December 1, 2022

Category - W.E.B. Du Bois

As Curtis Evans of the Florida State University Department of Religion concluded in his article W.E.B. Du Bois:  Interpreting Religion and the Problem of the Negro Church, Du Bois’s methodological contributions to a more accurate, nuanced and humane portrayal of the African-American community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries “included his ethnographic approach of observation in a time when it was regarded as pollution to live and work among African Americans. His recognition of blacks’ humanity, his affirmation of the viability and continuing influence of African culture, and his assertion of the partial autonomy and cultural creativity of blacks were crucial achievements for his day. Du Bois’s detailed studies of local black communities were prescient in that they remind us in important ways of contemporary suspicions of grand narratives and abstractions.  Du Bois deserves the recent attention that he has garnered for enriching our knowledge of African American life and providing us with insight into the difficult process of coming to know ourselves and our common humanity more fully.”

I do not agree, however, with Dr. Evan’s assertion that “The construction of the Negro Church (and its now common appellation, the “Black Church”) has obscured the very real differences among African Americans that Du Bois himself detected and it has rendered invisible or regressive those black religious groups and practices that do not fit into such categories as progressive or prophetic. Perhaps this is one of the most ironic of Du Bois’s legacies in light of his earlier methodological contributions.”

First, the Black Church isn’t today and never has been monolithic in its expression of the Christian faith or its degree of emphasis on progressive or prophetic applications of that faith.  While I believe it is true as the distinguished Reverend Samuel DeWitt Proctor has observed that there is a commonality of the experience and consciousness of shared oppression that binds the differing Black churches together, it is clear that vibrant and relevant Black denominations and churches of all sociological persuasions and expressions exist today and are important in the Black community and beyond.  It is true that some Black church denominations and individual churches participated in or emphasized progressive causes to different degrees during the Civil Rights movement and to this day, but to conclude that the Black church has rendered “invisible or regressive” those black religious groups and practices that do not fit into such categories as progressive or prophetic is a stretch.  I thank God for those Black denominations, preachers and public intellectuals (like Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, Frederick Douglass, James Thurman, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gardner C. Taylor, Katie Cannon, James ConeCornel West, Traci Blackmon and many others) who have done so much to develop and enrich the Black church and community with a correct scriptural exegesis and hermeneutic of unapologetically progressive and prophetic theology and its outworking in empowering and helping to achieve much to date in Black emancipation, justice and equity.  Much more remains to be done.  But I also thank God for those Black denominations, churches and preachers who differ(ed) in their emphases, but nonetheless have helped to sustain millions throughout extremely difficult decades of social, economic and judicial repression in our country.  Neither their existence nor their impact have been or are invisible.

Nor do I agree with Dr. Evans’ conclusion that any such “invisibility” (even if it existed) could be credibly attributed to the legacy of Du Bois’s research, “ironic” or otherwise.  Dr. Evans provides no support for such a conclusion, and it is a bridge too far to believe that such a result could be laid at the feet of Dr. Du Bois.

Nevertheless, Dr. Evans correctly documents certain criticism Du Bois levied at the Black Church in his day, whether valid or not.  Such criticisms should be acknowledged to be fair to Dr. Du Bois’ full record, but not taken as cast in stone or applied monolithically to the Black Church, then or now.

Dr. Evan’s essay can be found online at https://academic.oup.com/jaar/article/75/2/268/692008