Du Bois and Civil Religion

Du Bois and Civil Religion


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Du Bois was 67 when he got the NAACP boot. They thought he had no understanding of contemporary realities.

He was old and governed by yesterday’s events, and ethics. We need fresh blood, youth, and new ideas.

These are our black corporate elite, the black businessman, entrepreneurs, enterprisers of the month,

ceos by the thousands.




Books by Du Bois


The Suppression of the African Slave Trade  (1896)  / The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899) 


The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903)  /  John Brown.(1909)  / The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911) 


Darkwater: Voices Within the Veil (1920)  Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America (1924)  / Dark Princess: A Romance (1928) 


Black Reconstruction in America (1935) / Black Folk, Then and Now (1939)


Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (1945)  / The World and Africa: An Inquiry (1947)  / In Battle for Peace (1952)


A Trilogy: The Ordeal of Monsart (1957) Monsart Builds a School (1959) nd Worlds of Color (1961) / An ABC of Color: Selections (1963)


The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century (1968)

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Shirley Graham Du Bois, His Day Is Marching On: A Memoir of W.E. B. Du Bois (1971)


Leslie Alexander Lacy. The Life of W.E.B. Du Bois: Cheer the Lonesome Traveler (1970)


A Du Bois Bibliography

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Du Bois on Reform: Periodical-based Leadership for African Americans.

Edited and Introduced by Brian Johnson. New York Altamira Press (A Division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.), 2005

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Du Bois & Civil Religion

Social Role of Black Journalism

A Review of Brian Johnson’s Du Bois on Reform (2005)

By Rudolph Lewis


Urban fiction . . . what would WEB have said about that crap?—Miriam


I have before me the book Du Bois on Reform (2005), by an English professor, Brian Johnson, professor at Gordon College and a Harvard fellow. It is significant this book is not the work of a historian. It is an anthology, divided in several parts (eras), of Du Bois’ periodical writings, from a 15-year old scholar of Great Barrington until his career as Editor of Crisis was shortened.  It is a very complex Du Bois many of us do not know.

In this final period of 25 years (1910-1935), the peculiar center, tenor, of Du Bois’ journalistic writings is the moral, ethical uplift of a degraded people. This missionary work, however, was informed by the greatest intellects and science—to clean up those made less than human by the peculiar institution, to make them ready, and prepared for the rest of American society. We may quarrel over the ends, but not the commitment.

Du Bois, Dr. Johnson reminds us, had little confidence in Negro churches. I do not want to talk about how christening is done in America. As a source of leadership, let’s be clear about it, since King’s violent death, the Negro Church has produced sycophants, mountebanks, demagogues with a great train of female devotees. They jump all about, and shout, with high-fives, and fancy hats, their pastor on a massive overhead screen.

I am not sure I speak well of Negro morals and ethics. I’m sure that Du Bois had more certainty about his morals and ethics than I. In the realm of scholarship and racial commitment Du Bois is beyond reproach. What is significant to me is what Du Bois did with the Crisis (1910-1935), how he made his utilitarian journalism have such sway.

As an editor myself, Dr. Johnson’s view is exciting—he raises questions about how Du Bois became scholar activist, how, with regard to the Negro, he popularized in a variety of magazines and journals the social sciences as a substitute for the religious dogma of the more negro/white enthusiastic-led congregations, how Du Bois as journalist, compelling and authoritatively, became a national leader, a public intellectual. Do you recall that most of the essays of Souls of Black Folk appeared first in Atlantic Monthly, or such magazines and journals. His audience was both white and black, at once.

As early as 1937 George Schuyler reminded his Courier audience that we had seen the end of an era. My friend Christian took him to task somewhat. But I think he missed the point. In 1937, Crisis was no longer Crisis; Opportunity no longer in its former stride,  and the editorial work of A. Philip Randolph lost its rigor, its spice.

How was Du Bois, Johnson, and Randolph able to gather such swaying intellectual and ethical influence, appeal to such varied audiences, far-reaching down to every public school teacher and classroom, for so long? With a greater illiterate audience than now exist? And why with more resources, greater means, no such Crisis, today, no Opportunity, though the Urban League and the NAACP have more money, higher corporate wages

No Crisis on paper is possible today. It’s all foundations and corporations, buying respectability while the walls of state fall about our shoulders. Ad men and commercial hacks these are our editors of our most popular magazines, in which 85 percent are corporate ads, crass and shiny. And females in scanty clothing, could Du Bois have adjusted to this glossy modernization? These magazines and journals, not even the best literary ones have a moral and ethical center that can be easily discovered, though color and culture are emphasized, there is no we.  And we love the Harlem Renaissance!

