Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas with Du Bois 7.0

O Thou Incarnate Word of God to man, make us this Christmas night to realize Thy truth; We are not Christians because we profess Thy name and celebrate the ceremonies and idly reiterate the prayers of the church, but only in so far as we really comprehend and follow the Christ spirit-we must be poor and not rich, meek and not proud, merciful and not oppressors, peaceful and not warlike or quarrelsome. For the sake of the righteousness of our cause we must bow to persecution and reviling, and again and again turn the stricken cheek to the striker; and above all the cause of our neighbor must be to us dearer than our own cause. This is Christianity. God help us all to be Christians. Amen.

Luke 2:8-14


--from W.E.B. Du Bois, Prayers for Dark People, ed. Herbert Aptheker (U. of Mass. Press, 1980), p. 63

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas with Du Bois 6.0

Du Bois used a Black Mary (and religion) to comment and editorialize about life in Jim Crow America in the 1930s, a brutal reality compounded by the economic hardships the Great Depression brought. As mentioned in a previous post she appeared in “The Son of God” and “The Gospel According to Mary Brown,” and in his creative writing Du Bois often voiced the political and the prophetic with women.

The contents of today's post comes from a short piece titled “Magnificat, 1931,” and Du Bois’s religious editorial appeared in the January 1932 issue of The Crisis.

Du Bois began this editorial by quoting from Luke 1 where Mary meets Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and of Mary Elizabeth exclaims: “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”

In a response to suffering that reads much like Job’s remarks to Yahweh in the midst of his season of calamity, Mary Black reeled off to God a litany of questions, calling him to account for frustrated ambitions, unfilled promises, and a penetrating silence in the face of murder, mayhem, and disenfranchisement. Mary could not fathom another baby as a blessing since “none of us [have] a job.” “Blessed,” scoffed Mary, “How come? I can’t understand you and God and I don’t see no call for this soul of mine to magnify nothing! Look here: You see how we’ve slaved and worked and kept decent and gone to church and nobody calls us blessed,—they curse us.” Instead of blessing, Mary found nothing but rejection.

Owing to spending a lifetime in and around churches, in this story Mary acknowledged God’s power, holiness, and might, but had little time to contemplate theological concepts. Mary wanted to know what God could and would do in the temporal realm; she longed for mercy, meals, and peace and quiet. “But how about me? How about that mercy on them that was afeared of you from generation to generation?,” Mary asked God, “Didn’t Ma and Pa serve you? Didn’t Grandpa preach your Word? Ain’t I tried to do right? Well, how about me, then?”

While Mary longed for mercy to alleviate the suffering in her own life, and from a historical perspective in the lives and generations of her family, in what sounds similar to Jesus’ disciples James and John, Mary wished to call fire down from heaven on her enemies. She desired justice for the oppressed, and mercy for the marginalized.

In desperation, Mary ended her litany of questions at the pinnacle of frustration; she was hungry, poor, cold, broke, and angry. Bitter about the disparities created by Jim Crow, Mary screamed, “What do you do about it? I’ll tell you: You fill the rich and white with good things and the poor and black you send empty away, or lynch them. You don’t even help the Jews as you promised Abraham when he helped you. And now—my god!—and other baby!”

Set in the Great Depression, Du Bois entertained a question of theodicy, giving voice to Black frustration through the life of a woman.

With "Magnificat, 1931," Du Bois continued to identify white supremacy as a spiritual evil with unholy fruit of segregation and exploitation. Voicing passages and proclamations from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, Mary said: “You got strength in your arm—you can scatter the proud—well, why don’t you put down some of the might white folks from their seats and exalt a few black folk of low degree—why don’t you?”

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Christmas with Du Bois 5.0

Du Bois continued the theme of justice a year later, in a December 1911 piece titled “Christmas,” yet focused on children as the future hope of and for justice. (An interesting point to illuminate one context for this editorial: at the time Du Bois's daughter Yolande was 8, and Du Bois would go on to publish The Brownies' Book in 1920. Du Bois's first child, a son named Burghardt, died in 1899 at age 2.) Du Bois hoped that the struggled of today would yield the fruit of justice tomorrow. About Christmas, Du Bois refashioned John 3:16 and observed: “It is the day of the little Saviors of the World whom the Fathers so love that they send them to the world that the world may not perish but have Everlasting Life.”

In the following paragraph the shepherds from Luke 2 return and watch their flocks at night, “the long and dreadful night that lowers over the worlds’ darker peoples.” Such a state, Du Bois averred, prompts people to keep watch for a star or “strain their weary ears for the Voice of Angels with Good Tiding of great Joy which shall be to all people, with glory, not simply to other worlds, but on Earth Peace, Good Will toward men.”

