Reflections on "The Souls of Black Folk"

The quality of classic books varies based on a number of factors. Some old books stick around and continue to be read because they have historical value—they tell us something about how a particular group thought or lived at a given time. Some old books remain popular because they are foundational—they are so regularly referenced and alluded to by later literature that they are necessary for understanding culture. Some old books deserve to be read because they are fine literature and point effectively toward the good, true, and beautiful.

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I recently picked up W.E.B. DuBois’s classic volume, The Souls of Black Folk, because I believed it fell cleanly into the first category. It might one day fall into the second category, but I hope that we don’t need it to. I was pleasantly rewarded while poring through the book to realize it also fell into the third category as well. The Souls of Black Folk is an important piece of history, but it is also a beautiful piece of literature, too. That made this book an enjoyable (if convicting) read.

DuBois is best known to many of us because many cities and towns have an urban renewal center named after him. He was an influential voice for the rights of African-Americans and the pursuit of racial justice.

The Souls of Black Folk was originally published in 1903, nearly 50 years after slavery had officially ended in the U.S. However, this was also decades before the Civil Rights movement really got popular traction. The shame is that in many ways, despite the clear advances in legal rights for African-Americans, the situation has not changed nearly as much as it should in the past century.

The book centers around a major problem in America. The problem is the color-line. Or, more properly, the place of people of color in a land that does not seem to want them. As DuBois writes,

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,--this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better, truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

That is a simple vision and one that should have come to pass long before this day. In some ways it has come to pass and things are hopeful. In other ways, if we are honest, it is a long way away.

The book as a whole traces out DuBois’s critique of the situation. It is filled with beautiful prose and clear evidence that DuBois had a fine mind and good education. DuBois provides a survey of the progress and sometimes lack of progress of blacks in the South. In some cases, they had advanced and were prospering. In other cases, the intentional roadblocks and legalized (or overlooked) abuses had managed to keep African-Americans back. His book is a short study in the need for careful study and the avoidance of generalizations.

This volume also offers a balanced criticism of whites. He notes,

First, it is the duty of black men to judge the South discriminatingly. The present generation of Southerners are not responsible for the past, and they should not be blindly hated or blamed for it. Furthermore, to no class is the indiscriminate endorsement of the recent course of the South toward Negroes more nauseating than to the best thought of the South. The South is not “solid”; it is a land in the ferment of social change, wherein forces of all kinds are fighting for supremacy; and to praise the ill the South is to-day perpetrating is just as wrong as to condemn the good. Discriminating and broad-minded criticism is what the South needs,--needs it for the sake of her own white sons and daughters, and for the insurance of robust, healthy mental and moral development.
To-day even the attitude of the Southern whites toward the blacks is not, as so many assume, in all cases the same; the ignorant Southerner hates the Negro, the workingmen fear his competition, the money-makers wish to use him as a laborer, some of the educated see a menace in his upward development, while others – usually the sons of the masters – wish to help him rise. . . . To praise this intricate whirl of thought and prejudice is nonsense; to inveigh indiscriminately against “the South” is unjust. . . [but to critique those worthy of it is an imperative duty.]

In DuBois’s approach we see neither toleration of injustice, nor unfair animus toward those who did not create the problem. There is a message for a wide range of readers in DuBois, which should urge us to make things better without blaming those who did not cause the problem in the first place, even if they benefited from it.

One does not need to agree with all that DuBois writes to benefit from this book. This is the sort of book that, even if you disagree, makes you better because you have to explain why. For example, DuBois takes a somewhat dim view of Christianity in the book. There may have been good cause, particularly as Christians did not represent Christ well in many cases. But even though I disagree with his final analysis, his critique is written well and in good faith.

The Souls of Black Folk is the sort of book that is easily read in a few days and much easier to read than to read about. It is a book that should be more regularly included in reading lists, since it is clearly written and balanced in content it could easily be digested by a high schooler. This is a volume that gives insight into our time specifically because things aren’t as much better as they should be. For that reason, it is exactly the sort of critique of our thinking that so many of us need.

The Souls of Black Folk
By W.E.B. Du Bois

Celebrating Black History Month

Now that February has kicked off, social media streams are sometimes sprinkled and sometimes filled with celebrations of or objections to Black History month. For many, the celebration of Black History month is warranted and natural, but for others, there are questions why any special celebration is necessary.

History of Black History Month

Though it has its roots in the beginning of the 20th century, the first official celebration of Black History month was in 1976. Every president since that time has renewed that declaration.

The purpose of the first Black History month was to recognize the progress that the United States had made toward the fulfillment of the humanist ideals that framed the American Revolution. As Gerald Ford noted in his declaration:

The last quarter-century has finally witnessed significant strides in the full integration of black people into every area of national life. In celebrating Black History Month, we can take satisfaction from this recent progress in the realization of the ideals envisioned by our Founding Fathers. But, even more than this, we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.
I urge my fellow citizens to join me in tribute to Black History Month and to the message of courage and perseverance it brings to all of us.