Did Du Bois go over board in that which he thought should be done, heard, read, listened to, in retrospect, barely. I got an email just yesterday, offering me $20 for “every move” if I would only put a banner, a small one about EbonyDating on ChickenBones.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of taste. I do not know that my criticism is directed at the Negro elite, though old families with a different kind of ethic and taste did once exist. I think we can disagree about Banjo or other works that Du Bois snubbed his nose. We understand what he was up against. Unenthusiastic I am sure he would be morally repulsed by the enthusiasms we find in the mega-Negro churches of today. Yet Du Bois was not a godless man, however much a Communist he became. For a secularist he was always bringing God and the scriptures into his discussions.

That was a different era when religion and mystery were much more vital in the world, much more faithful in the dynamic of man and God, that’s an age and a sentient world away from today’s tele-evangelist supra-wealthy black preachers, with them, we judge by the square-foot of their opulence.

Du Bois was 67 when he got the NAACP boot. They thought he had no understanding of contemporary realities. He was old and governed by yesterday’s events, and ethics. We need fresh blood, youth, and new ideas. These are our black corporate elite, the black businessman, entrepreneurs, enterprisers of the month, ceos by the thousands. We have gotten what we asked for, we wanted a new kind of thinking, a looser, more optimistic, a more-smiley-faced public demeanor.

But in that world, this contemporary thinking, moral and ethical rigor run only down, not upward. Demands on the strong, less than on the weak; more accommodation for the comfortable than the homeless. These cats like Uncle Cos don’t want Du Bois’ missionary ethics, his simplicity, Du Bois didn’t have that corporate feel, nor ML King, nor Malcolm. Well, today’s editors, today’s leaders, would not dare leave that out of their resumes. With such crassness above, what can we expect from below.

There’s been a lot of self-indulgence, and loose morals, in today’s world Du Bois would find shameless, like the new bestseller in black bookstores, Diary of a Video Ho. The NYTimes did an article on her, an attractive young black woman who looks as if she came from a good family, such shameless avariciousness. All our ethics are weighed down by out notions of “success,” by hook or crook. Our measure of success is by what corporate board we have a seat. Not by what cross for others we carry bloody up the hill.

Mr. Johnson, and other young scholars have good reasons to call the ethics of our generation to the bar. We lost our way. And our children bear the weight.

You know the deal for Black Voices, Essence, and BET. There’s no moral or ethical commitment here that remind me of Du Bois, not even that Du Bois who argued for a black economy and self-reliance. I have no qualms with elitism as long as it retains its vitality and cause. It is rather middle-class crassness and coldness, today, against which we must direct our force, rather than the moral or social awkwardness of yesterday’s black peasant, to which Du Bois applied himself. Oh, the morality and ethics of today (in church, government, on corporate board) are much more insidious in how they erode confidence and social stability, these ceos will go along with anything that does not have an impact on their mortgage payments.

No, these two young women did not buy a Du Bois book. He was a man, and he was always and will always be old, and old-fashioned. He ain’t hip. He don’t know what’s going on, even with our children, and sex videos. But how many Negro teachers today who teach our children have read Du Bois, and if so, can write a paragraph on Du Bois, his life, and commitment. Brian Johnson’s Du Bois on Reform (2005) might be a good place to start on our own moral and ethical uplift, and a new social commitment.

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Responses & Spin-offs (email correspondence)


Thank you for the review…While I find your remarks on my work thought-provoking, I find your analysis of the Black America’s contemporary situation in light of Du Bois’s work much more insightful. I do hope that your review receives widespread attention since I think that it addresses many of the issues that my work only nods at, and in doing so, plays some role in sparking a revolution of African American contemporary thought. One that would help us to think very deliberately about the very fragile state of our national community. Peace and blessings. Let’s not forget to do a phone call in the not too distant future. Peace and blessings.—Brian (sept 24)

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Dear Rudy, I think I have previously seen communications from you addressed to Miriam.   Her letter on Du Bois and other matters is a sad but true commentary.  Some years ago, I was invited to deliver a paper on Du Bois at a small but prestigious seminar in Boston, and during the “question and answer” period, a black woman rather indignantly asked me why this paper did not address the black woman.   My response was that I was the guest of an institution that had invited me and paid me to deliver a paper on Du Bois, and that the topic of the session had been advertised in advance.  

