Code: TP-29

Treasure Hidden in the Field:

The Significance of Biblical Metaphor within W.E.B. Du Bois’s Conception of Race



            Over the course of his scholarly career Du Bois articulated a conception of race that prodded Americans to recognize the falsity of white supremacist understandings of race while simultaneously (almost contrarily) urging them to conserve race itself. This aspect of Du Bois’s work is well studied and widely documented. This essay will explore the almost entirely unexamined role of spiritual and biblical language at the heart of Du Bois’s early conception of race. It will show that this deployment of religious metaphor was no mere rhetorical flourish, but was instead an integral part of a pragmatist response to the problem of racism in America. Demonstrating acuity to the import of context and the need for philosophy to engage and ameliorate lived experience, Du Bois used biblical language in a conscious effort to transform the idea of race which was itself constructed from elements both scientific and religious.  His use of religious metaphor to illuminate his ideal of race is both prophetic (in that it self-consciously places his theory of race within the stream of the African-American moral theology) and pragmatic (in that he uses the very same religious language that propped up white supremacist understandings of race in order to develop a notion of race that was democratic and faithful to lived experience). Furthermore, one of Du Bois’s most eloquent and effecting ideas – that each race bears a gift—remains out of focus until we read it through the lens of religious language.

The Du Bois of Literature

Before arguing for the centrality of biblical language within Du Bois’s conception of race, I will briefly discuss the treatment he has received by some of his most prominent philosophical readers. Such a contextuallization will illustrate that the spiritual component of Du Bois’s understanding of race is almost entirely elided in favor of his more obvious humanism.

Take for example Shamoon Zamir’s Dark Voices: W.E.B. Du Bois and American Thought, 1888-1903. Zamir’s work perhaps offers the most inventive picture of Du Bois, for he claims "neopragmatist readings of … Du Bois … present, at best a highly distorted picture." [1] Targeting Cornel West’s work in particular, he rejects the idea of Du Bois as a "Jamesian Organic Intellectual" [2] and instead claims that he wore three (decidedly unpragmatic) hats: empirical scientist, German idealist philosopher of history, and literary poet. [3] However, while Du Bois here appears as a thinker cast tightly in a neo-Hegelian mold whose only connection to American philosophy was the accident of Massachusetts’s geography, his work was unconcerned with religious language or ideas.

We find a polar opposite to Zamir’s German idealist Du Bois in the work of Adolph Reed. His 1997 work, W.E.B. Du Bois and American Political Thought, aptly places Du Bois at the fore of social struggles in the US and dutifully charts the political dimensions of his thought. However, like Zamir, he frames Du Bois as a wholly humanist social scientist who shared the "collectivist outlook" of the day in his belief in justice through scientific impartiality. [4] Regarding Du Bois’s conception of race, Reed argues that it borrows most heavily from Herbert Spencer’s pacific evolutionism and again sees no religious element worth commenting upon. [5]

Also of note is Anthony K. Appiah’s essay "The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race" which remains a seminal work in the field of race studies. While he praises Du Bois for having "thought longer, more engagedly, and more publicly about race than any other social theorist of our century," he effectively revokes this commendation when he argues that Du Bois’s concept of race remains mired in the gross biologism of the white supremacist scientists of his day. [6] Like other interpreters of Du Bois, Appiah takes no notice of any spiritual element to his conception of race.

In "’Conserve’ Races?: In Defense of W.E.B. Du Bois" Lucius Outlaw Jr. seeks to rehabilitate the viability of Du Bois’s model of race, so that it might help his attempt to encourage the "non-invidious conservation of race and ethnic groups." [7]   His defense of Du Bois turns on the claim that Appiah overstates Du Bois’s intention by saying that he was trying to transcend biological ideas of race. Instead, Outlaw argues that Du Bois was urging an idea of race that was both cultural and biological. Thus, when Appiah rejected the extra-biological facets of race mentioned by Du Bois as insufficient to ground the idea of race, he was missing the point, according to Outlaw, that race is a "cluster concept: … a group of persons who share, and are thereby distinguished by, several properties." [8] However, despite his charitable reading of Du Bois and his attention to the various factors at work in his idea of race, Outlaw similarly makes no mention of any biblical metaphors and does not ascribe to them any role in Du Bois’s larger project.

