Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas with Du Bois, ca. 1909-10


O Thou Incarnate Word of God to man, make us this Christmas night to realize Thy truth; We are not Christians because we profess Thy name and celebrate the ceremonies and idly reiterate the prayers of the church, but only in so far as we really comprehend and follow the Christ spirit- we must be poor and not rich, meek and not proud, merciful and not oppressors, peaceful and not warlike or quarrelsome. For the sake of the righteousness of our cause we must bow to persecution and reviling, and again and again turn the stricken cheek to the striker; and above all the cause of our neighbor must be to us dearer than our own cause. This is Christianity. God help us all to be Christians. Amen.

Luke 2:8-14


Christmas


--from W.E.B. Du Bois, Prayers for Dark People, ed. Herbert Aptheker (U. of Mass. Press, 1980), p. 63


[Photo credit here.]

Friday, December 21, 2007

"For unto us a child was born...in Harlem...in 1924...."


As this time of year is the season of birth(s) and beginnings, what some call Advent, or an all-out capitalist bonanza at the store of your choice, it is also a time to remember a death--the 20-year commemoration of the passing of James Baldwin.

Readers of this blog are already aware of my affection for St. James.

Democracy Now recently devoted part of a show to Baldwin's legacy, interviewing his sister-in-law Carole Weinstein as well as actor Calvin Levels, who is performing a one-man-show of James Baldwin called "James Baldwin: Down From the Mountaintop." Hopefully it will come to Houston. (Read a review here.)

As I reflect on the life of St. James, particularly during the Advent season, I'm drawn to the hope--critical, exacting, honest, and yes, prophetic--resident in Baldwin's writing, his plays, his speaking, and above all the hope evidenced by his living. And, in a sense, Baldwin's words, whether written or spoken, seem to never return void.

So take time during the holiday season to read something of Jimmy's--The Fire Next Time, Another Country, Nobody Knows My Name, or anything else that comes to mind. Share your reflections and thoughts--gift someone with Baldwin during the holidays.

Or, you can following Baldwin on-line. Watch a C-SPAN special here. Visit the blog of Professor Zero who has a page of Baldwin links. For those more familiar with Baldwin's work, there's tons to read here, or here. Or, read Baldwin quotes with links to other great sites.

Finally, artist Claire Burch has created some wonderfully stunning artwork with Baldwin as its subject, shares articles and letters, and offers poetic reflections on St. James as well--ironically titled "Arrival of James Baldwin; Mysterious Circumstances."

This is Advent with St. James.

[Photo credit here.]

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Merry Chri$tma$ with Rev. Billy


If you've seen Super Size Me, then you will want to go see this documentary. It opens at the River Oaks theatre in Houston on Dec. 7. Check it out. Read some reviews of the film here.




[Photo credit here.]

Friday, November 23, 2007

No Holiday for the Spiritual Marketplace: Religious Celebrities in H-Town


The elevation of Houston Archbishop Daniel DiNardo to the position of Cardinal this weekend has me thinking of religious celebrities.


CBS affiliate KHOU has a newstory here that features an interview with DiNardo's sister, a Houston resident. See DiNardo's Houston-Galveston Archdiocese bio here, newstories from Pittsburgh, the priest's old stomping grounds (read here also). Houston Chronicle religion reporter Tara Dooley blogs about DiNardo here, and writes about DiNardo here.

Some of my current research deals broadly with this topic, and it is interesting to note that Houston--the nation's 4th largest city--is quickly becoming a haven for religious celebrities. If we consider Texas more broadly--we might as well call it the Lone Star Spiritual Marketplace. Perhaps I'll compose another blogpost on the state later on, but in the meantime read Roy Spence's The Amazing Faith of Texas. Check out the book's website here.

If you know Houston, the first religious celebrity that comes to mind is probably Joel Osteen. There are other Protestant and Catholic religious celebrities, as well as prominent folks from other faith traditions.

These figures may or may not embrace the title "religious celebrity," but today's hyper-capitalist society influences and informs the performative aspects of just about everything. Plus, the separation of church and state, dating back to the 1790s, first created the possibility for a religious or spiritual marketplace.

Scholars have written about religious celebrity (read about Dr. Phil here, and Mother Theresa here, for example), and one of the people to read on this topic is Kathryn Lofton--whose own work deals with Oprah and spirituality. Read here, here, and here, too.

So, since there's no holiday for America's spiritual marketplace, pardon the pun, feel free to leave your $.02 worth about the topic. Also, who are some other religious celebrities in Houston, or Texas more broadly?

[Photo credit here.]

Friday, November 16, 2007

On Writing



During these days of dissertation writing, essay composition, and other projects of various kinds, writing is on my mind--and I feel it in my fingers, too. I'm also reminded of some advice I once received from one of my former philosophy professors: "good writing is re-writing."





Writing readable prose comes from reading good writers, and I've read enough dense, academic stuff to know that writing clearly and in an engaging way takes a lot of work. To this end, John Fea has an interesting post over at the Religion in American History blog on who the best writers are in American religious history. Cast your vote.





On a side note, any good books to suggest on the craft of writing itself? I understand Stephen King has a book out on writing, which sounds like an interesting read.

[Photo credit here.]

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Christmas in October







Perhaps it is rather vain to offer up unsolicited Christmas wish lists, but I can't resist mentioning two items since W.E.B. Du Bois has been a consistent topic on bald blogging.

I'd love to have a W.E.B. Du Bois doll on my desk to watch me as I read and write. This plush little toy would also certainly be a great asset in the classroom as a teaching aide.

And why not wear a W.E.B. Du Bois t-shirt on a day when I lecture about him? Or perhaps wear it when I go for my daily run? I can hear the questions from fellow joggers: "Excuse me, but is that the American Prophet on your t-shirt, and the Black Radical Democrat from Massachusetts?" What a great way to strike up conversations about history.

Although these are products worthy to receive as gifts, and despite the fact that I've taken a humorous tone, I wonder what Du Bois would think about this kind of commidifcation?
It is an interesting thought.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Market Shares Yielding Dividends for Joel Osteen, or Reflections on America's Spiritual Marketplace










Joel Osteen's stock in America's religious economy is up and rising.








Today Osteen's second book hits the stores. A follow-up to his first book, Your Best Life Now, by all accounts Become a Better You will far surpass Osteen's first book in sales and influence. Time will tell, as will Osteen's media presence this week. He was on 60 Minutes Sunday evening, will be on Good Morning America three times this week, Larry King Live on Tuesday, and will make a few other appearances as well.

Osteen is for many a household name by now. The "smiling preacher" (a phrase coined by Washington Post writer Lois Romano) from Texas whose positive preaching impacts millions, inspires countless others, and as testimonials attest, transforms many, makes a case to replace Billy Graham as America's (and perhaps across the world) leading evangelical.

