Praying Black Liberation with W.E.B. Du Bois

By: Phillip Luke Sinitiere

January 6, 2022

Black Faith and the Black Radical Tradition

Terrence L. Johnson’s book We Testify with Our Lives (2021) draws on the traditions of Black radicalism by arguing that religion is a historical cornerstone to both the conceptual frameworks and practices of Black liberation. He contends that religion rooted in Black bodies affirms personhood. This perspective demonstrates that Black bodies are the ultimate grounds upon which human dignity exists and from which a robust reckoning with human suffering at the hands of white supremacy takes place. This means Black bodies are also sites through which the experience or practice of liberation materializes.

Johnson’s latest book about the testimony of Black bodies forms a meaningful intellectual progression from his earlier study scrutinizing what he called the “tragic soul-life” within American society. By analyzing the vast collection of W.E.B. Du Bois’ writings on Black politics, Johnson performed a dialectical reckoning with history through the concept of the tragic soul-life, demanding an honest assessment of white supremacy’s foundational entanglement with U.S. institutions. Such an evaluation, he contended, documents how America’s racist origins produced and reproduced oppression over time, all the while centering the tradition of liberal individualism to advance white supremacy’s interests. The evidence showed—and continues to show—a country in which many prefer and protect a literal and figurative whitewashing of U.S. history. The hostile backlash to 2020’s anti-racist protests following George Floyd’s death, ongoing antagonism toward critical race theory, and active reframing of the January 6 Capitol insurrection as a freedom movement illustrate such duplicity. 

Terrence L. Johnson’s book We Testify with Our Lives draws on the traditions of Black radicalism by arguing that religion is a historical cornerstone to both the conceptual frameworks and practices of Black liberation.

Simultaneously, Johnson’s dialectical analysis spotlighted creative acts of Black rebellion and resistance over time that materialized a more capacious practice of freedom through redistributing political power instead of unjustly hoarding it. The Black intellectual and organizational labor that built public education and HBCUs, along with the early twentieth century’s Black history movement, exemplified such radical commitments akin to what Jarvis Givens recently called “a heritage of fugitive pedagogy.” Johnson’s earlier work thus emphasized from Du Bois’ writings that the practice of democratic politics, and the potential for its fuller realization, refused to pivot solely on the achievement of individual freedom. Instead, it imagined and embodied the political possibility of communal liberation. 

Building on tragic soul-life in the history of Black politics, Johnson’s concept of testifying with our lives affirms that historical conditions—rather than speculation about the action or inaction of unseen deities—structure the lives of Black bodies. Therefore, Black life itself possesses the tools for its own liberation and the keys to freedom. The human-centeredness of this argument is part and parcel of the ethical turn in Black politics that Johnson traces across the halls of history, what he phrases the “ongoing effort to give flesh to freedom.” 

One of his argument’s centerpieces draws on the insightful perspectives of Audre Lorde. Johnson explains through her work that the embodiment of freedom finds its energy through the ordinary actions of everyday life. Accumulating acts of resistance to white supremacy within the context of interdependent communities empowers the collective testimony of Black lives. Johnson shows that testimony of everyday life expresses itself through a wide range of Black cultural production, including, for example, the creative domains of music and literature. Such endeavors of “critical humanism” make pathways for Black freedom’s flourishing beyond the confines of liberal subjectivity. Black liberation exists in and through the interdependence of individual and communal contexts.

Accumulating acts of resistance to white supremacy within the context of interdependent communities empowers the collective testimony of Black lives.

To think about the ways that Black cultural production might historically root contemporary expressions of religion and Black radicalism, I adopt Johnson’s formulation to offer a brief historical meditation on the critical humanism of prayers W.E.B. Du Bois wrote. Born in 1868 in western Massachusetts, Du Bois died in 1963 in Accra, Ghana, literally the day before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous March on Washington address. Across his long career, Du Bois pursued liberation in and through his literary and historical writings. Uttering Du Bois’ prayers in our own moment of upheaval draws from Black radicalism’s rich historical resources in the service of Black freedom. 

Portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois (1907). Courtesy of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois (1907). Courtesy of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

During the last two decades scholars such as Phil Zuckerman, Terrence L. Johnson, Edward J. Blum, Barbara Dianne Savage, Brian Johnson, and Jonathon Kahn, among others, have brought renewed attention to Du Bois’ writings about religion. This body of work is not so much concerned with Du Bois’ personal beliefs (or lack thereof) about religion. Instead, these scholars probe Du Bois’ analysis of religion through the lenses of sociology, literature, philosophy, and history. The result is a deepened understanding of his multilayered perspectives on religion’s political role as an oppressive tool and as a mechanism to spark liberation. Du Bois wrote extensively on the history of Black churches (both Protestant congregations and Catholic parishes). He reflected on the Bahá’í movement. He inventively crafted spiritual short stories that creatively imagined a Black Christ living in early twentieth-century America. And he wrote prayers. 

Published in 1980 as Prayers for Dark People, this collection contains nearly 100 short meditations Du Bois wrote from 1909 to 1910 for his students at Atlanta University, where he delivered these prayers at chapel services. Drawing from the Congregationalist tradition in which he was raised, Du Bois quoted from scripture after each reflection. Such literary formulations revealed a biblical fluency in which he translated scriptural stories into carefully composed ethical guidance for ordinary, everyday life. For Du Bois, prayers were not spiritual platitudes but invocational creeds to spur action for altering social, economic, and political conditions. His prayers addressed student concerns related to academic study and fruitful intellectual life; about being punctual, respectful, and ambitious. They gestured toward the practical importance of historical and geographical knowledge. They also spoke to larger concerns about early twentieth-century life such as war, poverty, and women’s rights. Yet others meditated on the natural world of sunshine, flowers, and rain and offered counsel about wise and frugal living. 

Uttering Du Bois’ prayers in our own moment of upheaval draws from Black radicalism’s rich historical resources in the service of Black freedom.

Du Bois’ prayers, however, did not simply promote practices of self-improvement in an era of Progressive social reform. Nor were they merely about the pursuit of respectability as a form of resistance against white supremacy. They beckoned hearers to harness knowledge in the quest of fuller freedom. They called listeners to live in such a way that they might become, or embody, the answers to their own prayers. 

By way of example, it is worth quoting in full one of Du Bois’ prayers based on the Old Testament story of Esther. He wrote: 

Give us grace, O God, to dare to do the deed which we well know cries to be done. Let us not hesitate because of ease, or the words of men’s mouths, or our own lives. Mighty causes are calling us—the freeing of women, the training of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty—all these and more. But they call with voices that mean work and sacrifice and death. Mercifully grant us, O God, the spirit of Esther, that we say: I will go unto the King and if I perish, I perish—Amen. 

Here, Du Bois intermingled the history of Israel’s Persian exile with the historical circumstances of Jim Crow through which he was then living. Repetition of “we” and “us” signaled a communal imperative voiced through a woman’s individual actions of leadership. Through naming the tragic soul-life of oppressed peoples, he crafted a prayer of self-determination that recognized the risk and struggle and sacrifice that accompanies journeys for liberation. In Du Bois’ formulation, Esther testified with her life not in a selfish obsession over personal emancipation but with a conviction that recognized risking freedom at all costs in the advancement of communal liberation for her people. In other words, Du Bois’ radical prayer showed that Esther gave flesh to freedom. 

Invoking Du Bois’ prayers in the contemporary moment roots current practices of Black radical freedom in rich historical soil. Reading and reflecting on his meditations in congregational life at churches or ethical societies, for example, or bringing them into the spaces of classroom teaching recognizes the tragic soul-life of American history, all the while exhibiting how we testify with our lives by praying Black liberation with W.E.B. Du Bois.

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