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]

Friday, July 27, 2007

Baldblogger Interviews Edward J. Blum, Part 1

As promised in a previous post, this summer will feature an interview with Ed Blum about his work on W.E.B. Du Bois and related topics. Our hope is to use this forum to have a conversation; we hope you will join the discussion. Here we go.....

Baldblogger (BB): From a previous interview we know you grew up in NYC. If you don’t mind, briefly trace your academic journey through your undergrad years and grad school. Any formative teachers? Why were they so influential?

Ed Blum (EB): I attended the University of Michigan in the late 1990s and majored in history. There, I had a course in American Religious History with Susan Juster, and it convinced me that religious history was the discipline for me. I was fascinated by the primary and secondary documents she put together, especially Gail Bederman’s article on the Men and Religion Forward Movement of the early twentieth century. For the end of the semester, I wrote a paper comparing and contrasting that movement with the Promise Keepers, who were at the time growing and garnering a lot of attention. I remember going with my father to Promise Keeper’s mammoth meeting in Washington, DC, and thinking how weird it was that I studied these guys. I had a bunch of other professors at Michigan who were fantastic. Jon Carson was new and he agreed to direct my undergraduate thesis, which was a study of Dwight Moody’s revivals in Boston in 1877. Since my name is Ed, My peers teased me about working with “Johnny Carson.” Of course, my students wouldn’t even get that joke today. I remember getting coffee with Jon and feeling like I was somebody, because at such a large school it was easy to feel like a number.

During my junior year, which turned out to be my final year at Michigan, I started applying to graduate programs in history and to seminaries. I decided that becoming a 23 year old minister just didn’t feel right so I trekked off to the University of Kentucky to work with Kathi Kern. I went with the object of studying religion and gender, but found myself pulled into issues of race in the course of my reading. It didn’t hurt that Joanne Melish, a scholar of New England and slavery, had just arrived and pushed me in that direction. Kern and Melish, along with Mark Summers (a political historian) were amazing. They read my material right away; they critiqued it; they encouraged me; they brought me into their families; Melish even read my paragraphs out loud to me so that I could hear the sound of the phrases and rhythm. And Kern, while I was there, published a book on religion and Elizabeth Cady Stanton – another figure who is often considered anti-religious so I feel honored that my Du Bois book joins her work on Stanton. When I finished my dissertation, Dr. Kern and I would sit, have cupcakes, and discuss how each chapter could be improved. Those conversations helped me transform it from a dissertation into a book.

BB: What inspired your interest in the 19th century American history, and why race and religion?

EB: I was drawn to the nineteenth century, particularly the issue of post-Civil War race and religion, because I felt like historians had done a poor job there. I found that of the antebellum era, there were great books on religion: Timothy Smith and David [Richard] Carwardine had done amazing studies, along with Paul Johnson, Sean Wilentz, and Ann Braude. But after the war, religion seemed to be unimportant. Eric Foner and James McPherson hardly discussed religion at all, and when they did it was only black religion. Evangelical scholars, like George Marsden and Mark Noll, paid little attention too. When they did, moreover, they failed to discuss what seemed to be the most important element: race. So basically I wanted to challenge both the broader historians, like Foner, by including religion and the religious historians, by including race. From there my first book came out on race, religion, and American nationalism from the civil war to the end of the century.

I decided to write on Du Bois after that for a number of reasons. He was the great critic of the white supremacist America of the nineteenth century; religious historians ignored him basically; scholars on him, like David Lewis and Arnold Rampersad, had ignored religion. Finally, I found as I was reading Du Bois that I was learning so much about religion and society. I found that Du Bois seemed to understand the joys and the pains, the hopes and the disappointments that had come from faith and religious ideas in the American experiment. So I wanted to join his journey.

BB: Can you discuss identity politics and the/your study of race and religion?