He has one best-selling book, and most likely two, a massive church with state of the art everything, a huge following, and a message that offers second chances to those who want a fresh start. In short, to use the title of psychologist Dan McAdams's recent book, Osteen provides individuals with the possibility of acquiring a redemptive self. Everyone has a story of struggle, a tale of despair--as well as an end to the story that results in victory or inspires hope. McAdams focuses on these sorts of stories to discuss the redemptive self.

Osteen masterfully fills his sermons with just these kinds of stories, assures listeners that God smiles on them with great favor, and provides a simple formula for life change: think right and speak right. One can transform one's circumstances by the power of positive thinking and by uttering change into existence. And his books offer scores and scores of practical ways to achieve the redemptive self--one key I think to understanding his immense popularity. America is a land of second chances, and Osteen offers all of that and more.

So, do market shares yield dividends in America's religious economy? I'll leave that one to the theologians and doctrinal specialists.

The study of Osteen deserves more than doctrinal websites that proclaim the smiling preacher as a heretic, and more than just sound bites from theologians not readily associated with Osteen's denominational history.

For historians and other interested scholars the rise and presence of Joel Osteen (or any other megaminister) offers an important subject of study as we all try to make sense of the increasingly diverse and unboundingly fascinating landscape of American religion. There's currently one book on offer about Osteen, but it mainly collates media reports and offers a somewhat thorough but largely uncritical perspective on America's most popular preacher. More work remains.


As I've indicated in other posts, I'm persuaded that one way to understand megaministers and megachurches is to use a marketplace approach to studying American religion. Popularized by the likes of sociologists of religion--and Rodney Stark and Roger Finke in particular--this approach more or less see churches as firms that offer religious goods and services to spiritual consumers. This is not as reductionistic as it sounds, nor am I necessarily proposing statistical understandings of religious firms and spiritual consumers, but suggesting a historically-grounded sociological analysis tempered with insights drawn from anthropology, media studies, ethnography, etc. Using multiple angles of analysis, with enough participant-observation, allows one to examine conceptions of sacred space, understand the lived religion of participants and members, explore the uses of media, intersections between religion and commodification, etc. Check out Shayne Lee's book on T.D. Jakes, or Mara Einstein's study on branding and religion to get a better sense of what I mean. Perhaps you may want to read up on some current projects underway related to Osteen as well.


So, what do you think are productive, helpful ways to study such contemporary religious figures? What other theoretical perspectives might scholars deploy in their analysis? Also, if you caught Osteen on 60 Minutes or see him on any other the other shows this week, let us know your thoughts and reflections.
UPDATE: Mara weighs in on Joel's 60 Minutes segment last night and points out key features of the segment while she offers keen thoughts on Osteen's marketing tactics.

Mara's post prompted this further reflection about how Osteen is answering his critics now: It dawned on me watching the interview that Joel is starting to answer his critics differently--and it makes all the sense in the world from a marketplace perspective. He challenges his critics by saying that he is fulfilling God's specific call with his specific message--in other words he's fitting into his market niche and perfecting his message for that particular niche. Osteen's critics charge him with having a hollow theology and lite preaching, but he counters by saying that he's not a theologian or a scripture scholar therefore that's not his thing. It follows then, Osteen seems to imply, that his critics miss the point of his message and ministry and therefore their criticisms don't pass muster.

[Photo credit here.]

Sunday, September 30, 2007

New+Addition: A September to Remember




It seems hard to believe that I had a similar post about two years ago. Well, here's another.

Nathaniel Luke arrived last Thursday. Everyone is thrilled, and doing well, and my wife is an amazing woman. Nathaniel joins big brothers Matthew and Alex, and big sister Madeline.
Nathaniel is far too young to have his own blog, but a fine youngster named Will is already at it. Good work DEG!

Friday, September 21, 2007

"He watching over [us] slumbers not nor sleeps": Du Bois, Jena, and Friday Prayers

Many continue to stand in solidarity with those in Jena. I find encouragement from the spiritual musings of W.E.B. Du Bois, and so I offer these prayers (The page numbers below refer to this book].

Although they were written nearly a century ago, the words, ideas, and petitions that comprise these prayers—like so much of Du Bois’s work—remain as relevant and as salient as ever. This is further attestation to Du Bois’s role as an American prophet. As the liturgy says, “Lord, hear our prayers……”

1. A prayer for the Jena DA and other decision makers involved in the case:

Give us grace, O God, to dare to do the deed which we well know cries to be done. Let us not hesitate because of ease, or the words of men’s mouths, or our own lives. Mighty causes are calling us—the freeing of women, the training of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty—all these and more. But they call with voices that mean work and sacrifice and death. Mercifully grant to us, O God, the spirit of Esther, that we say, I will go unto the King and if I perish, I perish—Amen. Esther 4:9-16 (p. 21)

2. Prayers for the Jena 6, their friends and families, and other persons who stand in solidarity with those who suffer injustice:

O Lord, teach us who love Liberty and long for it, to realize its cost and purpose. There can be no freedom in a just and good world, if freedom means to do as we please, when we please, and where all about us in this life, as in this school, lie bars and bonds and limits. The free are those who know the rules which God himself has set and go their way within these metes and bounds full freely. Truth is the knowledge of these strait and narrow ways. It is the Truth that makes us free and this it is we linger here to lean, O Lord. Amen. John 8: 31-36 (p. 52)

Once they tell us, Jehovah, that in the great shadows of the past Thou has whispered to a quivering people, saying, “Be not afraid.” He watching over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps. Grant us today, O God, that fearlessness that rests on confidence in the ultimate rightness of things. Let us be afraid neither of mere physical hurt, nor of the unfashionableness of our color, nor of the unpopularity of our cause; let us turn toward the battle of life undismayed and above all when we have fought the good fight grant us to face the shadow of death with the same courage that has let us live. Amen. Psalm 121 (p. 57)

It is my hope that these prayers offer solace, meaning, and encouragement for those who happen to read or recite them—as it is my prayer that these petitions will help achieve justice.

Lord, hear our prayers.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Weekend Reading for the Soul

Some reading from around the web....The Amish who suffered great loss last year are now offering support for the widow of the man who killed members of their community. (See my previous post on the event here.) And Daniel Bell argues here that Jesus and justice are inseparable. (HT: SM)

I'm amazed, encouraged, and inspired by the Amish, and Bell makes a cogent case for the necessity of action, engagement, and solidarity. Any thoughts?

NEW: Sign a Jena 6 Civil Rights petiton here. For more on the story read this article, and visit the Free the Jena6 website here.

