The chapter begins with a verse by the Victorian Scottish writer William Sharp, writing under the pen name of Fiona Macleod. Du Boisthen returns to his days as a rural schoolteacher, describing one Sunday night far from the home in which he’d been staying. He recalls approaching a church and sensing an “air of intense excitement,” a “suppressed terror” and even “demoniac possession.” He describes a scene of shrieking, jumping, and flailing, all centered around the powerfully charismatic preacher and hauntingly beautiful music. Indeed, Du Bois describes African-American religious music as “the most original and beautiful expression of human life and longing yet born on American soil.”
Du Bois’ descriptions of the black church take the tone of a social scientist removed from the subject matter he is describing. This is distinctly different from other passages in “Souls,” especially the ones that fuse personal narrative with observations of communities in which Du Bois lived or visited. By adopting the perspective of a detached, foreign observer, Du Bois is able to describe the lineage of the black church beginning with its roots in Africa.
Du Bois claims that studying African-American religious practices is the only way to understand how those people who were taken from Africa viewed the world. It is also important to note the influence that black Christians have had on the Methodist and Baptist churches as a whole. In this sense, studying the black church is crucial to understanding not only African-American history but American history in general.
Once again, Du Bois makes an effort to rectify the fact that the lives of the majority of slaves were excluded from the historical record, meaning it is now difficult to gain knowledge about the everyday and emotional lives of slaves. Through studying the black church, though, we can begin to get a glimpse into a world left out of history.
Du Bois describes the black church as the center of African-American social life. He explains how churches operate as the “central club-house” of communities, providing support, entertainment, education, political and economic power. Bishops are some of the most powerful leaders in the black community, and it is possible to think of the churches as “governments of men.” This vast influence is partly due to the fact that almost every black person in America is a member of a church.
In this passage, Du Bois illustrates why the black church is such an important and powerful institution. Prevented from political engagement and excluded from proper educational and economic resources, black people built their own organization to meet these needs. As well as providing crucial support, the church also creates an intense feeling of belonging.
Du Bois turns to the history of the black church, describing how African slaves initially practiced “nature-worship,” but plantation life destroyed the kinship relations around which these African religious communities were structured. Some elements of the old religions endured, however, such as the existence of the Priest or “Medicine-man.” From this figure arose the black preacher, who came to play a different role yet retained many of the Medicine-man’s characteristics. After Emancipation, black Christian communities largely cut ties with the white church, which gave rise to new institutions such as the African Methodist Church, which Du Bois calls “the greatest Negro organization in the world.”
Du Bois shows that social exclusion and the tyranny of slavery, even while they devastated generations of the African-American community, also saw the birth of new institutions and forms of life. The evolution of traditions and figures that now characterize the black church highlights the enduring strength and resourcefulness of black people who created new ways of existence under the duress of extreme violence. The current influence of the black church also speaks to this endurance and power.
Du Bois argues that Christianity was a uniquely appropriate faith for black slaves, who had been subjugated to extreme lengths such that they were “at the bottom” of the social and economic system. Faced with a mortal existence filled with suffering, slaves dreamed of freedom in the afterlife. The handful of freedmen who emerged as leaders prior to Emancipation tended to hold a “darker and more intense” religious faith, their desire for abolition tinged with dreams of revenge. Emancipation thus appeared—at least at first—to be an act of God with echoes of the Day of Judgment, until the “inevitable” backlash that followed.
Here Du Bois hints at a key problem in the African-American theological tradition: the appeal of Christianity to slaves and their descendants. While Christianity undoubtedly provided comfort, strength, and solace to those whose lives resembled a hell on Earth, some argue that this came at the expense of black people’s willingness to rebel and avenge themselves. Those who make this argument include some black atheists and Muslims.
In order to understand the contemporary black church, Du Bois says, it is important to remember that African-Americans live a “double life” inherently colored by the constant presence of the Veil. This double life then gives rise to “double thoughtsand double ideals.” On the one hand, the intense suffering caused by racism turns religion into a bitter expression of pain, and on the other, many black people find strength and determination through their identification with Jesus.
Although Du Bois illustrates the way that duality is a burden on African Americans, in this passage he shows how it can also have a positive side. Through Christianity, black people are able to find both a recognition of their pain and a source of strength and justice not available to them in the wider world.
In order to survive and maintain even a modest quality of life, black people in the South must resort to deception. Those in the North, meanwhile, quickly turn to radicalism—either engaging in a sensualist lifestyle of gambling and sex, or forming a black “aristocracy” characterized by keen intellectual awareness that in turn leads to bitterness and pessimism. Most black people live between these extremes, and—cut off from their own history and from the opportunity to live freely—turn to religion and trust in the coming of an eventual “Awakening.”
It is important to understand the different levels on which Du Bois’ idea of “deception” works. In one sense, it can refer to a life built around lies, theft, and cheating—such as the life of the professional criminals in the North he mentions. On the other hand, deception can work on a micro level, and refer to the psychological act of behaving in a way that appeases white people while keeping one’s true thoughts hidden.