EB: Identity politics are very important for good and for ill. I grew up with every advantage that the white upper-middle-class world offers. I had small classes; I had highly educated high school teachers; I was never pulled over when driving because of my skin tone; if and when I screwed up, we had the money to overcome any mistakes. My family paid for my entire college education – as an out-of-state student at Michigan. Basically an unspoken white affirmative action plan was in place for me. Only a handful of times did I ever attend a black church; and I did not have any African American friends as a young man. So, there is an experiential side of African American life that I do not understand and cannot understand – that I cannot feel. I didn’t sing the spirituals in those days; I didn’t fear the police; I didn’t worry about finances. And I believe this is important. Those types of experiences offer unique insights and perceptions – and they allow individuals to relate in different ways. When on the job market, there were definitely times when universities seemed to want a candidate who had had these experiences. I know that many whites begrudge this, but I don’t. The truth is there are too few African Americans in the academy. We need more; we need their variety of experiences to be brought to the study not only of African American life, but to all of the disciplines. As a white person, I think it is crucial to approach the study of race as a listener, as one open to hear the voices of others. I think Edward Said put it best about the kind of listening I try to do: “there is a difference between knowledge of other peoples and other times that is the result of understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis for their own sakes, and on the other hand knowledge – if that is what it is – that is part of an overall campaign of self-affirmation, belligerency, and outright war. There is, after all, a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of coexistence and humanistic enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate for the purposes of control and external enlargement of horizons.” My goal is the kind of understanding that leads to enlargements of horizons and communities.

Interesting, I have found that some students seem to think my courses on women’s history or on African American history are “more true” because I’m a white male. I think their (flawed) reasoning goes that since I (seemingly) do not have a vested interest in the study I will teach the facts and not just politics. A middle-aged white male student said to me after the first day of women’s history, “I’m so glad a feminist isn’t teaching the class.” Of course, little did he know that I am in support of the feminist movement. To me, this is a sad commentary on how our media presents members of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement – that somehow they have an interest, but white men are disinterested and therefore more believable. C’mon, who understand not only black life, but American life, better in 1965: Fannie Lou Hamer or Daniel Patrick Moynihan? Obviously, Hamer.

BB: What is a “typical” day for you in San Diego? At SDSU? What are the best things about being a history professor? What classes do you teach at SDSU, and what classes do you hope to teach in the future?

EB: San Diego is an oasis (or at the very least a desert that is nicely watered). A typical day begins with a walk of our dog SNCC (he’s named after the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; we don’t have children yet but they’ll probably get historical names too). Then it’s off to the gym to try and run 3 miles. It gets harder and harder. Then, by about 8 I get to the office. I try to reserve my mornings to write. That is the best time for me. I usually put on some kind of piano music and try to write to the rhythm. I see prose writing as quite similar to music. And then after lunch I typically teach. I am the nineteenth century U.S. historian at SDSU so I teach courses on the Civil War and Reconstruction, on the Age of Jackson, on religion in America, and the US history survey courses. In time, I will put together a class on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and on biography and autobiography. Then, after class, I have a few die-hard students who have question after questions. This is my favorite part of the day; these students are busily comparing what they learn in my class with their other ones. I love seeing their minds at work. At about 5 I head home; dinner, play with the dog, tell my wife that she is amazing (which is true) and then read some on our deck. It’s a good life.

"Blum(ing)" Around with W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet, Part 2

No new devotions with Du Bois as outlined in a previous post, but I return here with the second of several posts reviewing Ed Blum's new book on W.E.B. Du Bois. Hopefully readers have had a chance to begin reading this fine book.

Ch. 1
Blum's opening chapter helpfully situates Du Bois’s created self within the history of black autobiography. Drawing from literary theory, Blum tours Du Bois’s autobiographies, publications such as Darkwater (1920), “The Revelation of Saint Orgne, the Damned” (1938), and Dusk of Dawn (1940). Blum deftly shows how Du Bois created and offered a religious self to readers in conversation with and in response to the particularities of the moment, whether it was instances of lynching, the publications of a racist author (i.e., Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman [1905]), or imperialistic and immoral wars that took place during his lifetime.