From shepherds Du Bois moved to the 3 kings, “toiling heavily across the seas” in order to find the baby. “One King is black; on King is yellow; on King is white; all three are kings; all three see salvation in the justice, mercy and truth which will rekindle the worn and wicked earth.” Du Bois again emphasized that the Christ child represented universal justice and global equality. Some embraced this vision, while others resisted. “Must the Race Problem greet the cradle of the Savior of the World?," Du Bois asked, “It must; and upon the awful majesty of the three kings must dwell equal reverence and social equality.”

Du Bois continued with his Christmas queries: “But why should kings bow to babies in order to save the world? And if to babies, why to babies in mangers and tenements and rookeries? Why not bring this mighty embassage to the frilled and dainty babies of Fifth Avenue or Plaza Hotel?” Jim Crow created an unwelcome environment in places of white wealth, Du Bois replied, and
“[s]o the homage we pay to the low-lying Savior of the World to be is carried to the lower East Side and the upper West Side, to Black Harlem and yellow Chinatown, to the low, the despised…And there the Kings of the Earth shall bow and open their treasures and present unto the Babes three gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.”

These gifts are neither items of ancient import nor twentieth-century consumable products, but for Du Bois blessings of life transcend the temporal realm yet are invariably intertwined with it. Gold meant raising children well and a modicum of stability, spending what is necessary for clothing, food, and shelter. Du Bois called frankincense “the ointment and balm of health,” by which he meant proper dietary habits, regular sleep, and warm and comfortable clothes to survive “the Hell of life in flats—all the Frankinsense on the alter of childhood.” As for myrrh, what Du Bois fashioned “the perfume and inspiration in the nostrils of a living human soul,” he intended “[k]nowledge and goodness—discipline and home life, reverence for parents, honesty, a hatred of lying lips, a love of honest work. All those are the gifts of kings on the alter of childhood.”

In customary fashion, Du Bois took biblical stories and found avenues for practical application whether it involved good deeds modeled on the life of Jesus, or allegorizing familiar Christmas stories. Du Bois believed religious ethics and spiritual morals far more important than claims to divinity or theological systems.

Du Bois closed this Christmas column with a meditation on childhood and its possibilities. Proper training of children might well bring the salvation of the world, since “[t]o childhood we look for the triumph of Justice, Mercy and Truth. As the children of this generation are trained, so will the hope of all men in the next generation blossom to fruition, and the song of the Angels above the Christ Child will be heard again in the old world: Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men.”

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas with Du Bois 4.0

When Du Bois became editor of The Crisis in 1910, he wasted little time registering religious reflections on its pages. (The first issue appeared in November 1910.) Two early editorials display how Du Bois used the holiday season and religion as a way to reflect on the political realities of early twentieth-century America. We’ll take a look at one today, titled "Good Will Toward Men," and then another in the next post.

In December 1910, Du Bois focused on Jesus’ ethical imperatives of serving one’s neighbor and loving one’s enemy. “This is the month of the Christ Child,” Du Bois began the editorial, “when there was reborn in men the idea of doing to their neighbors that which they would wish done to themselves.”

Christmas, for Du Bois, was not occasion to reflect on the wonder of the Incarnation as a theological concept, but on its manifestation in the world, what he called “a divine idea—a veritable Son of God.” Du Bois claimed to “see glimmerings of the fulfillment of the vision” as
“[i]n blood and tears the world struggles toward this Star of Bethlehem.”

Yet Du Bois sustained a realist hope, a prophetic longing that did not mince words and spoke truth to power. Far too often the fight for equality and the struggle for justice did not live up to its ideal: it “not only miserably failed, but even its truth has been denied,” he wrote.

Du Bois ended this December editorial with a prayer and a plea. “God grant that on some Christmas day our nation and all others will plant themselves on this one platform: Equal justice and equal opportunity for all races.”

Friday, December 12, 2008

Christmas with Du Bois 3.0

In the last post, from the December 1926 issue of The Crisis, Du Bois editorialized from Luke 2 about the birth of Peace, the Savior. Earlier that year, in January, he fashioned a story from Matthew 2 about the travels of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to Egypt titled “No Room in the Inn.”

Du Bois began this editorial by quoting directly from Luke 2, an account of Christ’s birth, swaddling clothes, a manger, and an inn with no vacancy. Then, with the Great Migration in mind, and the attendant issues that emerged with an influx of southern Blacks to the North, Du Bois mused with sarcasm and satire: “Perhaps the inn was really full. Perhaps there was still place for the Rich but none for the Poor. Perhaps the manners of Joseph were not suited to the better bred patrons; perhaps Mary’s condition made the sleek gowned ladies, who could not be bother with children, high incensed; how shocking!” And addressing notions of racialized science present in the 1920s, Du Bois continued, “Perhaps the nose of Joseph was too high and his color too dark for the clerk at the inn.”

