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.