In other news, Mara shares a few thoughts from her forthcoming book. Check it out here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Baldblogger Interviews Edward J. Blum, Part 7

This post, unfortunately, brings us to the end of Baldblogger's interview with Ed Blum. The book was a fascinating read for me personally, and I learned a ton about Du Bois. This interview, I must say, has been in so many ways equally enlightening.

A special thanks to Ed for sharing his thoughts and his time--please keep the conversation going. I think the comments about music and writing are really intriguing; what tunes inspire you?


Baldblogger (BB): What projects are currently in the works for you, and when might these works be available for interested readers?

Ed Blum (EB): Future projects are always hard to determine because I’m never quite sure where my passion will go. Right now, I’m writing a book with the fantastic southern historian Paul Harvey on Jesus Christ and race in American society and culture. It examines how ideas about Jesus and what he looked like played a role in everything from slavery and Native American removals to white flight, suburbanization, and anti-Communism. It also looks closely at how African Americans, Native Americans, and others have related to Christ in American history. We’re building off of Stephen Prothero’s, Richard Wrightman Fox’s, and Kelly Brown Douglas’s tremendous studies of Jesus in American culture. Ultimately, we want to show scholars, ministers, laypeople, and others that race and religion cannot be understood separately in American history. This won’t be available for a while because it is a pretty mammoth topic.

BB: Any closing comments, or other topics of discussion?

EB: One thing I wish more authors would talk about is what music they listen to (if they listen to any) when they write. Many books and chapters have soundtracks – and they inspire the shape of the work, I think. For my Du Bois book, for instance, I was inspired by “Redemption” a song by the band Jars of Clay for my fourth chapter on lynchings and black Christs. Oftentimes I listen to movie soundtracks to write as well – like A Beautiful Mind. I find this fascinating because I think writing prose is very similar to writing music – that one should try to write musically, to hear the rhythm of the syllables, to groove to the spirit of narrative. I guess I hope that people can hear a little bit of music in my writing.

Thanks so much for your questions. This has been a blast.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Embracing the Struggle: Antiracism Workshop


Althought I have not had a chance to visit the center, nor has my schedule thus far allowed me to attend and participate in a workshop (one day soon!), from what I've read about the Center for the Healing of Racism in Houston they always engage in important work. Read the center's goals and aims here.


For those Houstonians and other interested parties the center has a workshop this Saturday during which they will discuss Barbara Trepagnier's book Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide. Read more about Dr. Trepagnier here and call 713.520.8226 or email cfhr1 [AT] juno.com. (That's the number "1".) [I have a pdf file of the workshop announcement, but Blogger only lets you post images.]

Unfortunately I will not be able to attend the workshop, and I only just recently heard of Barbara. Perhaps when I have a chance to read the book I'll draft some posts about it. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Baldblogger Interviews Edward J. Blum, Part 6

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With the first week of classes at many colleges and schools this week, it is only appropriate that the conversation shift to teaching. Not only does Blum's work chart new historiographical territory, it also promises to refashion the pedagogical landscape. Feel free to share your own thoughts on teaching Du Bois or related topics; think of it as an on-line inservice.


Baldblogger (BB): I’d like to shift the discussion from research to teaching. Some may or may not know that you won a teaching award as a graduate student, and your recent profile on History News Network commented about pedagogy. Can you discuss your teaching philosophy? How important is the relationship between a scholar’s research/writing and his/her teaching? Why?

Ed Blum (EB): I see very little different between my teaching and my research. I teach what I research; I research what I teach. I find that students love it in discussions of the reading for a week what I have found in the archives, or what my reading of primary documents says about a topic. For example, when I teach about the nineteenth century, my students find it fascinating that by 1900 there were whites in America who claimed that African Americans did not have “souls.” And then when I remind them about Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk you can see a collective ‘ohhh’ moment in the class. That is exhilarating. Also, I feel that if I can articulate my ideas to an undergraduate class, then I can write it for other historians. So I see very little divide between teaching and research.

My teaching philosophy is built around the imagination. I want my students to be able to imagine the past – how it felt, how it smelled, how it looked, what they would have thought. And this process of imagination becomes really complicated when they try to put themselves in the positions of very different people. How did the slave market look to a buyer? How did it look to a slave? How about to a poor white woman outside of New Orleans? Getting students to feel the time and the conflict, that is what is most important to me. For this reason, I use a whole mess of approaches. We use music; we’ll have food; we have debates and historical simulations. I often have my students find their own primary documents (so they go and find any responses to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and see what they think). That’s the fun stuff to me.

The best historical simulation we do is of an abolitionist convention. Students research different abolitionists (like William Lloyd Garrison, the Tappan brothers, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lydia Maria Child, Sojourner Truth, etc) and then come to class to form a new organization. At first, everyone agrees about the basics (that slavery is bad; that the South is a problem). But then things get messy. Usually it involves issues of gender – and those who worked on Stanton get infuriated that there is not more attention to women’s rights. Then the issue of violence comes up and no one can agree on anything. By the end, the group is usually ready to divide along various lines, which is pretty much what happened over and over again. The lesson: being a reformer is hard.

BB: Can you provide 1 or 2 examples of this relationship from your own teaching career?

EB: My best experience with students thus far was with two undergraduates at Kean University. For one summer, I had two research assistants – Katherine Kennedy and Danielle LaPorte. We would trek over to Rutgers University, sit down at our respective microfilm machines, and look at everything Du Bois. It was a blast talking with them about what they were finding. They read a few biographies of Du Bois and then printed out anything they found interesting from The Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that he edited from 1910 to 1934. Watching them “do history” was just so much fun. Their research was so helpful for my book as well.

BB: You are a member of what cultural commentators Generation X (as am I), and while the technological dimensions of our childhood weren’t filled with cell phones and iPods but VCRs, CDs, and slow bulky PCs without and Internet connection (!) education specialists seem to talk incessantly about today’s visual generation—and the importance of visual literacy. Yet other specialists insist that pedagogical processes must also include more “traditional” forms of teaching. In light of these generational dynamics and pedagogical concerns what are some of the most effective strategies for teaching history? Why?

EB: I’m not against the use of technology – of videos or of music in the classroom. If they could make historical video games I would probably use them. So in that sense I’m definitely a part of Generation X. But I also love a good lecture; there are some lecturers – like Leon Litwack or Mark W. Summers – who can hold a crowd spellbound. They don’t need fancy technology; they just have great historical yarns, jokes, and stories that illuminate an era. I guess I try to do both.

BB: How do you teach Du Bois? Did writing W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet prompt you to revise how you teach him in any significant way(s)?