Using Mary, Du Bois reflected on the experiences of Black females. He narrated certain moments in her life even as he praised tenacity in the midst of struggle. (And much like the scriptures after the birth of Jesus, Joseph recedes from the picture.) “Ah, but how we black folk can sympathize with the poor little homeless mother of God! Long had been the journey and you had come into the great strange town at night. You hesitate—a stranger, a dark and harried stranger. Then taking desperate courage, you walk into the inn.”

Denied service, denied a place to stay, bewildered and humiliated from the stinging pain and harsh reality of Jim Crow, Du Bois used the experience of Mary and one part of the Christmas story to editorialize about white supremacy and black rage: “And all the time your heart sinks down, down, till the wave of anger and contempt sweeps it up…And so you storm into the night. There is no room in the inn. Not even for Jesus Christ.”

Thursday, December 11, 2008

New Book: Jesus and Justice

Just noticed that my good buddy Peter Heltzel's book is coming out next summer with Yale University Press. It is titled Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race, and American Politics. Peter teaches theology at New York Theological Seminary.

Here's a description from Yale University Press's website:

This timely book investigates the increasing visibility and influence of evangelical Christians in recent American politics with a focus on racial justice. Peter Goodwin Heltzel considers four evangelical social movements: Focus on the Family, the National Association of Evangelicals, Christian Community Development Association, and Sojourners.

The political motives and actions of evangelical groups are founded upon their conceptions of Jesus Christ, Heltzel contends. He traces the roots of contemporary evangelical politics to the prophetic black Christianity tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the socially engaged evangelical tradition of Carl F. H. Henry. Heltzel shows that the basic tenets of King’s and Henry’s theologies have led their evangelical heirs toward a prophetic evangelicalism in a shade of blue green—blue symbolizing the tragedy of black suffering in the Americas, and green symbolizing the hope of a prophetic evangelical engagement with poverty, AIDS, and the environment. This fresh theological understanding of evangelical political groups shines new light on the ways evangelicals shape and are shaped by broader American culture.

I had the privilege of reading this book in manuscript form; it does a masterful job of tracing the historical and theological roots of the various dimensions of evangelicalism. It is a timely book, full of passion, and brimming with rich insight. Read this for a preview of some of what you will find in the book. Peter also recently edited a volume of essays titled Evangelicals and Empire.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas with Du Bois 2.0

In the December 1926 issue of The Crisis, Du Bois titled his Christmas reflection “Peace.” And the cover that month featured an Aaron Douglas piece titled “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields.”

Taking his text from Luke 2, out of which the traditional Christmas story comes, Du Bois rewrote the biblical text to fit an early twentieth century context—where life intersected with labor, war, greed, technology, internationalism, wealth, and poverty.

The story, of course, begins with shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in the fields at night, “ignorant, black and striving shepherds—poor silly sheep all a-crying, in the gloom; field of harm and hunger.” Du Bois customarily wrote of striving black souls hard at work, and in the next moment the Angel of the Lord showed up to announce the good news of the Savior’s birth. “And lo, the angel of the Lord, Mahatma Gandhi, came upon them, brown and poor and the glory of the Lord shone round about them and they were sore afraid.” Universal in scope, the message the Lord’s angel brought “shall be to all people and nations and races and colors…for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour which is Peace.”

And what will be the sign of peace, Du Bois queried, and where will it be? “Ye shall not find Peace in the Palaces and Chancelleries, nor even in the League of Nations and last of all in the Church; but wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, down among lowly black folk and brown and yellow and among the poor whites who work.”

In the story the shepherds responded: “War was, is and ever will be,” they cried. “Wealth rules. God is with the big guns and the largest armies; the costliest battleships, the swiftest airplanes and the loudest boasters of superior races.”

Du Bois ends the story with the appearance of a “lone, lean, brown and conquered angel” accompanied with “a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest and on earth, Peace!”

Once again, with Du Bois, salvation comes from the brown, black and lowly; the marginalized pronounce peace, forgiveness, wholeness, and redemption.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Christmas with Du Bois

When it has struck me, in past years I have marked major holidays with reflections from or on some of the historical figures I’ve studied. Last year I commented about James Baldwin, for example, and also posted a Du Bois prayer about Christmas.

Well, it is the holiday season, and Du Bois returns for this series I’m calling Christmas with Du Bois (this picks up, I suppose, where my short-lived “Devotions with Du Bois” left off in 2007—or rather, never really got off the ground.)

I plan to post once or twice weekly until Christmas, offering my thoughts on what Du Bois had to say about Christmas while editor of The Crisis between 1910 and 1934. In my research I found that Du Bois not only had to say tons about religion (as this book so smartly details), but much about Christmas—and Thanksgiving and Easter, too. Du Bois often narrated Christmas through fiction and non-fiction.

Today’s comments come from a fictional short story, “The Sermon in the Cradle,” which appeared in the Christmas 1921 Crisis number (I’ve posted about this story before in the context of my teaching).