            Of all of his many readers, the one most likely to attend the significance of religious language in his concept of race would be Cornel West. He is, after all one of his earliest commentators and one of the most renowned. Furthermore, his considerable background in theology, the philosophy of race, and American philosophy would make it almost certain that he would pick up on any significant use of religious language if it existed. His first treatment of Du Bois was his 1977 "Philosophy and the Afro-American Experience" where he places Du Bois within what he calls the Vitalist tradition, a camp whose conception of race was based on the belief of "Afro-American superiority, not over all others, but specifically over white Americans." [9] West sees Du Bois and other Vitalists as working from a wholly secularized vision of race that he contrasts with other African American conceptions that emerged from the Christian tradition. West’s next major work, Prophecy Deliverance!, deviated little from his previous essay in terms of his analysis of Du Bois. He again rejects Du Bois’s notion of race as over idealized and maintains the distinction between "intellectuals of the rising Afro-American petite bourgeoisie such as Alexander Crummell, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jean Toomer, [and] Alain Locke" and those who made more explicit appeals to Christian language. [10] However, this is an infelicitous and inaccurate distinction because both Du Bois and Crummell (who was a practicing minister for many years) made significant use of religious metaphors in the their struggle against racism in America.

West gave Du Bois’s work a more careful treatment in his acclaimed The American Evasion of Philosophy where he surveys Du Bois’s work elegantly, if briefly. However, he again shows us a thoroughly humanist Du Bois whose approach to race was motivated by a faith in human progress and the ability of science, properly applied, to solve any of humanity’s social ills. [11] Despite his more charitable treatment of Du Bois in this later work, West makes no mention of any religious or spiritual dimension to Du Bois’s work in general, or his conception of race in particular.

Like all five of the authors above, I agree that Du Bois’s conception of race borrowed heavily from the scientific and humanist ideas of the day. Unlike all of the above, I take seriously his frequent use of religious language which all of his previous commentators failed to address. I argue that in so doing they elide the extent to which Du Bois’ concept of race was both created and received within a context that was both scientific and religious. They fail to notice, for example, that while Du Bois’s 1903 sociological masterpiece The Philadelphia Negro contributed greatly to his acclaim, it was an obscure pamphlet compared to his overtly religious Credo, also from 1903, that "was published in scroll form and could be seen hanging in black homes across the country." [12] It is precisely this oft missed intellectual daring that lead him to dig deeply into religious moral imperatives and scientific discourses that is responsible for the resiliency and relevance of his work today.

Du Bois in Context

The originality of Du Bois’s view of race had largely to do with the fact that he came to intellectual maturity at a time when concepts of race were particularly mercurial. As Du Bois says of his early education on race, "[t]he first thing which brought me to my senses in all this racial discussion was the continuous change in the proofs and arguments advanced." [13] That is, just as he was getting used to one explanation for why African Americans were treated as second-class citizens, "the basis of race distinction was changed without explanation, without apology." [14]

Recognizing the inconsistency of dominant definitions of race, Du Bois hammered out his own view of race that strove to account for the things that dominant definitions did not. Du Bois offers his first, and most widely cited definition of race in "The Conservation of Races:"

What, then, is race? It is a vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language, always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life. [15]

Du Bois presented "The Conservation of Races" in 1897 to a nascent group of African American scholars, ministers, and professionals called the American Negro Academy (hereafter ANA). ANA was the brainchild of the Cambridge educated African American minister Alexander Crummell. Wilson Jeremiah Moses claims in his biography of Crummell that Du Bois "carefully crafted ["The Conservation of Races"] to gratify the emotions of the Academy and its founder." [16] While it may or may not be the case that Du Bois wrote his first acclaimed essay as an attempt to curry Crummell’s favor, the impact of the elder theological scholar on Du Bois is incontrovertible.

Crummell’s influence upon Du Bois was too multifaceted to fully explore here. It will suffice to say that Du Bois’s animosity towards Booker T. Washington, his notion of the "Talented Tenth," and the Biblical and classical tint of his early work are all due in large part to his contact with Crummell. However, as Du Bois though of himself as more of a freethinker who believed in a Creator than as a practicing Christian, his use of religious language differed significantly from Crummell’s. Where Crummell urged the improvement of Black culture in America in order to achieve their Christian salvation, Du Bois illuminated his vision of race through biblical language because he recognized that the idea of race was largely based on this very lexicon. Finally, Crummell and Du Bois shared the idea that race was a gift of unsurpassable value that must be preserved, despite the horrific racism that opposed them at every turn.

We see that Du Bois’s definition of race in "The Conservation of Races" borrows heavily from Crummell’s own argument in his 1888 work "The Race Problem in America," that race is "a compact, homogeneous population of one blood, ancestry, and lineage." [17] However, there was a significant difference between Crummell and Du Bois concerning their racial conservationism. Crummell’s conservationism was descriptive: he called on his fellow African Americans to recognize that they were a race because God had made them so, and that nothing in the world would ever change the inherent unity of their race. Du Bois’s conservationism, on the other hand, was normative: accepting that it was all too possible that the particularities of Black culture might get diluted into oblivion within America, Du Bois called on African Americans to choose to preserve their racialization because of its value.