EB: When I teach about Du Bois, it is always in the context of other topics, such as slavery or Reconstruction, or white supremacist theology, or the Civil Rights Movement. I typically use Du Bois as an example of the various ways that African Americans resisted oppression. Or I discuss him as an example of how white supremacy affects everything. When Du Bois received his PhD, he was one of the most highly educated and accomplished young academics in the United States; and yet no white university would hire him. Students tend to find that interesting. It is a part of racism that is less abhorrent than something like lynching, but seems to get students where they are at--potential job applicants.

BB: In your experience, how have students responded to Du Bois?

EB: Students have a tough time reading and relating to Du Bois, I have found. They find his prose, especially The Souls of Black Folk and Darkwater to be too Victorian. They often don’t get his allusions – whether to ancient mythologies or Shakespeare. But they do tend to get his religious allusions better than many academics. My students can usually identify that something “comes from the Bible” – they just usually don’t know where.

BB: What are some of the key Du Bois works with which students may begin to engage this important historical thinker?

It depends on what the class is for. If it is an African American history class, then the best work to read of Du Bois’s is Darkwater. It has him at his best and most critical in many ways. If the class is on religion, then his Prayers for Dark People will be lots of fun (and affordable). If the class is on gender and race, then his novel Dark Princess could be very interesting, because it has a messianic union between an African American and an Indian Princess. For a basic US history class, sections of Black Reconstruction are just fantastic, particularly the end about the “propaganda of history.” For world history classes, one could use The World and Africa which was a fantastic primer on world and African history.


[Photo from UMass-Amherst Digital Du Bois archive.]

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Who is Your Teacher?


Here at Baldblogging I devoted much of the time this summer to W.E.B. Du Bois, so why not begin the semster and school year with the Professor? I offer prayers for both students and faculty from Prayers for Dark People, a collection of Du Bois's spiritual petitions written for students at Atlanta University around 1909-10. (Posted here also.)

"Let us remember, O God, that our religion in life is expressed in our work, and therefore in this school [Atlanta University] it is shown in the way we conquer our studies—not entirely in our marks but in the honesty of our endeavour, the thoroughness of our accomplishment and the singleness and purity of our purpose. In school life there is but one unforgivable sin and that is to know how to study and to be able to study, and then to waste and throw away God’s time and opportunity. From this blasphemy deliver us all, O God. Amen” (p. 33).

"God bless all schools and forward the great work of education for which we stand. Arouse within us and within our land a deep realization of the seriousness of our problem of training children. On them rests the future work and throught and sentiment and goodness of the world. If here and elsewhere we train the lazy and shallow, the self-indulgent and the frivolous--if we destroy reason and religion and do not rebuild, help us, O God, to realize how heavy is our responsibility and how great the cost. The school of today is the world of tomorrow and today and tomorrow are Thine, O God. Amen (I Samuel 16:6-12)" (p. 53).

Best wishes for a productive and successful semester and year!
[Photo from UMass-Amherst Digital Archive.]

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Religion and Politics: A History, Part 2


As hoped from a previous post, the folks at Get Religion and Religion in American History commented about the recent special that discussed Billy Graham and his relationship to the White House. Read here and here to join the conversation.


And speaking of religion and politics, the fine radio program Speaking of Faith recently did a show on Aimee Semple McPherson, whose conservative politics historian Matthew Avery Sutton fascinatingly details in his new book. (HT: Paul Harvey/Art Remillard)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Baldblogger Interviews Edward J. Blum, Part 5


Today's segment from my interview with Ed Blum--along with subsequent segments--moves into more of the history behind his Du Bois book, teaching, and where and how Du Bois can fit into pedagogy.


Baldblogger (BB): Can you discuss a bit of the history of writing W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet, in short the evolution of this project? When did you start? How long did it take? To what archives did you travel? Did you travel to Ghana at all during the course of this book?

Ed Blum (EB): W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet began on the plane from Lexington, Kentucky, to Boston, Massachusetts, in the fall of 2002. I was heading to the Harvard Divinity School for a job interview and I knew that they would want to know what the next project was. At the time, I was about 2/3 of the way through my dissertation and had a list of 20 “next” projects (things like a biography of Dwight Moody or a study of religion and the abolitionist movement). But none of those felt right – and I was thinking in terms of what folks at Harvard would want to hear. So I came up with a religious biography of Du Bois, since his connection to Harvard was so important. I knew that David Lewis had won the Pulitzer Prize for his first biography of Du Bois and I knew that Lewis did not take religion seriously in it. During my interview, the good people of the divinity school seemed very excited about the project (this was proof to me that it was worthwhile). So as I finished the dissertation I started reading everything Du Bois, which is a lot.

I spent the first several years just reading everything that Du Bois published and that was published about him. Sadly, I don’t think anyone could ever read everything published about Du Bois--there is a ton of it. This early work didn’t take me to any archives, but it did bring me to a lot of out-of-print books. I have found that librarians, particularly interlibrary loan libraries, are crucial for researching historians. I would click on this book or that pamphlet and low and behold two weeks later it would arrive. Some of the stuff I found was fascinating. An MA thesis from an African American scholar who had met Du Bois and decided to write a poem about him; the eulogy that Reverend William Howard Melish gave in Africa in 1963; a copy of The Souls of Black Folk with extra poems written on the sides.


In 2005 I hit Du Bois’s personal papers, which are on microfilm, at Rutgers University. This was done in tandem with two research assistants – Danielle LaPorte and Katherine Kennedy. They read through 30 years of The Crisis, the national organ for the NAACP, while I combed through Du Bois’s personal writings. Personal papers are a hoot. You find all types of crazy things. I remember when working on my dissertation I went to New Haven to search through the Dwight Moody papers and I found all of these sermon outlines; they were literally a dozen words from which Moody would give his sermon. Sometimes, I could match the sermon later printed in the newspaper with the outline. That was cool. Only once did I ever have the hankering to take something from an archive and that is when I found Confederate money in a minister’s papers at Princeton. I don’t know why, but the devil inside said ‘oh no one will care if it’s missing.’ Of course, that’s no reason to steal. And, what the hell did I really want with Confederate money anyway?

I did not travel to Ghana, sadly, in part because of time, in part because of finances. I imagine that another scholar will find a treasure trove of materials there relating to responses to Du Bois at the end of his life. My bet would be they will find more spiritual reflections about his life and times.

So I worked on Du Bois non stop from 2002 to 2007. My dissertation research, which was from 1999 to 2002, informed a good deal of the study as well. One thing I didn’t do, which David Lewis and others have done, is interview those who knew Du Bois. There are lots of reasons that I did not, but the main one is that I wanted to know how people understood Du Bois in his historical moments, and I found plenty of material on that from the eras of his life.

BB: For interested readers unable travel to archives, what are some of the best on-line sources/resources if one wishes to study about Du Bois and read his work?

EB: The best place to find online resources about Du Bois is at the library webpage of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. There, one can find a ton of stuff, including digitized photos of Du Bois, his friends, family, and other material. They also have a ton of digitized articles and books from him.