Forty-two years later, there are some Americans who question the need to continue to celebrate the month, because they believe that the errors of the first two centuries of American history have largely been amended. However, a realistic look at the social and economic realities of our nations shows that even if the legal abuses of the Jim Crow era, post-bellum culture, and legalized slavery have been corrected, the long-term impacts continue.

Why is Black History Month Necessary?

Black History month, therefore, still serves to remind us of what ought to have been, what can be, and the work that is left to be done.

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Additionally, Black History month reminds us that despite the barriers placed in the way of success, progress, and achievement of African-Americans, these Americans still accomplished impressive things. The imago Dei can overcome, no matter how difficult other humans try to suppress its outworking.

Different groups will no doubt draw different themes from the celebration of Black History month. However, one dominant theme Christians—especially white Christians—can draw from the celebration of this month is how a bad doctrine of anthropology taints the water of society.

Consider that at the core of the abuses of Black Americans is and has been the denial of their full humanity. There is a reason civil rights protesters carried placards and wore signs declaring “I am a man.” This was not simply a political statement, but a profoundly theological one. As a nation, the United States neglected to acknowledge the full humanity of African-Americans. This was explicit in some of the early rhetoric supporting chattel slavery, where the ensoulment of dark skinned persons was denied as a way to justify not evangelizing them at first. Blacks were not simply treated like animals, they were described as animals--sometimes from the pulpit.

The celebration of the beauty of blackness, the accomplishments of African-Americans, and the distinct sub-cultures within the tapestry of African-American culture is good and right because it is a celebration of the full humanity of dark skinned humans. Black History month gives people of all skin tones opportunity to celebrate that goodness, even if it different than our own sub-culture's. It is a way to celebrate the common standing with a group whose humanity was previously denied.

Black chattel slavery as it existed in 19th century America was particularly damnable because it actively denied the humanity of the slaves, and of all people of color. This is why the comparison of other ancient slavery (e.g., the objection that all ancient cultures owned slaves) does not diminish the moral blindness and perfidy of slavery as it existed in the pre-Industrial West.

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But still, once the humanity of African-Americans was begrudgingly acknowledged by the abolition of slavery and eventually the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, much of the Land of the Free perpetuated the statutory abuse of humans by creating the Jim Crow laws. These are laws that in retrospect appear to be as preposterous as the school-kid fear of getting cooties. Think about it, whites were so disgusted with African-Americans they created separate water fountains so they wouldn’t get infected with blackness. More likely it was simply a way of showing that despite the legal acknowledgement of the humanity of African-Americans, whites could still deny them recognition of that fact.

The inefficiency and foolishness of these immoral actions will not cease to be an embarrassment to the United States. However, like all errors, it should spur us to do better. We can't overcome the embarrassment by ignoring the failures of the past, but only by doing much better in the present and future.

Black History month forces those of us in the majority to remember the foolishness of our forebears and to work to do something better in the future. Black History month also allows us to remember the amazing work of men and women who resisted injustice to accomplish significant goods, like the women depicted in the movie Hidden Figures, or like George Washington Carver, or like thousands of others who accomplished so much despite being oppressed.

Black History month is, in many regards, a celebration of the greatness of humanity. As often happens, the greatness of humanity is also demonstrated in stark contrast to the depravity of humanity. Don’t let the color of your skin allow you to miss the greatness of one group because your own group happened to be the villains in this story.

How to Celebrate Black History Month

Although there are and always will be ideological abuses within the groups that participate in celebration of any public movement, whether that is the environment, racial pride, or advances in workers protection, we should not fail to legitimately celebrate good things.

Celebrating Black History is celebrating the triumph of humanity. It requires remembering a not-too-distant past that is embarrassing, but which we never want to see again. Thus, a dive into African-American poetry, gospel music, and unique technological inventions of our fellow citizens does not need to fall prey to unhealthy identity politics, but should be a legitimate thankfulness for the persistence of impressive people in the face of significant opposition.

If our African-American neighbors happen to draw especial encouragement from this month, that is good and natural—it is empowering and encouraging to realize that your family has done something good and great, because it teaches you that you can, too. It does whites no harm to have African-Americans built up. There is an infinite supply of happiness in the world, which only grows when we share it.

Just as we celebrate the theological accomplishments of the early Reformers, so we should celebrate the accomplishments of people of color in the United States. Neither group is or was perfect, but the world is better for what they have done.

So, celebrate Black History month no matter the color of your skin, because as African-Americans advance, the whole of society gets stronger. That is a good thing.