The Biblical Dimension of Du Bois’s Idea of Race

Du Bois’s conception of race was and is so influential because it was communicated in a way that appealed to religious and humanist sentiment simultaneously. His deployment of religious texts spoke to the absolute moral urgency of the problems of race, while his simultaneous faith in scientific method and the very possibility of eventually healing the wound of racism appealed to the idea that civilization was, at its heart, a dynamic and progressive phenomenon. Du Bois made copious use of Christian scripture throughout his career even though he was not a practicing Christian (indeed he almost lost his first teaching position because of his brusque refusal to pretend he was one). [18] We see it as early as 1897 in his "The Conservation of Races" and as late as 1920 when he closes Darkwater with "A Hymn to the Peoples" which is suffused with religious imagery and language. [19] One might interpret this tendency as mere rhetoric: he was a supremely persuasive author and as such knew that he could make his case all the more persuasively if he tugged at the heart-strings of his audience through familiar stories. I argue, instead, that he used religious language as part of a larger interactionist strategy that strove to reshape the ways that Americans lived race. His use of religious language stemmed from a recognition of the fact that the idea of race in America emerged largely from a religious discourse, and that this same discourse must be instrumental in its reform.

Du Bois recognized that white supremacist racism was largely propped up by myopic readings of the Bible. For example, the story of the curse laid by Noah onto his grandson Canaan was the most common explanation of why Africans (cast as descendents of Canaan) could be enslaved by white Christians. [20] Therefore, the understanding of race was formed in the interaction of inherited frameworks (in this case the tradition of Judeo/Christianity) and new experiences (the dynamic situation of different peoples cohabitating and struggling against each other within industrialist society). As Christians, the scientists of the Enlightenment could not but define race through religious language. Similarly, Du Bois saw that in order to pry white Americans from their sense of ordained racial superiority, he would have to redefine race through religious language. Biblical metaphor was a fulcrum to leverage the mass of white prejudice through a recasting of the very tradition that, in their minds, justified racism. In particular, Du Bois used the idea of a prophetic calling to draw attention to the evils of racism, and the urgency with which it must be opposed.

            This prophetic mission is the reason that Du Bois urges his fellow Americans to conserve race. In his early masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois argues that a race is a group of people who, through a common history, have acquired a vision of the world that enables them to speak certain truths about the world that other races have not experienced. [21] Each race is equally anointed messenger and errant audience. However, the African American race, impeded from presenting its full message, must be more messenger than audience at this moment in history. Du Bois thus radically challenges the dominant relationship between African Americans and oppression. Where Christians at the time succored Africans in America with the image of the Lamb (the chosen child of God that humbly bears suffering for the sake of universal salvation), Du Bois calls on his fellow African Americans to read their plight as the trial of a prophetic people who must boldly speak out against their oppression that others might learn the consequences of cruelty and the need for love. The following passage from his Credo (1903) demonstrates this prophetic dimension to race only fully visible through his use of biblical language.

I Believe in God, who made of one blood all nations that on earth do dwell. I believe that all men, black and brown and white, are brothers, varying through time and opportunity, in form and gift and feature, but differing in no essential particular, and alike in soul and the possibility of infinite development.

Especially do I believe in the Negro Race: in the beauty of its genius, the sweetness of its soul, and its strength in that meekness which shall yet inherit this turbulent earth.

I believe in Pride of race and lineage and self: in pride of self so deep as to scorn injustice to other selves; in pride of lineage so great as to despise no man’s father. [22]

The first passage is reference is to Acts 17: "From one blood he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth." It emphasizes the equality of all humanity, the very equality denied by white supremacist conceptions of race. It also shows the sort of intellectual daring that is the hallmark of Du Bois’s work, for while this is a treatise in favor of Negro Pride, it opens with a refutation of the idea of biologically distinct and ranked races. His second biblical reference is his idea of a "gift" or a "spiritual message" that indicates why he sees race as having a normatively charged and future oriented facet. This idea harks back to Genesis 37 and the story of the Hebrew prophet Joseph to whom God gave the gift of second sight. With this gift Joseph warns those around him of impending dangers and helps avoid catastrophic tragedy. However, while the gift is a boon for those around Joseph, it is the source of great hardship for Joseph himself. The gift arouses jealousy in those near him (including his own brothers), and incites them to do him harm.

            If we take Du Bois’ biblical orientation to heart, we see that the race-specific ideals of life are prophetic gifts that are of unsurpassable value to those outside the race, yet are also potentially dangerous for the gift-bearing race. A race’s collective experience is a gift for another race as it grants the recipient race a view on life beyond their experience. However, this difference can also potentially incur the wrath of the recipient race: what seemed a mandated way of life before the exchange might seem contingent, unnecessary, or even erroneous after the exchange. Therefore, a race runs the risk of violence any time they offer to make a gift of their ideals of life.

