Hughes, and even Malcolm X. Each chapter shows Du Bois as part of African American religious communities, whether in autobiographies, creative responses to lynchings, or approaches to Communism. Moreover, I suggested that Du Bois's work prefigured the black liberation theologies and womanism of James Cone, Albert Cleage, and Delores Williams. I included his engagement with white figures to call for all historians and students of religion in the United States to attune to Du Bois (and not merely those interested in African American history). My experience is that the color line still exists too often in American history, and I follow Nell Painter's advice to "write across the color line" at all times.
Third, these reviewers wonder if I fail to critique Du Bois enough. For instance, should a religious biography of Du Bois address his alleged marital infidelity? Should a moral study of him not pay greater attention to his convenient overlooking of Russian and Chinese atrocities? I think there is definitely a place to critique Du Bois's religion and morality, but that seems to be asking too much of one book, especially a book that is fighting dozens of other readings of Du Bois. Moreover, it seems backward to criticize Du Bois for his religious failings before we see more clearly his religious insights and contributions. Perhaps we scholars have forgotten the importance of celebration amid our own culture of criticism.
Unlike David Levering Lewis, I did not have more than one thousand pages to probe the nuances of Du Bois's life and times. There were so many other topics I wanted to include. I wanted to write more about his burial, about why there was a cross above his casket. I wanted to write more about his relationships with African American ministers, whose letters he published regularly in The Crisis and with whom he corresponded. I wanted to write more about his family morality and his deeply spiritual love for his children. But that work will take place as our community of scholars pushes forward.
I am glad that the days of ignoring Du Bois as a critical figure in American religious history may be over. I am glad that this is merely the beginning, and not the ending, of our conversations about Du Bois. My hope for the future is that Du Bois's religious insights will help us, historians and citizens, to think and see more clearly about issues of race, gender, sexuality, consumer culture, politics, citizenship, and human rights. That's what prophets help us do.
Assistant Professor of History
San Diego State University