Through the Storm, Through the Night: A Review

Getting into a topic is the hardest part about research. Most people don’t notice this because they stop doing research when their last academic paper is due. However, if you remember trying to get started on the research for your most recent project, you may know what I mean.

Search around on the internet, check the library catalog, or scan the shelves and you may find dozens of sources, but which one is going to be the most helpful to get introduced into the discussion. Recently I began to dig into African American Christian history and was pleased to cut the Gordian knot, as it were, by asking a friend who is an expert in the topic. His recommendation turned out to be so helpful that I am passing it along for you.

Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity is part of the African American History Series from Rowman and Littlefield. He teaches at University of Colorado and has authored a number of volumes on the topic of race and religion in the U.S. He presents an honest account that avoids revision on both ends of the spectrum.

Summary

This brief volume contains six chapters, with a separate introduction and conclusion. The introduction outlines the major themes in African American Religious History, laying the groundwork for the remainder of the volume. Chapter One offers a sweeping overview of African and African American religious experience from the Middle Passage to the Great Awakening; this experience consisted largely of syncretism with a strong dose of opposition of Christianization of slaves by white owners due to concerns it would cause them to desire freedom.

The second chapter documents the early stages of Christianity among slaves, which originated in the urban centers of the North and in the slave quarters. The revival of religious interest among residents of the colonies led to the evangelization of slaves and freemen, and the founding of the earliest traditionally black denominations. Chapter Three surveys the thirty or so years before the Civil War. This period included a high degree of revivalistic evangelism of slaves in the South, and the evolution of a distinct theology among slaves which emphasized liberation with an eye toward dual fulfillment in the present and the future.

In the fourth chapter, Harvey traces the history of African American Christianity from the end of the Civil War to the dawn of the Twentieth Century. It was during this time that blacks began to identify as African Americans as they sought to find their identity amidst their new freedom. This was also a time when whites in the South began to form laws to restrict the freedom of blacks. African Americans also founded a number of new denominations as they sought to live and worship freely. Chapter Five summarizes the first half of the Twentieth Century. This is a period of time when African Americans began to increasingly migrate northward to urban centers and the church became a powerful social center for those displaced communities.

Chapter Six details some of the Civil Rights Movement, shifts toward religious pluralism in some areas, and the continued pursuit of justice in the African American churches. The body of the text concludes with a very brief outline that recaps the volume and makes clear the connection between the prophetic preaching of someone like Jeremiah Wright and the long, dark history of the African American Church. After the epilogue, Harvey provides a number of brief primary source documents that support and illustrate his earlier arguments.

Analysis and Conclusion

Through the Storm, Through the Night is far from an exhaustive treatment of the topic, but it provides an excellent entry point into an interesting and important part of Church History. For those seeking to gain a deeper appreciation for Black History, particularly the history of African American Christianity, this would be an excellent starting point.

Harvey does what is vital for an introductory volume: he tells a good story and makes the reader want to know more. More significantly, he opens up the conversation on a topic that is only becoming increasingly important. The history of the African American portion of the universal church may well, in future, be a model for public engagement, theological fidelity, and social endurance for others.

George Liele - The First Baptist International Missionary

William Cary often gets credit for being the first Baptist sent as missionary to the nations. He certainly deserves credit, along with pastor Andrew Fuller, for kicking off the modern missionary movement.

Adoniram Judson frequently is identified as the first American missionary for leaving the shores of the U.S. in 1812. However, he isn't the first missionary to leave this land to go overseas, nor the first Baptist. Judson is important, but there was a Baptist missionary that preceded him.

The title of the first Baptist missionary actually belongs to a black man from colonial America named George Liele.

Biography

Liele was born a slave in the colony of Virginia in 1750. He converted to Christianity in 1773 in the church of his master, Henry Sharp. He gained his freedom in 1778 from Sharp so that he could preach the gospel. In 1783, since he had sided with the British in the revolution, in order to be evacuated from America with British troops, Liele became an indentured servant in exchange for his family's passage to Jamaica. After a short time he repaid his debt and was freed again. He then turned his attention to preaching the gospel to the slave population of Jamaica.

Liele was persecuted by the plantation owners of Jamaica for preaching the gospel. But he continued to preach the gospel.

Although he pastored many years, he did not rely on his pastorate for his income but worked as a teamster/hauler and farmer to support his livelihood.

Liele is an impressive example of a faithful Christian and an important figure in black history. Below you can watch Danny Akin's tribute to Liele in the form of a sermon on the text of Galatians 6:11-18.

Preaching from Galatians 6, Dr. Akin speaks about the marks of a cross-centered ministry and how these marks are seen in the life and ministry of the first Baptist missionary to the nations, George Leile, a former African slave who planted the Gospel in Jamaica.