Monday, February 1, 2016

W.E.B. Du Bois and God

Among African-American civil rights leaders, W.E.B. Du Bois is one of the more complex personalities. His thoughts during the early part of his career were quite different than during his later work.

In his early phases, Du Bois saw free markets and free enterprise as a chance for Blacks to move upward in society. He wanted to remove the artificial restrictions of institutionalized racism and to allow African-Americans to compete.

He believed that Blacks had creativity, ingenuity, and motivation, and that given a chance in the business world, many of them would succeed.

But later in life, Du Bois had become cynical, and doubted whether a truly fair business climate could be established. At the end of his career, he reject the ideas of a “free market” and instead wanted a socialist government to control how people used their money.

Thus Du Bois embraced, at different times, two opposing views.

But Du Bois had a spiritual element in his thought which remained continuous over the years. Although attracted to Marx’s atheism, Du Bois did not declare himself an atheist. He retained some spiritual attitude, however ambiguous. Historian Gary Dorrien writes:

Du Bois, however, had a spiritual wellspring of his own. He was a keen appreciator of Jesus, and his argument with the black church was a lover's quarrel. His writings were strewn with religious images and references, even after he supposedly dropped religion for Marxism. The Souls of Black Folk famously invoked “our spiritual strivings” and lauded the spirituals. He began his book Darkwater with the social gospel “Credo,” conjured a black baby Jesus in his essay “The Second Coming,” conjured an adult black Jesus in the scathing “Jesus Christ in Texas,” and ended with a “Hymn to the Peoples.”

Although vague, Du Bois refused to relegate his spirituality to realm of symbolism or emotion. He certainly did not belong in the mainstream of African-American Christianity.

At times he criticized the Black churches; at other times he sought to encourage them. To be sure, he saw the power of religion to energize. But he did not rule out an objective ontological reality within spirituality. Gary Dorrien notes that even at the end of his career, Du Bois was concerned about the social role of religion:

As late as the 1950s, Du Bois was still writing about saving “the tattered shreds of God.”

While studying at Fisk University in the 1880s, Du Bois drifted from orthodox Christianity. In the 1890s, he did graduate work in Berlin, where he was introduced to many unorthodox forms of Christianity. He was interested in exploring these more nuanced form of spirituality, rather than dogmatic and doctrinaire atheism.