In W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, I read “Of the Faith of the Fathers.” Du Bois argues that white slavemasters used Christianity to make their slaves submissive, but, in the process, they deprived African-Americans of hope, which (for Du Bois) resulted in the shiftlessness of some of the African-Americans of Du Bois’ day. In addition, white slavemasters undermining the African-American family produced disastrous results. Du Bois also discusses the rage of many African-Americans. This is the sort of material that we have seen in Du Bois’ previous essays.
Here, I want to share a few quotes from the essay that stood out to me. On pages 121-122, Du Bois describes a typical African-American Baptist church in a small Virginian town:
“a roomy brick edifice seating five hundred or more persons, tastefully finished in Georgia pine, with a carpet, a small organ, and stained-glass windows. Underneath is a large assembly room with benches. This building is the central club-house of a community of a thousand or more Negroes. Various organizations meet here,—the church proper, the Sunday-school, two or three insurance societies, secret societies, and mass meetings of various kinds. Entertainments, suppers, and lectures are held beside the five or six regular weekly religious services. Considerable sums of money are collected and expended here, employment is found for the idle, strangers are introduced, news is disseminated and charity distributed. At the same time this social, intellectual, and economic centre is a religious centre of great power. Depravity, Sin, Redemption, Heaven, Hell, and Damnation are preached twice a Sunday with much fervor, and revivals take place every year after the crops are laid by; and few indeed of the community have the hardihood to withstand conversion. Back of this more formal religion, the Church often stands as a real conserver of morals, a strengthener of family life, and the final authority on what is Good and Right.”
On pages 124-125, Du Bois describes the world of the “transplanted African”—“a world animate with gods and devils, elves and witches, full of strange influences,—of Good to be implored, of Evil to be propitiated. Slavery, then, was to him the dark triumph of Evil over him. All the hateful powers of the Under-world were striving against him, and a spirit of revolt and revenge filled his heart. He called up all the resources of heathenism to aid,—exorcism and witchcraft, the mysterious Obi worship with its barbarous rites, spells, and blood-sacrifice even, now and then, of human victims. Weird midnight orgies and mystic conjurations were invoked, the witch-woman and the voodoo priest became the centre of Negro group life, and that vein of vague superstition which characterizes the unlettered Negro even today was deepened and strengthened.”
These quotes—with the exception of the part about human sacrifice and midnight orgies—give me a sort of cozy feeling. The first one is about community—people helping one another. Even the part about hell and damnation doesn’t turn me off a great deal—although it would nowadays were I to attend a conservative Christian church. In the African-American church that Du Bois describes, probably all of the people in the community considered themselves Christians, and so they wouldn’t have to worry about the plight of those who didn’t believe in Christianity. Or would they? Kunta Kinte was a Muslim. And the African-Americans may have had parents who were not Christians.
There’s a sense of coziness about a community in which right and wrong, truth and error, are clearly defined—as opposed to the situation today, in which people can know about all sorts of beliefs out there, and wonder who’s right! It’s like my small town when I was growing up: you wanted to be a good person, and so you became a Christian. People didn’t know much about other options in terms of becoming moral! But maybe things weren’t so clear-cut in the African-American community back then. Maybe they weren’t even clear-cut in my small town, while I was growing up!
The second quote was cozy in a bedtime story sort of way, and also because it presents evil as controllable—as something that can be surmounted within community. I read recently that mythology is a way to make sense of life and to control chaos. Indeed, that may be the case! Whether or not it’s always successful, I cannot say. The Deuteronomist mythology sure didn’t cut it for Qoheleth and Job!
UPDATE: Check out Rod of Alexandria’s post on W.E.B. Du Bois’ religion, as well as his links to Celucien Joseph’s series on the topic: here.