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People & Ideas: W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois

Source: Library of Congress

A pioneering social scientist, writer, activist and organizer, W.E.B. Du Bois was born in Western Massachusetts, where he was raised by a single mother and attended the local Congregational Church. He studied at Fisk University, earned a Ph.D. at Harvard -- the first African American to do so -- and did further graduate work at the University of Berlin. Over the course of his lifetime, Du Bois (pronounced "Due Boyce") produced a prodigious body of writing -- sociological studies, essays, novels, poetry, political pamphlets and more -- that addressed the problem of race and its relationship to religion. When he died at the age of 95, he was widely recognized as one of the most influential intellectuals in American history.

Raised in New England, Du Bois first witnessed virulent racism when he moved South to teach at Atlanta University. Forty years after emancipation, blacks were still being lynched by white mobs and enduring relentless displays of raw, primal prejudice, hatred and contempt. Du Bois described this racism as a "great, red monster of cruel oppression." He determined to fight it with all the power of his intellect and to connect the question of race to religion.

Du Bois' early works, The Philadelphia Negro (1899) and The Negro Church (1903), focused on the African American church. As his biographer Edward Blum has observed, Du Bois understood that the black church stood at the center of the African American community. The Negro Church was the first major sociological study of the church that was based on empirical evidence. Du Bois and his colleagues interviewed more than 1,000 young African Americans about their religious beliefs, practices and expectations. The result was a portrait of a vibrant institution with a multitude of voices.

But Du Bois was not content with academic analysis; he wanted the church to become a transformative powerhouse of social, racial and economic uplift. He believed that ministers were essential to this uplift because they possessed the power to instill moral fiber and encourage moral virtue.

In 1903, Du Bois published one of the most powerful and influential books in American history, The Souls of Black Folk. He began with this profound observation on race: "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line -- the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea."

Marshalling his knowledge of history, sociology and theology, Du Bois challenged the ideology of white supremacy that linked race with concepts of the divine. Whiteness was seen to be biblically endowed with the sacred; blackness was associated with the devil. Black people were portrayed as sub-human animals who had no souls. In the late 19th century, this malignant ideology had permeated mainstream American culture, invading literary, scientific and military discourse.

Du Bois showed how the conflation of race and religion provided whites with a "psychological wage" to subjugate blacks, to justify violence and to legitimize injustice. Du Bois pushed back. As Blum has observed, he "suggested that the poor, downtrodden, the exploited were the true children of the Lord." Extolling the resilience and creativity of African Americans, he sought to imbue their aspirations with new spiritual energies. Anticipating the black liberation theology of the 1960s, he imagined a black God, a black Christ and even a black female God. With these alternative images of the divine, Du Bois constructed a new black sacred cosmos.

In the chapter of The Souls of Black Folk titled "Of the Faith of the Fathers," Du Bois offered a compelling essay on the role of black ministers. He extolled his grandfather Alexander Crummell and eulogized Henry McNeal Turner, bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, as "a man of tremendous force and indomitable courage." Yet he did not hesitate to criticize other ministers for clinging to an old-fashioned faith that promised salvation in the "bye-and-bye" rather than progress in the here and now.

Impatient with academia, Du Bois became an activist. Touring the country, he gave lectures, advocated protest and criticized other black leaders, particularly his rival Booker T. Washington, whose accommodationist policies, he said, would only further whites' oppression of blacks. After Washington's death in 1915, Du Bois faced off with another influential African American, Marcus Garvey, who spearheaded his own brand of Pan-Africanism.

In 1905, Du Bois convened the Niagara Movement to combat the pervasive practice of lynching; in 1909 he was one of the founders of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Du Bois became the editor of its influential journal, The Crisis. As time passed, his politics leaned more and more to the left, and he traveled to Africa and Russia. In 1961, he joined the Communist Party and later left the United States to settle in Ghana. He died there on Aug. 27, 1964, one day before the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

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Published October 11, 2010

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