The African Roots of African American Religious Culture as Described by W.E.B. DuBois”

The roots of African American religious culture extend between Africa and the United States through the Trans-Atlantic slave trade that occurred during the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Religion was a reaction to the harsh conditions of slavery and an escape from the abuses of human

trade. African American religious culture was an amalgamation of African and American customs, which blended in the most pragmatic fashion to accommodate the spiritual needs of the transplanted Africans. After the thirteenth amendment abolished slavery in 1865, African Americans continued with their religious practices and blacks were no longer property, but actual citizens. Being the pragmatic and dynamic force that it is, religion changed and served new purposes for African Americans. W.E.B. DuBois addressed the changes in his book The Souls of Black Folk. In it, he maintained that blacks operated on two separate levels of consciousness or a double consciousness as Africans and Americans. The Oxford English Dictionary defines this as “a condition which has been described as a double personality, showing in some measure two separate and independent trains of thought and two independent mental capabilities in the same individual” (Double consciousness). I posit that only way to deal with this dual state of being is through a religious identity and not through intellectual, social, or academic classifications. This research will identify DuBois’s call for a new religion to accommodate the African American state of being after Emancipation.

Scholar Charles Long defies a definition for religion and determines that it is best described as a way to determine ones’ location in the world (Long 7). DuBois asserted that the sense of location was irrevocably disrupted by destroying the prospect of free human labor. Indirectly, this forced former oppressors to acknowledge blacks as a new class of people, and not property. The lack of location left slaves in a crisis of identity. People who were once considered property now had agency.

Determining one’s “ultimate significance” was precarious in the midst of the economic and social upheaval. By the time DuBois wrote his essay about four decades later, former slaves continued to struggle economically and socially as policies in the South aimed against the very humanity of blacks. Changes prompted by Reconstruction left very little stability for the ex-slaves, because
“Daily the Negro is coming more and more to look upon law and justice, not as protecting safeguards, but as sources of humiliation and oppression. The laws are made by men who have little interest in him; they are executed by men who have absolutely no motive for treating the black people with courtesy or consideration” (DuBois 198). Without political or financial stability, the state of the black union was precariously hanging on the opinions of bigoted Southerners who wanted to keep blacks oppressed.

Nearly two millennia earlier, the Apostle Paul faced a similar predicament in reference to converting peoples whose entire state of mind had to change to accommodate a shifting world. In the Book of Acts Paul addresses a group of syncretic Greeks, who worshipped idols. Paul gave a speech about God’s presence in the Greek’s lives and the reality of creation, saying, “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Paul admonished the Greeks to rely on his god rather than the various idols that they worshipped. The god that Paul describes is a constant force that remains unchanged from creation up until the present. DuBois posed a similar argument in The Souls of Black Folk, saying
“(African Americans) must perpetually discuss ‘The Negro Problem,’-must live, move, and have their being in it, and interpret all else in its light or darkness. With this come, too, peculiar problems of their inner life…All this must mean a time of intense ethical ferment, of religious heart-searching and intellectual unrest” (221).

DuBois admonishes African Americans to acknowledge the constant in much the same way that Paul urged the Greeks in his speech to find “real” religion devoid of idols. DuBois points out a major factor in African American religious culture by recognizing the constant of split consciousness between their inherent beliefs and the European American consciousness of the ones around them. Accommodating change meant dealing with the constant of double consciousness and dealing with it.

With this in mind, what does African American religious culture look like? How does it feel? How do we know when we have encountered it? A more definitive answer lies in material culture, such as arts and music. In “The Criteria of Negro Art,” which was written twenty-three years after Souls, DuBois calls on artists to define themselves and break from the constraints of Eurocentric notions of African inferiority. In some ways the ex-slaves were as if they had never left Africa in the eyes of the of their captors and oppressors. The newly emancipated nation of people would never be real Americans in the eyes of the European Americans who once enslaved them.

African American religious culture is a response to the question “who am I?” Geographically displaced artists demonstrated answers to African American cultural and religious practices and embodied questions and answers in their artistic practices. Dubois’s “Criteria of Negro Art” influenced the Harlem Renaissance and such artists as Langston Hughes and Jacob Lawrence (DuBois). This period is crucial because it marks a shift when African American artists began to use double consciousness to expand on both African and American roots. Michael D. Harris pointed to a model that acknowledges the double consciousness that DuBois and his generation found so problematic (Harris 45). Harris notes further that artists, like Lawrence, made visits to Africa in order to bridge their understanding of the “African side” of their consciousness (Harris 45). Rather than advocating a rift and jettisoning the African for the American, artists then and now expand their knowledge of both sides of their consciousness. They learned canonical European practices and African practices that enriched their art in ways that created a solution to the “Negro problem.”

The African roots of African American religious culture began in a hellacious state of existence. It was defined by tragedy and loss created by a slave trade that refused to acknowledge Africans as human beings. Their culture was denigrated and they were despised. DuBois in his impassioned essays urged African Americans to deny European deceptions of religion and false selfhood. The fact that DuBois places the term “Negro problem” in quotes, indicates his oxymoronic style of saying something in an ironic way by using two words to contradict each other. DuBois never considered himself a problem. Out of all of the issues of racism that existed for African Americans, DuBois notes it as a source of inspiration rather than a hindrance saying:
“Such is the true and stirring stuff of which Romance is born and from this stuff come the stirrings of men who are beginning to remember that this kind of material is theirs: and this vital life of their own kind is beckoning them on” (DuBois).
He never saw the state of the African American religious culture as a problem but rather a series of solutions. The Harlem Renaissance revealed solutions and they continue to unfold even now as African American artists respond to a dual consciousness by incorporating religious experiences of then and now, here and there.

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