Hence I was surprised by her disappointment. On another occasion at a conference on Booker T. Washington, a white woman in the audience expressed indignation that I had not delivered a paper on how black men sexually brutalize their wives.  I offered a similar response.   The nature of the conference and the topic of my paper had been well advertised for weeks in advance.   Naturally, she found this explanation unsatisfactory.

After many years of such experiences, I decided that I might as well have been at conferences with audiences would be made up entirely of racist white males.  When I observe the unfortunate perspectives of Clarence Thomas, I ask myself if perhaps some of his bitterness is not the result of contact with the sort of attitude that your friend Miriam describes below. I was struck by one line in Miriam’s essay, that in which she rightly objected to negative stereotypes of the black peasantry.  Du Bois also romanticized peasant ways.  He did not focus on their “backwardness,” but viewed them as “the sole repository of simple faith and virtue in a dusty desert of dollars.”  This seems to presage the opinions of Miriam herself.—Wilson

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Miriam, I agree with you. Having been a social worker most of my life, it occurs to me that a lot of what is being published as urban fiction is simply regurgitation and glorification of pathologies…

Recently, one young writer was telling me about how her friend came to write a couple of novels based on her life’s events.  Listening to this young woman, it seemed clear to me… that there is an unwillingness to wait… to process… to think deeply, to discover the meaning of heartbreak, infidelity, abuse, family or personal tragedy, etc. Instead of working with a therapist, a trusted counselor or a wise grandmother, (I don’t think too many preachers/priests still fit into this category), it seems easier to think that one’s story in it’s rawest form is somehow the stuff of great art.  There seems to be no attachment to meaning.  It’s all about what we call in social work, “ventilation.”  The horror is that it’s on paper and sold.

In clinical social work, “ventilation,” is just the beginning. After one vents (what some elders used to call, “spillin’ out the guts”), the real work of understanding the situation, etiologies, solutions, lessons, etc. (that is, thinking, analyzing) should begin. One result of this processing/analytical thinking is to discover new knowledge. (This might be analogous in story telling to developing decent plot and characters.)

The second horror is that the story telling in urban fiction (ventilation of pathology) is attached to big bucks. Sad, sad, sad, in my opinion. 

I would liken all of this to prostitution…except, my sense is that, some of these young writers: 1. simply don’t know any better & have no sense of their literary heritage 2. have never thought about trying to discover “meaning”   3. are impatient and want to be “famous and rich”  quickly (let’s achieve the american dream asap) 4. have not lived long enough to know what they don’t know.

The sincere, likeable young woman with whom I spoke had just published a very thick urban novel, had all kinds of plans for glamorous book tours and had never heard of Toni Morrison. 

Fortunately, this young woman’s attitude was one of openness and gratitude that I told her about Toni Morrison and a couple of other writers.  

I, too, want to know, what the scene will be like in ten years.  This week-end in Richmond, one group of church women (headed by the deaconess) are having (for the first time) a book expose which includes Nikki Turner, a very popular local author of hip-hop fiction. (The Hustler’s Wife, Project Chick, The Glamorous Life) I could be wrong, but I dare say that the church sisters who planned this event have probably not read her books, but invited her based on the popularity that has been generated by her financial success.

Anyway, there is some type of balance I suppose in a church affair like this. Apparently publishers have also discovered another type of urban audience that fits the hip-hop generation, but these young people are Christian or border line christian.  So,there is a new market for inspirational fiction for the hip-hop audience.  One young Christian writer, Stacy Hawkins Adams, told me that her book, Speak To My Heart, and it’s cover is targeted for this audience.  She’s already writing a sequel. Fans are waiting. Stacy is a skilled journalist who writes an inspirational column for the Richmond Times Dispatch.

I have my own brand of what some folks call “radical Christianity” and even though I’m comfortable with both of these young women as people, time-wise, I’m not inclined to read hip-hop type inspirational or christian fiction and the other type of urban fiction, I really can’t stomach.

