Phil Zuckerman, Associate Professor of Sociology, Pitzer College

"W.E.B. DuBois and the Bible"

On November 8, at the Institute for Signifying Scriptures, Phil Zuckerman, Associate Professor of Sociology at Pitzer College, gave a presentation entitled “W.E.B. DuBois and the Bible.”  Professors and graduate students listened attentively to Professor Zuckerman’s research on DuBois’s struggles as one of the pioneers in the academic fields of sociology and history and in creative writings.  According to Zuckerman, DuBois was a creative and courageous thinker who not only challenged social norms but also theological and Biblical narratives in the black and white cultures of Christian America.

Zuckerman argued that although he was raised in an earnest New England protestant church tradition, DuBois broke away from organized religion in college and considered himself a free thinker.  Although some have criticized DuBois as hostile to religion, Zuckerman pointed out that DuBois’s hostility was not aimed at religion itself—which he believed could be a weapon for social ethics, justice, and good will—but rather at white Christian hypocrisy.

Despite DuBois’s major intellectual contributions, Zuckerman discovered that until recent decades there was a consistent lack of attention to and respect for his numerous literary and oral contributions to African American struggles. This led him to study DuBois’s major work, The Souls of Black Folk, where he discovered that DuBois had written on the sociology of religion, shedding light on the way religion is engaged.  Zuckerman went on to publish DuBois on Religion and The Social Theory of W.E.B. DuBois, in addition to facilitating the re-publication of DuBois’s own Negro Church.

According to Zuckerman, DuBois knew the Bible intimately and drew from it throughout his life in his speeches, essays, novels, short stories, and social-political activism. His writings were often tempered with allusions to the Bible for his own polemical ends and political purposes.  His used the Bible not so much to instill Christian beliefs within the black community but rather to appeal to a wider audience of Americans by engaging, challenging, and playing upon a text that was deeply embedded in their shared culture.

For example, Zuckerman pointed to DuBois’s play on the metaphor of the veil to describe the division between blacks and whites. Zuckerman argued that the veil as appears in the book of Exodus, which chronicles the enslavement and wandering of the ancient Jews, takes on a double function: to cover the ark of the covenant which the Jews were carrying with them; and to shield Moses’ face from the people after he had spoken to God on Mt. Sinai.  In both situations, the veil serves as a thin wall of separation between the sacred and the profane, the holy and the mundane.  Zuckerman’s twist on the matter is that he understands Dubois’s interpretation to have been that black folks live behind a veil that separates the spiritual from the non-spiritual realm and that blacks in fact occupy the more elevated spiritual position.  

What Zuckerman finds most exciting and unique about DuBois are his writings on Jesus as a black man.  He uses the Jesus narrative in the gospels to illuminate the condition of African Americans in white America: their persecution, murder and salvation. This can be found especially in some of his short stories, e.g., “Jesus Christ in Georgia,” “The Gospel According to Mary Brown,” “The Second Coming” and “The Son of God,” which identify oppressed and persecuted black folks of the south as the collective incarnation of Jesus. For DuBois, it was black people who carried Christ’s spirit of love and forgiveness in white America.

After highlighting a number of DuBois’s writings, Zuckerman concluded with a few points for reflection:

    *DuBois clearly understood that the Bible was of major cultural importance, unparalleled for both whites and blacks, and employed it to push for social justice and freedom. He also used the Bible in his writings to inspire empathy and understanding towards African Americans
    *DuBois saw the figure of Jesus not as source of personal salvation but rather as a cultural and historical icon and symbol of Black American suffering
    *In DuBois’s use of Biblical stories, he challenged white American Christianity and destabilized the white Christ by undermining the roots of white Christian hegemony.  Zuckerman quoted a passage from DuBois’ “The Church and the Negro” in The Crisis of 1913 in which he writes:
Jesus Christ was a laborer and black men are laborers;

He was poor and we are poor;
He was despised;
He was persecuted and crucified, and we are mobbed and lynched.
If Jesus Christ came to America He would associate with Negroes and Italians and working people…

Professor Wimbush concluded the Brown Bag session by pointing out how important it is to see DuBois as part of a history of Black (self-) critical engagement of the Bible. Understood in this light, even the earliest slave narratives can be seen as attempts to signify scriptures and to signify on scriptures. DuBois could be both explicit and implicit in engaging Biblical stories and characters in his pursuit of racial equality and social justice. He signified on the very literality/orality of the Bible as canonical text, that is, the problem of limiting what is regarded as “revelation,” knowledge and power to a text. DuBois and others problematized what the dominant culture viewed as its signaled text and broadened, troubled and destabilized the discourse.

Some questions for further discourse:

How does DuBois’s hostility toward “white Christian hypocrisy,” articulated in part through playing with scriptural content, position him with respect to believing communities? In other words, does his engagement with scriptures mark him as an insider or outsider—and how might that location affect our reading of him?

What does it mean for an individual of DuBois’s stature and legacy to use biblical texts to critique bible-centric American religion? In what way does his critical transvaluation resemble and differ from signifying done by communities, for example, in black churches?

The multivalent imagery of the veil has to do with the racialized perception of self and other. How does our awareness of the possible biblical origins of DuBois’s metaphor deepen or contest conventional interpretations of the veil?

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