Edward J. Blum. W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8122-4010-8. Reviewed by Sandy Dwayne Martin, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
Professor Edward J. Blum has written a very intriguing and revealing book on the religious significance of W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), the very influential African American scholar, author, philosopher, sociologist, and civil and human rights leader. Blum portrays Dr. Du Bois as an "American prophet," positing a revisionist perspective on Du Bois. While historians and other academics have spoken of him since the 1960s successively as unreligious, irreligious, and finally antireligious, Blum argues forcefully that religion was a tremendous presence in the life of Du Bois. Du Bois's religious position became unorthodox or unconventional past the age of 30, but the great leader never abandoned his commitment to the basic principles of love, justice, mercy, ethics, and his own personal integrity. Du Bois grew to disdain the institutional church for its past and present involvements in social ills and injustices such as slavery, segregation, and war, but he retained a powerful sense of the sacred and the cardinal ethics and morality underlying Christianity and other religions.
Blum elects to rely mainly on Du Bois's own writings in assessing his stand toward religion. This approach is eminently sensible. After his introduction, Blum explores Du Bois's religious thought in five major chapters. These chapters examines Du Bois's autobiographical references to himself in prophetic terms; analyzing the significance of the classic The Souls of Black Folk; investigating Du Bois's historical and sociological works for understanding whiteness, the black church, and the mystical place of Africa; issues of "violence and faith"; and Du Bois's embrace of communism. The five chapters are followed by an epilogue. The entire book is amply documented and well-written.
Does Blum accomplish his objective? I answer, somewhat and quite clearly. Somewhat: the term "prophet" is very subjective, based on preferences, circumstances, factors, and perceptions that vary. Therefore, it is with great difficulty that one can convincingly prove to others that a given person (outside of religious declarations) is a "prophet." Quite clearly: on the other hand, Blum accomplishes a much more important, demonstrable, and scholarly objective by correctly and convincingly demonstrating the power of religion in the life of Du Bois as understood by him and those he influenced, a motivating factor that abides from his earliest childhood to his death, even after he formally embraced communism.
Perhaps it is Blum's use of "prophet" to describe Du Bois that leads to a minor concern I have. In places he appears to portray Du Bois hagiographically—making him a literal saint or "prophet." The faults of Du Bois seem frequently to escape Blum's attention and certainly his analysis. Could Du Bois have handled his differences with Marcus Garvey more diplomatically or effectively? Did Du Bois contribute to his troubles with the NAACP and his ultimate estrangement from them? The nearest approach to a sustained critique of Du Bois is in chapter five with the leader's embrace of communism, the Soviet Union, and China. Yet even here he is apparently excused because of his understandable distrust of the American media. Still, one wonders how a person of Du Bois's passion for justice and fair treatment would tolerate a totalitarian system that had produced numerous atrocities. Could he have been totally blind to Russian and Chinese racism?
Third, I believe a fine book would have been further strengthened by a greater contextualizing of Du Bois with his contemporaries. For example, Blum points to the efforts of some white supremacists to deny the humanity of blacks around the turn of the century. This reader senses that Du Bois is presented as the savior who defends the humanity of blacks much better and more victoriously than anyone else on the scene. Actually, the debunking of these racist attempts was a constant enterprise of religious and civic black (and white) leaders.
Fourth, it would have been helpful if the author had presented a much clearer historical progression of Du Bois's religious views. What is the nature and reason why he moves from "liberal Congregationalism" to being a "free thinker"? What experiences at Fisk, Harvard, and in Germany contributed to changes in his religious views? Along these lines, defining terms such as "agnosticism," "liberalism," and "orthodoxy" would have been helpful to the reader. Indeed, how exactly can we characterize Du Bois's thought? If toward the end of his life he was not "agnostic," then what term should we employ?
Despite these minor concerns, I found Blum's W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet a work of immense scholarly importance, absolutely essential for a full understanding of Du Bois. It is a valuable resource for students of American/African American religion, history, culture, and literature, and I recommend it highly and enthusiastically.
|Sandy Dwayne Martin
|Professor of Religion
|The University of Georgia