[BB: other on-line resources include The W.E.B. Du Bois Virtual University, Professor Robert Williams's fabulous repository of Du Bois resources, the resources page at the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass-Amherst, Dr. Steven Hale's Du Bois on-line selections, resources from the Documenting the American South project, the Perspectives in American Literature (PAL) page, the reading room at Harvard's Du Bois Institute, documents from the FBI files of Du Bois (though redacted), Du Bois's New York Times featured author page (subscription required), the e-project at the University of Virginia Library (scroll down for Du Bois), and in other various places Paul Harvey points out.]

NEW: I meant to post this initially, but forgot. Richard Rath, a historian who does sensory history among other things, teaches at the U. of Hawaii and with some students developed a kind of soundtrack to Souls of Black Folk. It is amazingly cool, and a helpful resource in teaching. Check it out here and let us know what you think.

[Photo from UMass-Amherst Digitial Du Bois]

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Baldblogger Interviews Edward J. Blum, Part 4


Baldblogger (BB): You devote a whole chapter to Du Bois’s masterful Souls of Black Folk. Briefly, why does this book deserve its own chapter?

Ed Blum (EB:) Souls of Black Folk is such an important work for a variety of reasons. First, it is with that work that Du Bois established himself as a public intellectual. That was the book that catapulted him from a fine scholar to an internationally-renowned scholar. It was reviewed in newspapers and journals throughout the United States and Great Britain, and I found that it had a huge readership. In the hundred years since its publication in 1903, moreover, the book has continued to be read and thought about. [BB: for more on this point, see this book.] Much of my book focuses on how people read and understood Du Bois – so this was a great work for that. It is also the place where Du Bois pioneered a new type of scholarly writing – an interdisciplinary approach, where he mixed history, sociology, personal reflections, poetry, music, and anthropology. Finally, Souls of Black Folk was a perfect example of how scholars had missed the boat by ignoring religion. The title, particularly the word souls, was crucial. It seemed evident that Du Bois was trying to write about something deeper than just lived reality; he wanted to write about the souls of African Americans, the parts of them that could connect with the divine. And this title stood in direct opposition to white supremacist arguments of the time that black people did not have souls.

BB: In chapter 3 (and Reforging) you answer your own call to examine the religious dimensions of the construction of whiteness. In this chapter you show how Du Bois understood white supremacy in theological terms, and where and why this theology had dire economic consequences. You also make a key point here about Du Bois’s relationship to Marxism, since by definition orthodox Marxism has no room for religion. I wonder if you could elaborate on this point, or perhaps connect this question to the question below about chapter 4?

EB: Du Bois was certainly influenced by Karl Marx in the early twentieth century. He was also deeply moved by the Communist experiments in the Soviet Union and China. This has often been used to suggest that Du Bois was anti-religious, as much of the Communist experiments were. But Du Bois was never a dogmatic reader. He did not follow everything that Marx or Lenin or Mao wrote. Du Bois took from them what he thought applicable and left what he found incidental. For instance, Marx’s comments about religion are not really central to his political aims. What Du Bois wanted was an organized economy. He wanted the best and brightest minds to come together and plan the economy – so that if people were starving, they could be sent food; if people were homeless, they could be built homes; if people needed jobs, they could found. This is what socialism meant to Du Bois. The question, then, becomes from where does this spirit of change come. Du Bois had no problem arguing that a true interpretation of religion and Christianity would lead people to this kind of political economy. So Du Bois was a religious socialist, and this was very common in the United States.

On the issue of whiteness, I think it is critical that we recognize, as Du Bois did, the importance of religious ideas for it. Being “white” in the United States is more than just having greater access to wealth or more opportunities in education; it is a subtle, psychological connection to the sacred, to God. There is a reason that Jesus and the biblical heroes are almost always depicted as white in American culture. Heck, even Simon the Cyrene is not black in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. [BB: Read this book and this commentary for works that address, to some extent, race and Gibson's movie, and watch this for a direct challenge to a white, European Jesus. See my brief reflections about Color of the Cross here and here. Also relevant is Callahan's The Talking Book. See my thoughts here. Finally, check this out.] By associating whiteness with godliness, American society can accept slavery, segregation, high incarceration rates of African Americans, etc. For Du Bois, the only way we could overcome this connection was to first be aware of it and then chose to dismantle it. That is why I write so much about the connection between whiteness and godliness.

BB: In your chapter on literature, violence, and redemption (ch. 4), you intriguingly explore Du Bois’s literary productions and the deft ways he dramatizes violence using religious categories. In these stories Du Bois’s reverses the status quo of the time and therefore seemingly reflects a kind of redemptive hope. On this account, what are 2 or 3 of Du Bois’s most important creative, literary works and why?

EB: The best place to start for Du Bois’s stories of violence and religion would be in Darkwater. There, he has a short story entitled “Jesus Christ in Texas.” It’s just marvelous. Basically, it asks what would happen if a Jewish Jesus showed up in 1915 in Waco, Texas. Also in Darkwater there are some poems that are great to read: “A Litany at Atlanta” is powerful and so is “The Gospel According to Mary Brown.” [BB: See also the powerful "The Souls of White Folk."] Only the truly committed should delve into Du Bois’s novels. They can be a little boring at times.

BB: To what extent are these creative writings applicable, or instructive, for contemporary American society? In your experience, do students seem to make these sorts of connections?

EB: Du Bois always depicted issues of race and racism, international warfare and imperialism, and material greed and graft as moral issues. He saw religion as intimately connected to discrimination, to national wars, and to business abuses. Basically, Du Bois claimed that the religion of a people either impels it to justice or away from it. His attacks upon imperialism, for example, could be heard today in terms of the war in Iraq. This is the reason I began the book with this prayer from him: “Give us in our day, O God, to see the fulfillment of Thy vision of Peace. May these young people grow to despise false ideals of conquest and empire and all the tinsel of war. May we strive to replace force with justice and armies of murder with armies of relief. May we believe in Peace among all nations as a present practical creed and count love for our country as love and not hate for our fellow men. Amen.”

My students very easily make the connections between what Du Bois said then and what we live in now. They see the link between past white claims that African Americans did not have souls with the current focus on white children when they are kidnapped (and the lack of attention to black children). They also see how materialism – buying more and more stuff – does not fuel one spiritually, a point that Du Bois made over and over again.

BB: From your discussion of Du Bois’s relationship to Communism (ch. 5), in many ways he appears more religious in the later years of his life, particularly leading up to his move to Ghana and after he became a member of the Party. Why is this the case?

