This, unfortunately, is the final post of baldblogger's interview with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. His book is of enduring importance. The interview has been fun, and illuminating and challening in so many ways. Let's continue the conversation.....
Baldblogger (BB): In chapter 7 (“Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) you offer extensive meditations on Du Bois, and presume much of his writing to be religious and/or spiritual. You write, in fact, that “In many ways his whole life was an attempt to articulate a new religious ideal for the black community” (p. 149). This is a keen point to make, especially in light of many of Du Bois’s biographers (with this notable exception) essentially arguing the opposite. I wonder if you could tell us about your journeys with Du Bois—what prompted you to read him “religiously” as it were, and what does Du Bois have to teach us today?
Jonathn Wilson-Hartgrove (JWH): I learned to read Du Bois from J. Kameron Carter (and here). When he publishes his work on Du Bois as a religious thinker, it will be a gift to us all.
But I think the case is solid: Du Bois's concern was for the “souls of black folk.” He thought “soul” was the distinctive contribution black people had to offer this country and the essentially religious project it represents. Ultimately, I don’t think Du Bois’ religious vision is a Christian vision. Like Gandhi and other advocates of social change, though, he could see his way through the problems to the ultimate questions. In that sense, he knew that race was a spiritual problem.
BB: Your book is part memoir, part spiritual meditation. It seems to me that this is part of a growing number of books written by white males (books by Timothy Tyson, Chris Rice, Charles Marsh, Robert Paul Wolff, Robert Graetz, and Karl Lutze, among others) who have essentially come to terms with white privilege, white supremacy, and what it means to be white in America—and who work, write, live, hope, dream, and practice change. Some lived during the Civil Rights Movement, for example, while others lived after—and in your case long after. I think this genre of autobiographical writing is significant in a scholarly sense, but also it seems that among some there is a deeper kind of reckoning going on. Any thoughts on this trend? What is different, if anything, in your opinion, about someone from Generation X (and I am part of this generation as well) writing about racial justice?
JWH: I love many of those writers you’ve mentioned. But my real inspiration in terms of writing is Thomas Merton. After I’d read a number of theological essays about the importance of “narrative,” I picked up a copy of Merton’s Seven Story Mountain and said, “This is it!” Narrative theology, so far as I can tell, is about telling the story of God’s involvement with the world.
Du Bois knew that the problem of race demands an imagination that pushes writers beyond the standard genres. The Souls of Black Folk was a generic experiment, mixing sociological research with critical essay and personal narrative. So the white writers you mention, including me, may just be following the example of a black man who led the way in facing this problem.
BB: You suggest several times in the book that for white Christians to understand racial justice, they (we) have to drink deeply from the wells of the black church. It seems that one place to begin the journey is to change reading habits, and displace or replace former (white) theological heroes of the faith. Who should we read? And how do we read these books without falling into a kind of evangelical hyperindividualism that works to absent us from application of knowledge in the wider Christian community? Or, to put it another way, what and how do we read to decenter our white selves?
JWH: I’ve learned a lot from reading Richard Wright, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, Cornel West. And Martin Luther King, of course. Most of us know so little of what King actually said.
But it also matters who we read with. Especially when we read Scripture. The people I mentioned are all intellectuals. Great thinkers can be a gift, but most people never read monographs or novels. Most Christians read the Bible, though. We can decenter our white selves by sitting down and reading what Jesus said with our black brothers and sisters. If we ask what it means for “us” in that context, the new us is itself decentering. Jesus might even have a chance to slip in and insert himself at the center of our lives.