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.


Phil said...

_Darkwater_ is available as an e-text through the University of Virginia:

Phil said...

I should all also that _Souls_ is available there, as well as 5 other Du Bois works. Check it out.