Ch. 2
Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) is the subject of chapter 2. Here Blum illuminatingly situates Souls in the context of nineteenth century reflection on spiritually-informed racial understanding, and pays keen attention to the book’s reception both in America and abroad throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. From these vantage points, Blum brings Souls into conversation with nineteenth-century theological and historical reflection on racialized conceptions of religion and spiritual worth, though he asserts not with the depth of spiritual insight that Du Bois offered.

Adding to his previous work in Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (2005), Blum crafts a late-nineteenth and early twentieth history of American religion that intelligently shows who, what, when, where, why, and how both Northern and Southern whites more aggressively associated whiteness with godliness, baptizing white supremacy as a kind of national religion, replete with sacred texts, religious rituals, and spiritual practices, subjects Blum takes up with gripping detail in chapters three and four as well. It is against this backdrop that Blum’s reading of Souls becomes so powerful, as he captures the spiritual fervor, righteous anger, theological creativity, and sacred understanding Du Bois displayed in this seminal text—from his careful rendering of black spirituals, for instance, to the brilliant way Du Bois imagined and aligned chapter titles with the Thirty Nine Articles—clear evidence Du Bois intended Souls “to be taken as a new set of religious articles, a new code of faith for the new century” (78). Ultimately, Blum clearly shows that Du Bois’s literary, historical, sociological, and even theological prowess stands unmatched, and in the book’s most important chapter solidifies Du Bois’s role as an American prophet who still speaks.

Up next: chs. 3 and 4.
[Photo from UMass Digital Archive.]

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Child's Play?: Religious Toys and Race

Mara Einstein over at Brands of Faith (in light of this post be sure to pick up her forthcoming book) posts about Bible toys at Wal-Mart. In collaboration with the religious toy company one2believe, next month Wal-Mart begins selling Bible characters -- Jesus, Mary, Paul, Peter, Esther, and David, just to name a few.

Interesting as well are the company's P31 dolls, toys (according to its website) "based on the biblical teaching of Proverbs 31...specifically designed to provide a Bible-based, Christian alternative to other secular toys on the market, and to encourage young girls to pursue biblical womanhood....It is our prayer that the Lord would use these dolls as a means to encourage the girls of today to become Proverbs 31 women of tomorrow!" Included with the toys are Bible lessons, an accessory kit, recipies, and cookie cutters, tools that suggest the company supports domestic teaching and learning for P31 women. Of the four P31 dolls currently available, "Leah" is an African American doll, while the others are clearly white.

From the vantage point of religious goods in the spiritual marketplace, these toys are simply the latest example of trends and products religion scholars Colleen McDannell and Heather Hendershot carefully write about here and here.

From another perspective, these products display another sad example of the association of whiteness with godliness, and the depiction of biblical characters as Euro-Americans. American religion and capitalism work in sinister collusion yet again. No doubt the company sees these toys as evangelistic tools, but I wonder if parents who purchase these products will realize the connections these toys suggest, and the psychological associations their kids will invariably make playing with these figures, in many cases subtly and powerfully reinforcing racial codes of white supremacy?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Religion and Politics in 2008

Ed Blum has an interesting and provacative article on what W.E.B. Du Bois has to say to contemporary politicians, and the contribution Du Bois can make to today's discussions about politics. Read it here. (HT: Paul Harvey)

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Devotions with Du Bois, Day 2

Commentary and context:

Prayers for Dark People constitutes the prayers Du Bois penned during 1909-1910, in his early 40s, while teaching at Atlanta University, which at the time held classes for what today we’d call elementary, middle, high school, and college students. This gives the prayers and meditations a didactic quality, though not pedantic, and it is probably not too much to say that the prayers reflect something of a pastoral tone. The messages are certainly moralistic, focused on virtue (sometimes even “holiness”), yet there is a spiritual urgency in his words as well, a firm conviction to sieze the day. Some prayers have a theme attached to them (e.g., “Cleanliness”), while others end with one or two scripture references. The upshot is clearly practical theology, something akin to what some contemporaries called the Social Gospel.