            The third significant Biblical reference is found in the phrase "strength in that meekness" possessed by "the Negro Race." This is a reference to the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5. This passage encapsulates the novel way of following God that becomes the core of the Christian tradition. In the Hebrew Scriptures being one of God’s people meant maintaining the Covenant by following the Torah. We see this, for example, in Exodus 19, where Yahweh promises a covenant to the people of Israel. The Hebrew Scriptures emphasize that one is born into the God’s covenant, and thus into God’s community; in this divine-mortal relationship, the Creator chooses his people. Conversely, the Christian passage indicates that being "of God" does not mean being part of a chosen people, but choosing God by choosing to be meek. [23] This use of Matthew aligns with Du Bois’s separation of the concept of race from crass biologism. Just as the Nazarene asked his audience to choose a sacred way of life, Du Bois asks Black folk to choose meekness as their source of strength. This is not a meekness of weakness or acquiescence; it is a meekness that defines itself through a rejection of violence and domination. He thus imbues race with intentional weight: what do you choose to remember about who you are?


When we attend to his use of religious language, we better see how and why the racial gift is a bridge across the racial divide made possible by the divide itself. The gift is a possibility that inhabits the rift between the "One Blood" and "Pride of Race." Racial pride relates to the uniqueness of the gift. It is the reason the gift is worth giving. A gift is most valuable when it is something the recipient does not have but yet needs in some sense. Thus, the racial gift is a gift of particular human experience, accumulated, refined, and expressed over generations that the other does not have. The very difference between the giver and the receiver is what makes the gift valuable. Yet, the gift is receivable and understandable as a gift precisely because the giver and the recipient are of "one blood." The experience of the other is meaningful to the extent that we can identify with the other’s experiences, even if the actual experiences are different from our own.  While the racial gift is a path of life alien to the recipient, she can still see that it comes from a human existence that faces the same problems and hopes as her own.

Du Bois developed a perspective on race that is still a vital tool in ongoing efforts to heal the invidious racism of the last four centuries. However, in order to fully understand his idea of race, and in order to fully reach into the lived experiences of most people, we need to not only study the religious language at the heart of his concept but also engage the religious discourses that perpetuate outdated ideas of race.

[1] Shamoon Zamir, Dark Voices: W.E.B. Du Bois and American Thought, 1888-1903 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995), 46.

[2] West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 139.

[3] Zamir, Dark Voices, 6.

[4] Adolph Reed, W.E.B. Du Bois and American Political Thought: Fabianism and the Color Line, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 22.

[5] Reed, W.E.B. Du Bois and American Political Thought, 39.

[6] Anthony Appiah, "The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race," in "Race," Writing and Difference, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 22.

[7] Lucius Outlaw Jr., "’Conserve’ Races?: In Defense of W.E.B. Du Bois," in W.E.B. Du Bois on Race and Culture, eds. Bernard Bell, Emily Groshlz, and James Stewart (New York: Routledge, 1996), 22.

[8] Outlaw, "’Conserve’ Races?: In Defense of W.E.B. Du Bois," 28.

[9] Cornel West, "Philosophy and the Afro-American Experience," The Philosophical Forum, 9, 2-3 (Winter/Spring 1977-78): 126.

[10] Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), 39.

[11] Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 142.

[12] Ronald White, Jr., Liberty and Justice for All: Racial Reform and the Social Gospel (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), 102.

[13] Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward An Autobiography of a Concept of Race (New York: Hardcourt, Brace, and World, 1940). Reprinted, (New York: Schocken Books, 1970), 99.

[14] Ibid., 99.

[15] W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Conservation of Races," in Du Bois Writings, (Washington: The Library of America, 1986): 817. 

[16] Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Alexander Crummell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 264.

[17] Alexander Crummell, "The Race Problem in America," in Africa and America: Addresses and Discourses (Springfield: Wiley and Son, 1891), 37, as printed in Moses, Crummell, 239.

[18] "[W]hen, for instance, the student leader of a prayer meeting into which I had wandered casually to look local religion over, suddenly and without warning announced that ‘Professor Du Bois would lead us in prayer,’ I simply answered, ‘No, he won’t,’ and as a result nearly lost my job." Dusk of Dawn, 56.

[19] Du Bois "A Hymn to the People," in Darkwater, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1920). Reprinted, (New York: Dover, 1999): 161-2.

[20] "Accursed be Canaan/ he shall be/ his brothers’ meanest slave." Genesis 9:25.

[21] Du Bois, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," in Du Bois Writings, 363- 371.

[22] Du Bois, "Credo," in Darkwater, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1920). Reprinted, (New York: Dover, 1999): 1.

[23] It is important for to state that in no way am I prioritizing the Christian Scriptures over the Hebrew Scriptures. Instead, I am simply trying to present the relevant context behind the Christian Scripture to which Du Bois alludes.