EB: The conventional wisdom on Du Bois is that in his later years he really abandoned religion. But if you read any of his poems, any of his political speeches, or his final autobiography, it appears evident that religious ideas were on his mind just about all the time. I think, in part, he was responding to the hyper-Christian nationalism that emerged after WWII in the United States that painted everything American as godly and everything socialistic as evil. Du Bois tried to fight fire with fire, but he was certainly in the minority. This should not, however, make us see him as antireligious. He was anti the particular brand of American religion after WWII, the kind that wrapped itself in the American flag, in McCarthyism, in militancy, and in materialism.
[Photo from UMass Digital Archive; Du Bois in Moscow, ca. 1958)

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Politics and Religion: A History

In my hometown newspaper, just read in the religion section about a documentary scheduled to air next Friday on ABC: "Pastor to Power: Billy Graham and the Presidents." It appears based on the new book by Time writers Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy titled The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House.


No doubt it'll be an interesting show, though Randall Balmer's documentary on Graham is a good one. Wonder what Rice University sociologist William Martin has to say, since he has one of the most important biographies on Graham. Surely the folks at Get Religion will offer their insights on the show, as I hope will the contributors to Religion in American History.

Teaching: The Art of Learning

Just about to finish up teaching my first upper-level undergraduate course: American Religious History. Given that American religion is my primary area of training in my doctoral work, this class has been loads of fun to teach, and made more enjoyable with discussion-oriented students. It is a small class, so the dynamics are certainly different than if there were, say, 40-50 students. Unfortunately, as a summer school class everything seems shorter.

In prepping for lectures, and, in general, conducting research for teaching, I want to offer thoughts on several resources, and throw it open for discussion.

I opted for a thematic approach overall, focusing mainly on the variety of religious experiences in America's past (students read Robert Orsi the first week, for instance), while the course moved chronologically. I assigned Patrick Allitt's reader, Stout's biography on Whitefield, the much-loved Kingdom of Matthias, and one of my favorite books, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. For general background to the course I also assigned Buter, Wacker, Balmer, Religion in American Life: A Short History. In addition, two Du Bois essays came from this volume, and I assigned a few documents from Harvey and Goff's excellent reader on contemporary American religion.

Having recently read Stephen Prothero's newest book on religious literacy, and being more or less convinced of his arguments, I set out to (unscientifically) test his thesis by giving my students the first night of class his suggested religious literacy quiz. Students seemed to know more than I expected, but some of the things I thought they'd know they didn't. It was an interesting exercise, and prompted much fruitful discussion. Before taking the quiz, I had students read his Christian Science Monitor essay and then I spoke briefly about the book.

In prepping for my lecture on Islam in American religion (focusing mainly on the 18th and 19th centuries), I found several chapters in Michael Gomez's amazing Black Crescent absolutely indispensable. Gomez has done an amazing amount of archival work here, and it is a must read if you want to make key transatlantic connections for classes that deal with American or Atlantic history.

Since the class was two nights per week and went from 6-10, I broke the class up between lecture, discussion, and some form of media--either music, movie clips, or documentary segments. I showed clips from the movie Glory and Gods and Generals to highlight black and white religion during particular moments of the 19th century, for example, as well as scenes depicting Malcolm X's religious conversion from Spike Lee's important joint, while I showed segments from the new documentaries Sister Aimee, The Mormons (read more about it here) and Jonestown. I was slightly over a year old when Jonestown happened, so for those of you who have seen this documentary and remember how this event was reported at the time, feel free to offer comparisons for us in the comments. How many people know, apparently, that Jim Jones began his public career preaching racial integration in the 1950s and 1960s, and, according to the documentary, he and his wife were the first people to adopt interracial in the state of Indiana? Interesting.

I also showed several chapters from Briars in the Cottonpatch: The Story of Koinonia Farm, which prompted significant discussion. I wanted to get to the new film about the most famous hippie-for-Jesus you've never heard of, but really didn't have time. Each of these resources provided for great discussion.

In addition to students turning and presenting briefly their research papers, we will discuss megachurches and other dimensions of contemporary American religion in the final class meeting.

Feel free to chime in, and offer your own thoughts or resources on/for teaching American religious history.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Baldblogger Interviews Edward J. Blum, Part 3


Today's interview topic is autobiography and constructing the self; next time Blum answers questions on the other chapters of his book.


Baldblogger (BB): Looking back on ch. 1, in which you chart Du Bois’s construction of his autobiographical selves, what strikes you the most about the ways Du Bois imagined himself and presented himself to the world?

Ed Blum (EB): Let me first say that chapter one on Du Bois’s many autobiographies was inspired, in part, by Patricia Schechter’s book on Ida B. Wells and by Louis DeCaro’s work on Malcolm X (and here and here). Both of them, along with many other scholars, started to read autobiographies not just to find the facts about someone’s life but also to determine how the individual conceived of his or her existence. What did they want most remembered? What did they want forgotten (and hence not mentioned)? Du Bois was a perfect person for this type of analysis because he wrote several autobiographies. His first, and perhaps best, was in Darkwater (1920); his last was published after his death. What I found with Du Bois was that over and over and over he talked about his religious and spiritual influences. Even in his final autobiography, he claimed to have never lost a spiritual side. And, to be blunt, I found that David Levering Lewis quoted from Du Bois’s final autobiography disingenuously. Lewis shortened a passage that Du Bois clearly intended to be taken as evidence of his religiosity so that it reads as if Du Bois was irreligious. You can check that out in the final chapter of my book.

The most important ways Du Bois projected his life are as emblem of race in America and as prophetic figure. He wanted his life narrative, on one hand, to speak about racial issues in the United States – whether interracial sexuality, education, job discrimination, etc. He also presented himself as a prophetic figure in these accounts, oftentimes showing that he wanted to be thought of as one who could speak cosmic realities to the world.

BB: In what ways would Du Bois recognize himself in your work? Why or why not? Has David Graham Du Bois (W.E.B. Du Bois’s son) communicated with you after reading your book?

EB: Sometimes, I think Du Bois would have thought it strange that a religious biography of him exists. Perhaps he would have feared being appropriated by those who are religiously dogmatic and would want to use him to defend religious beliefs that he did not hold. For example, it seems pretty clear that Du Bois did not consider belief in Jesus Christ the only means to heaven. But then again, Du Bois never complained when others regarded him as a spiritual figure. In fact, he was usually the one who published such regards. When William Howard Melish said that he was like Elijah, Du Bois published that in an autobiography; when Horace Bumstead said that Du Bois had a pure kind of religion, again it made its way into the autobiography. So I think Du Bois would have seen a lot of himself in here.

I have never communicated with David Graham Du Bois, and sadly he died in 2005. I was hoping that he would read the work and let me know. Another person who would have had deep insight into my book is Herbert Aptheker, but he too is gone.