Yes Miriam, I really want to see how all of this will play out.—Jeannette

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It is a very thoughtful article that doesn’t really stress the age discrepancy between your generation & the present one.  Although he tries to be objective, I think he leans more favorably toward the Civil Rights generation with its concern about community, writing in a sociopolitical context, and literature that will last.  I went to a book signing last night for a friend, but I’ll never read her trite tome with its teeny plot, lack of in-depth characters or beautiful language play or, really, anything of substance.  It’s one of those fuzzy, feely, touchy, light spiritual things.  I just looked around at the books there at Karibu and could have thrown up–wall to wall urban fiction with no redeeming qualities.  

Rudy, those people can’t write, I don’t care what you and Paul say, trying to be “nice.”  Should we just be happy that our folk are reading?  Should, by the same token, we just be happy that we finally got a Black on the Supreme Court.  Well, you see where that got us!  Okay, call me middle class and elite, I don’t give a f—.  What would WEB have said about that crap?  And John Killens?  And James Baldwin?  We have some incredibly talented young writers who don’t immerse themselves in that self-indulgent, commercial bullshit.  Where will the urban fictionists be in 10 or 20 years (God, I hope the wave doesn’t last that long)?  Where are Iceberg Slim and Eldridge Cleaver now?  Who still reads them?—Miriam

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Urban Legends

When searching for a good African-American novel at the local bookstore chain, you may find limited options on the shelves. Teri Woods, Vickie Stringer, Shannon Holmes, and Carl Weber are among the authors driving the current black literary explosion, and though their respective books sell in droves, they differ greatly in subject matter and style when compared to that of lauded contemporary black authors Toni Morrison and John Edgar Wideman. This “urban fiction” is filled with expletives and unrepentant descriptions of violence and drugs, reminiscent of the work of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. And you’re unfortunately hard-pressed to find other genres besides urban fiction represented in “African-American” book sections. To many booksellers, urban fiction is African-American literature. –R. Daryl Foxworth, “Urban Legends: Paul Coates & Rudy Lewis Offer Alternatives to the Current Crop of Contemporary Black Literature, City Paper, (14 September 2005)

Du Bois on Reform: Periodical-based Leadership for African Americans. Edited and Introduced by Brian Johnson. New York Altamira Press (A Division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.), 2005.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ “reform” writings–with the intention of reforming immoral and unethical behavior–appeared in periodicals and were directed toward or written on behalf of the African American community. Du Bois, a Harvard-trained sociologist, offered a stark alternative to the anti-intellectual dogma contained in reform messages by black church leadership. 

Believing that African Americans needed a firm historical and sociological grasp of a distinct phenomenon that church leaders could not offer, Du Bois published in numerous Black, progressive, liberal, college, and religious periodicals, including The Atlantic Monthly, The Independent Weekly, Outlook, Voice of the Negro, The New York Post, and The Crisis. Now for the first time, Du Bois’ reform writings–spanning over fifty years–have been gathered into one volume. Each section is edited and introduced by Brian Johnson and they demonstrate Du Bois’ contribution to advancing the social and moral dimensions of the African American community.

About The Author Brian Johnson is professor of English at Gordon College and research fellow at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University.

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#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—


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Hopes and Prospects

By Noam Chomsky

In this urgent new book, Noam Chomsky surveys the dangers and prospects of our early twenty-first century. Exploring challenges such as the growing gap between North and South, American exceptionalism (including under President Barack Obama), the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S.-Israeli assault on Gaza, and the recent financial bailouts, he also sees hope for the future and a way to move forward—in the democratic wave in Latin America and in the global solidarity movements that suggest “real progress toward freedom and justice.” Hopes and Prospects is essential reading for anyone who is concerned about the primary challenges still facing the human race. “This is a classic Chomsky work: a bonfire of myths and lies, sophistries and delusions. Noam Chomsky is an enduring inspiration all over the world—to millions, I suspect—for the simple reason that he is a truth-teller on an epic scale. I salute him.” —John Pilger In dissecting the rhetoric and logic of American empire and class domination, at home and abroad, Chomsky continues a longstanding and crucial work of elucidation and activism . . .the writing remains unswervingly rational and principled throughout, and lends bracing impetus to the real alternatives before us.—Publisher’s Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 24 September 2005




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