Friday, August 03, 2007

"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.

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