BB: For those unfamiliar with Du Bois’s autobiographical publications, where’s a good place to start? Why?

EB: The best place to start for Du Bois’s autobiographies is to get a copy of Darkwater; it was originally published in 1920, but there are plenty of good editions out now that are cheap. Then, if you really get into Du Bois, check out his 1940 work Dusk of Dawn. It is part autobiography, part plan for an all-black socialism. And it is there that Du Bois creates a distinction between the true Christian and the white American that will blow your mind. And as always, you can read about that in depth in W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet.

"Blum(ing)" Around with W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet, Part 4

Ch. 5
Blum’s final chapter, “Christ Was a Communist,” chronicles the closing decades of Du Bois’s life, as he traveled widely throughout the world, forged key relationships among the globe’s communists, spent a considerable amount of his public reflection on Africa, and as is well known finally joined the Communist Party. Importantly, Du Bois remained steadfastly religious, presented himself as such in his final autobiographical installment along with a vast array of other publications, and both Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson still described Du Bois as a prophet in the 1950s.

Blum argues that Du Bois’s critical reflection on church and missionary collusion with colonialism, notably in his work Color and Democracy (1945), is not evidence of his irreligion, but is actually consistent with his understanding of white supremacy in theological categories and his fervent hope for redemption through various social means. Moreover, Blum documents several of Du Bois’s key friendships with liberal white ministers during this period, not to mention his regular presence at their churches. Du Bois continued to draw on religious imagery at the end of his life, Blum shows, through poems such as “Ghana Calls” (1962), and invoked Genesis when in one of his final speeches remarked (to Africans): “China is flesh of your flesh, and blood of your blood” (201). For Du Bois Communism was the last great hope for humankind, but this firm conviction did not impugn religion or render it powerless—it imbued it with sacred significance and spiritual power.

Although some may describe the tone of Blum’s book as very appreciative of Du Bois, and clearly laudatory, Blum tackles shortcomings of one of his spiritual heroes—namely Du Bois’s harsh anti-Semitic statements in several early versions of Souls (Du Bois removed sinister statements against Jews in later editions of Souls, evidently inspired by what he witnessed in the Holocaust), and his consistent praise of Stalin even after Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 began to reveal details of some of his predecessor’s murderous rampages. Given the media’s crafted presentation of news and caricatures of black Americans, Blum argues that Du Bois had legitimate reasons to doubt reports he heard coming out of Russia. This Cold War context is an important point to remember, and one that Brenda Plummer and Mary Dudziak contextualize very helpfully in their work, and the subject of critical discussion here. In my reading, Blum’s navigation of these difficulties is both careful and convincing.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Build It, and They Will Come, or, The Cost of Doing Business: Megachurches and American Religion


Megachurches have been the subject of much interest--the faithful flock to them, journalists are endlessly fascinated by them, the media often misunderstand them, sometimes scholars scoff at them, while others steer clear of them.....the list goes on. How would you know a megachurch if you saw one? How does one define a megachurch? (Find some answers here.)

Either way, according to a new book by megachurch expert Scott Thumma and co-author Dave Travis, Beyond Megachurch Myths, megachurches are here to stay. See the book's website here, blog here, on-line extras here, an interesting megachurch research portal here, and excerpts here. I had the privilege of lunching with Scott last summer on a dissertation research trip to New England, and he is quite welcoming, quite generous, and a fine scholar--not to mention a scholar with expert web skills.

If you are not familiar with Thumma's work, and if you want to learn about these mysterious entities we call megachurches, spend some time surfing around the Hartford Institute for Religion Research website, and you will see why. The bibliography is extensive, and helpful. The Megachurches Today Surveys from 2000 and 2005 are important to read through. The resources are beyond helpful. And the learning is, as the commercial says, "priceless"--an apt term for megachurches no doubt.

Living in Houston, I often drive by megachurches--including Lakewood Church, Second Baptist Church, First Baptist Church, Fellowship of the Woodlands, Grace Community Church, etc. The list goes on and on, since Houston freeways, highways, and byways seemingly run forever, particularly if you are stuck in Houston traffic. I should also say that a large amount of my research is on megachurches, and megapastors--subjects worthy of critical scholarly endeavor. Just ask Robert Wuthnow, Nancy Ammerman, Donald Miller, Mara Einstein, Shayne Lee, James Twitchell, etc. There are many others....

And I'm persuaded that one way to understand megachurches is to use a marketplace approach to studying American religion. Popularized by the likes of sociologists of religion--and Rodney Stark and Roger Finke in particular--this approach more or less see churches as firms that offer religious goods and services to spiritual consumers. This is not as reductionistic as it sounds, nor am I necessarily proposing statistical understandings of religious firms and spiritual consumers, but suggesting a historically-grounded sociological analysis tempered with insights drawn from anthropology, media studies, ethnography, etc. Using multiple angles of analysis, with enough participant-observation, allows one to examine conceptions of sacred space, understand the lived religion of participants and members, explore the uses of media, intersections between religion and commodification, etc. [Look for project announcements about something like this soon.]

Have you ever been to a megachurch? Your expectations before going? Impressions afterward? What were your experiences like? Were you greeted as a consumer? Are these structures too big?

[Photo comes from an MSNBC story on Lakewood. Readers may also note that this picture appears on the cover of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Volume 1: Religion. Oddly, and surprisingly, while Lakewood appears on the cover, it is nowhere to be found inside the covers--a really, really, shocking omission for a "new" volume on southern religion.]

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Baldblogger Interviews Edward J. Blum, Part 2

Baldblogger (BB): Your previous book Reforging the White Republic, chronicled the reasons for sectional reunion following the Civil War and the central role Christianity played in the process. In many ways W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet is in very deep conversation with this work, as you recount the multiple and inventive, creative ways Du Bois responded to the history you traced in Reforging. Can you discuss how, in your own mind, these books relate?

Ed Blum (EB): I first decided to write about Du Bois and religion when I was finishing my dissertation and had an interview at the Harvard Divinity School. The position was in African American religion and so I thought – who better to talk about at Harvard than Du Bois (since Du Bois was a student there in the late nineteenth century and was the first black man to receive a PhD from Harvard). And wouldn’t you know, I was looking through a box of “used” books at the local bookstore and they had a copy of Phil Zuckerman’s edited Du Bois on Religion. Talk about serendipitous or providence or dumb luck. The documents that Zuckerman edited, along with my dissertation research, were the core of my Harvard job talk. I didn’t get the job, but that’s another story. One fascinating outcome of not getting the Harvard job is that half of my Du Bois book was written in the basement of house (when I was a fellow) and I reveled in writing a subversive book from underground. It made me think a little of the beginning of Ellison’s Invisible Man.

