Phil Zuckerman, editor. Du Bois on Religion. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2000. 216 pages. ISBN: 0742504212. Reviewed by Mark Newman, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
Sociology professor Phil Zuckerman argues that African-American intellectual and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois "should be considered a classical theorist of religion" (p.2), despite the fact that Du Bois was often critical of organized religion and withdrew from it. But Du Bois, Zuckerman contends, recognized that religion could serve, as well as obstruct, human progress and thus he created an important but neglected body of work on the sociology of religion and produced in-depth studies of religion in the black urban and rural experience. According to Zuckerman, Du Bois stressed the black church's social and communal function, an area that was neglected by other contemporary sociologists. By presenting a selection of Du Bois's writings on religion, Zuckerman intends to promote recognition of Du Bois as a scholar of religion that will add to his established reputation as an historian, sociologist, and man of letters.
|"Zuckerman intends to promote recognition of Du Bois as a scholar of religion that will add to his established reputation as an historian, sociologist, and man of letters."|
After a useful introduction that outlines Du Bois's thought, development, and contributions, Zuckerman presents twenty-six mostly chronologically arranged selections from Du Bois's work between 1897 and 1952. Eleven entries appeared originally in Crisis, a periodical that Du Bois edited for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, while others are drawn from Du Bois's books, articles, and speeches. Extracts from Du Bois's book The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study and the edited volume The Negro Church substantiate Zuckerman's claim for Du Bois's academic rigor and sociological contribution. At his best, Du Bois worked with cool analytical precision as he recognized and documented the diversity of black religion. However, his northern, middle-class upbringing sometimes led Du Bois to treat black folk religion as exotic and primitive, and understandably, like many historians of his time, he missed the resilience of the black family during slavery.
Despite the considerable strengths of Du Bois's writings, in some of the entries Du Bois does little more than string together block quotations. Thus, a good number of Zuckerman's selections are rather lightweight and some are questionable as sociological works. There are five poems and five short stories, several of which make their points about American Christianity's shortcomings on race by depicting Jesus as a contemporary black person. Although the stories present moral lessons in an attempt to influence black and white opinion, they do not offer sociological insights of any depth. In their place, Zuckerman might have included extracts from Du Bois's sociological studies of African-American life in Farmville, Virginia, and Atlanta, Georgia.
Other problems include the brevity of some selections (some entries are less than two pages long) and there is considerable repetition of some ideas, particularly in relation to Du Bois's condemnation of the complicity of white Christianity in the oppression of blacks, and in the black church's role in the social, cultural, and economic life of African-Americans. Despite these criticisms, the collection provides a useful starting point for those interested in Du Boiss writing on religion. Although a full bibliography would have been useful, the introduction has a helpful list of references that form a basis for further reading.
Mark Newman, University of Derby, United Kingdom
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