This story retold Jesus’ birth as if it happened under British colonial rule in Benin.

Wise men came from the East to inquire about this “new Christ,” which then troubled the Prime Minister and other officials. In the story, Du Bois rewrote the Nativity prophecy from Isaiah: “And thou Benin, in the land of Nigeria, art not the least among the princes of Africa: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my Negro people.” The star later guided the wise men to the birth site (“in a house”), and upon seeing this new African Christ, worshiped and presented gifts—“gold and medicine and perfume,” presents with symbolic significance and practical value. All of the wise men then left (warned by God in a dream not to return to London), except one black wise man who was from Benin. He “lingered by the cradle and the new-born babe,” Du Bois wrote.

Eventually “the multitudes” showed up and the black Christ child broke into sermon, as Du Bois reconfigured Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are the poor folks for they shall go to heaven. Blessed are the sad folks for someone will bring them joy. Blessed are they that submit to hurts for they shall sometime own the world. Blessed are they that truly want to do right for they shall get their wish. Blessed are those who do not seek revenge for vengeance will not seek them. Blessed are the pure for they shall see God. Blessed are those who will not fight for they are God’s children. Blessed are those whom people like to injure for they shall sometime be happy. Blessed are you, Black Folk, when men make fun of you and mob you and lie about you. Never mind and be glad for your day will surely come. Always the world has ridiculed its better souls.

There are several important points to make about this inventive, creative story. First, the date of publication in the December 1921 issue. Many of Du Bois’s short stories about a black Christ appeared at particular times of the year—in December and in April. Du Bois himself understood the significance of Christian celebrations and the liturgical cycle, and some of his readers no doubt did as well.

Second, “The Sermon in the Cradle” is yet another instance of Du Bois retelling the life of Jesus as a black Christ. Other offerings on this score include Du Bois’s short stories “The Son of God,” published in the December 1933 edition of The Crisis, and “The Gospel According to Mary Brown (1919), among others.

Third, Pan-African and anticolonial movements were underway during the 1920s, and Du Bois understood World War I to be in part a colonial conflict and sought and pursued solidarity internationally. What’s more, Du Bois organized the first Pan African Congress in Paris in 1919 and another in 1921 and so this story is a clear indication that these issues were on his mind at the time. And of course it is significant that Du Bois chose the story and teachings of Jesus as one way to creatively narrate these larger global concerns. Du Bois did not find salvation in Bethlehem, but in Africa.

Fourth, and finally, the reformulated Sermon on the Mount highlights Du Bois’s explicit focus on the ethical dimensions of Jesus’ teaching. There are no miracles and “The Sermon in the Cradle” is devoid of divinity. Du Bois emphasized and hoped social and economic justice would eventually come for those subject to hurt and wrong. Even though there existed a deep thirst for vengeance, Du Bois placed God on the side of Black Folk since “the world has ridiculed its better souls.”

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Watch This!

My friend and colleage Jonathan Walton, assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside, has a book coming out in February with the fine folks from NYU Press. It's called Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism. (And speaking of NYU Press, check out their new blog, "From the Square.")

Here's more:

Through their constant television broadcasts, mass video distributions, and printed publications, African American religious broadcasters have a seemingly ubiquitous presence in popular culture. They are on par with popular entertainers and athletes in the African American community as cultural icons even as they are criticized by others for taking advantage of the devout in order to subsidize their lavish lifestyles.

For these reasons questions abound. Do televangelists proclaim the message of the gospel or a message of greed? Do they represent the “authentic” voice of the black church or the Christian Right in blackface? Does the phenomenon reflect orthodox “Christianity” or ethnocentric “Americaninity” wrapped in religious language?

Watch This! seeks to move beyond such polarizing debates by critically delving into the dominant messages and aesthetic styles of African American televangelists and evaluating their ethical implications.

With an early focus on Rev. Ike and initial versions of the prosperity message, Walton places the contemporary phenomenon of black religious broadcasting in historical perspective, demonstrating that the types of syncretic and sensational black Christian practices witnessed on today's airwaves have been brewing within African American storefronts and on black religious radio for the majority of the twentieth century. He goes on to illumine the diversity of theology and social thought among popular black religious broadcasters in order to delineate the differences among figures often lumped together as monolithic.

In so doing, Watch This! provides a principled ethical analysis that situates televangelists against a larger cultural backdrop, evaluating them according to their own self-understandings and ecclesial agendas. From T.D. Jakes to Bishop Eddie Long to Pastor Creflo Dollar, Walton argues that despite their emphasis on social and economic advancement in the African American community, these leaders ministries frustrate their own liberatory aims and unwittingly reinforce class, racial, and gender injustices in America.

Such a nuanced examination of black religious broadcasting is certain to enrich our understanding of this prevalent and pervasive form of popular and political culture.