It seemed to me that Du Bois understood what few other scholars had: that religion sat at the base of American notions of its nationhood, which tended to privilege being white and being Protestant. And this was the story I wrote about in my first book. In it, I looked at how religious ideas and leaders reconciled northern and southern whites after the Civil War. The tragedy of this was not their reunion, but its white supremacist form. By 1900, northern and southern whites seemed to agree on one thing – they were equally invested in subordinating African Americans. And both sections did it in the name of Christianity.

After writing a book about how Protestant Christianity played a role in reconciling whites and legitimating Jim Crow, lynchings, and racial imperialism, I thought it would be neat to write on those who challenged that world. And Du Bois was the man. So the Du Bois book is kind of a sequel to my first book, or perhaps its an anti-sequel.


BB: Du Bois is a seemingly timeless and very complex historical actor. What sparked your interest in Du Bois, perhaps in terms of historiographical project and in terms of your own personal respect and adoration for him?

EB: The scholarship on Du Bois is massive and it tends to come from the very best in the field. David Lewis, a doyen of American history, wrote two mammoth biographies of Du Bois – both of which are wonderful. Arnold Rampersad, a world-renowned literary critic, had done a book on the literary imagination of Du Bois. Gerald Horne, one of the best historians of the past decades [BB: one of my graduate professors at the University of Houston], did a biography on Du Bois’s years during the Cold War; Shamoon Zamir wrote a wonderful monograph on Du Bois’s early education. The list could go on and on. But they had formed a consensus – that Du Bois was irreligious or antireligious. And this led to some weird interpretations. For example, Rampersad claimed that Du Bois’s poem “A Litany at Atlanta” was a “debate … not between a man and a distant God, but within the speaker himself.” But if you read the poem, Du Bois speaks directly to God. And it was written just before Du Bois wrote prayers for his students at Atlanta University.

This was completely unintended, but all of the claims that Du Bois was anti-religious led religious historians to pay him little heed. This, to me, was a tragedy. So I decided to take on the existing literature, especially David Lewis, and to claim that Du Bois was perhaps the most thoughtful writer on religion in American history.

I was also deeply influenced by Louis DeCaro's [BB: Be sure to check out DeCaro's work on abolitionist John Brown] marvelous religious biography of Malcolm X, On the Side of My People. Even though Malcolm X was a minister, most scholarship on him had focused on his political and civil rights work, as if they could be separated from his religious imagination. DeCaro's study helped me think about how spirituality animated Du Bois's life and times were as well.

I also wrote the book because Du Bois is a teacher of mine. I feel so privileged to sit with his works, to read them, to digest them, to consider not only their contents but also the amazing work that he put in for them. With few research funds; with little access to archives; with hundreds of projects on his docket, Du Bois wrote with such depth and insight that it gives me chills. I wrote on Du Bois to forge a stronger relationship with him; and I often imagine what he would think of the book.


BB: Is it accurate to say you envision yourself as a scholar in a kind of Du Boisian tradition, canvassing multiple historical and contemporary terrains, and crafting perspectives using historical, sociological, ethnographic, philosophical, etc. lenses? Do you consider yourself a “moral intellectual” (p. 132) in a Du Boisian sense? If so, how do you see your work reflecting this?

EB: I definitely consider myself writing in a Du Boisian tradition – basically meaning I take an interdisciplinary approach. This type of work is usually done by scholars in American Studies circles, and I would suggest that Du Bois pioneered this tradition well before Perry Miller and Arthur Schlesinger. I guess I see myself as a moral historian but it comes more from Sidney Ahlstrom (perhaps the twentieth century's finest historian of US religion). Ahlstrom always said that the historian must look at the moral world around her or him and see how it came to be. So I write about race and religion always with an eye to today. This does not mean that my work is presentist. I certainly believe that the past should be understood on its own terms. Yet I want to see paths that seemed to work and paths that did not in creating loving communities.

BB: Often biographers talk about putting their subjects on the proverbial psychologist’s couch—an allusion to an author’s psychoanalysis of his/her subject. Was this an exercise in which you engaged writing the book on Du Bois?

EB: Oh no, there was no putting Du Bois on the couch. In fact, I tried to avoid any form of psychoanalysis. The main reason for this is that too often biographers had written of Du Bois’s mind and soul as if they knew what he believed. But we never really know that. We know what he wrote, what he said, what others said about him. We cannot truly know what went on in the recesses of his head or his subconscious. For Du Bois, we really do not need to do that kind of work. He wrote so much – whether in letters, monographs, autobiographies, and novels – that there is plenty of material. Perhaps I psychoanalyze Du Bois when I examine his literary works – his poems about black Christs and his novels about female messiahs. I definitely suggest that these fictional works point to a deep spirituality; that could be wrong. They could be purely pragmatic and Du Bois could have thought, deep down, that they were fictional lies. I doubt it, but it’s possible.

"Blum(ing)" Around with W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet, Part 3



Ch. 3
Blum’s third chapter studies Du Bois as a historian and a sociologist, paying particular attention to the religious dimensions and spiritual interpretations Du Bois offered in works such as The Philadelphia Negro (1899) and John Brown (1909). Blum shows that at the base of Du Bois’s careful social, economic, cultural, and political analyses of black life in the United States rested the deep conviction that white supremacy and its expressions of faith constituted a religious problem, what Blum terms the “spiritual wages of whiteness” (103). For Du Bois, white supremacy was a problem of global significance, chronicled in key works throughout the twentieth century: Darkwater (1920), Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (1945), and The World and Africa (1946). Spiritual rage and righteous indignation peppered Du Bois's reflections.

Ch. 4
Further clarifying Du Bois’s conception of white supremacy as a theological concept, chapter four provides careful readings of Du Bois’s creative writing, and the imaginative ways he testified to and about the sacred dimensions of black religious life. In novels, plays, short stories, and reflections that appeared in the NAACP magazine The Crisis, Du Bois reimagined religious life in the United States where black biblical characters assailed and condemned the religion of white supremacy. Blum’s starkly disturbing and jarring accounts of the ritualized dimensions of lynching and the sacred significance whites attached to it, renders the spiritual dimensions of Du Bois’s creative offerings striking—particularly in Crisis articles “The Gospel According to Mary Brown” (1919) and “The Son of God” (1933), short stories in Darkwater, and novels—works Blum discusses alongside similarly creative musings from Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, for instance, and even Frederick Douglass and David Walker the century previous. Blum perceptively demonstrates how like a Hebrew prophet of old, in his literary work Du Bois located “dramas of redemption” (180) in the midst of suffering, violence, and gross inhumanity, placing black characters at the center of the story as spiritual exemplars and arbiters of redemption; it is here readers may rightly find “the gospel according to W.E.B. Du Bois” (153).
[Photo from UMass Digital Archive]