At the time, Du Bois had published his well-known The Souls of Black Folk (1903), and in 1909 published his study of John Brown, who he considered to be something of a spiritual exemplar. In 1095 Du Bois co-organized the Niagra Movement, which later became the the NAACP. Du Bois lost his first son Burghart in 1899, and the following year attened the first Pan-African Congress in London, at which he was elected Secretary. The final point to mention about the larger context surrounding the composition of the prayers, Du Bois left Atlanta Univeristy in 1910 to assume editorship of The Crisis, the key publication of the NAACP, and oversee other editorial tasks for the organization.

[Photo from the online archive at UMASS-Amherst.]

Friday, July 13, 2007

Scholars and Starbucks

No, this is not a post about drinking coffee to stay up late to read or write, though that is often what I do in these final days and weeks of dissertation writing. Rather, this is a presentation by historian Bryant Simon discussing the cultural meaning of Starbucks, and the social meanings of coffee, consumption, and commodification. No doubt his forthcoming book will stir up great discussion -- conducted over a cup of coffee of course. (HT: The Brew)
NEW: My good friend and colleague LK (read here) has some interesting thoughts related to what Simon discusses.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Matisyahu in Houston

Tonight with two good friends and my son Matthew, I went to the Matisyahu show in Houston. For those who may not know, Matisyahu is a Hasidic reggae artist. You've probably never heard anything like it. (NEW: Matisyahu interview here.)

It was the first concert I had been to since my freshman year in college, sometime in 1996. In fact, Matisyahu played at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands, where I went to my last concert--and if memory serves me correctly I saw Sheryl Crow. (I'm not even a Crow fan, I think I got the tickets for free.)

The set lasted for about an hour, and he was in top form. Matisyahu opened with "Fire of Heaven/Alter of Earth" (the opening track on the Youth CD) , sang "Jerusalem" of course, as well as the prayerful "Close My Eyes" (from Live at Stubbs), among others. He also displayed his customary beatboxing skills, this time linking his vocally percussive expression to a nice piano tune. (For examples, check out this blog.) One hopes to hear more of this on future CDs.

I sat way out on the lawn, and so was away from the energy of the stage. Nevertheless it was a good show.

The biblical scope of Matisyahu's music still resonates deeply; his music possesses the depth of the blues, and the energy and improvisational quality of jazz. Every encounter changes the soul.

Devotions with Du Bois, Day 1

This post announces a summer series, a new venture of sorts. I’ll craft devotionals from W.E.B. Du Bois, Prayers for Dark People, ed. Herbert Aptheker (University of Massachusetts Press, 1980). Perhaps you’ll purchase a copy and read along, offering your own take in the comments section. Think of it as an interactive call and response, with Du Bois in the pulpit. He still speaks today.

The series, what I’m calling “Devotions with Du Bois,” reflects a growing interest in W.E.B. Du Bois, and an explicit investigation into that which constituted his faith--or at least his relationship to Christianity. It also comes from a pedagogical conviction that interactive (literally), organic exchanges constitute learning. I don’t know everything, and conversation is sometimes a wonderful teacher. Third, it is also my conviction that some of the keenest spiritual insight often shows up in the unlikeliest of places. Scholars of religion call this “lived religion,” and theologians call it “practical theology.”

This series also comes as I’m reading through the first book length study of Du Bois’s spirituality, Ed Blum’s W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet, recently published with Penn State University Press. (For a summary of posts about Ed's book, read here.)

What do you think? To what extent can Du Bois speak as a spiritual authority, or even a “pastor” today? Can he be called a spiritual leader? Is he a prophet? Why or why not?

[Picture from the online archive at UMASS-Amherst.]