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“To Make the World So Damn Uncomfortable”: W.E.B. Du Bois and the African American Prophetic Tradition.

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Abstract

In this essay, I briefly examine the prophetic rhetoric of W.E.B. Du Bois. By examining his editorials while editor of The Crisis and other writings, I argue that DuBois employed different types of prophetic discourse grounded primarily within the African American Prophetic Tradition (AAPT). For purposes of this essay, I specifically highlight Du Bois’ use of mission-oriented prophecy as a way to call African Americans to a divine mission of social uplift. In so doing, my aim is three-fold. First, I seek to build upon the fledgling rhetorical scholarship on Du Bois. Second, following Zuckerman and Blum, I seek to (re)introduce to readers and (re)claim Du Bois as a religious rhetor. Finally, I seek to add to the scholarship on prophetic rhetoric
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To Make the World So Damn Uncomfortable”: W.E.B.
Du Bois and the African American Prophetic Tradition
Andre E. Johnson
In the December 1918 issue of The Crisis magazine, W.E.B. Du Bois celebrated the end
of the First World War with a loud and enthusiastic call for the right of all Americans to
vote. Du Bois wrote, “Now that the war is over, we have but one word and one thought—
the Ballot. We want that ballot safeguarded by every reasonable and decent limitation,
impartially applied; but it can no longer be limited by race and sex (Du Bois, 1983, p.
165). Du Bois not only advocated for the right to vote, but also called for African
Americans to utilize their right to vote and participate in democracy as fully-fledged
citizens of the United States of America.
Almost forty years later, however, Du Bois’ attitude of voting had changed. In the
October 20 issue of the Nation, Du Bois lamented,
I shall not go to the polls. I have not registered. I believe that democracy has so
far disappeared in the United States that no “two evils” exist. There is but one evil
party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say…. I have
no advice for others in this election. Are you voting Democratic? Well and good;
all I ask is why? Are you voting for Eisenhower and his smooth team of bright
ghostwriters? Again, why? Will your helpless vote either way support or restore
democracy to America?....Is the answer the election of 1956? I will be no party to
it and that will make little difference. You will take large part and bravely march
to the polls, and that also will make no difference. (Du Bois, 1956, par. 4, 8, 10)
While many scholars have examined the life and legacy of Du Bois across
disciplinary lines and using multiple methods, important aspects of Du Bois’ use of
rhetoric have yet to be studied or accounted for, which is surprising given the copious
amount of written and spoken material we have by Du Bois. Anyone studying Du Bois
and his use of rhetoric would have to wade through an abundance of material. For
example, the Du Bois corpus consists of not only speeches and essays, but also short
stories, poems, novels, editorials, and sermons. While there have been volumes devoted
to the writings and speeches of Du Bois, there has not been one volume devoted to an
analysis of those writings. Moreover, outside of a few dissertations
1
and conference
Andre E. Johnson, PhD., is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Memphis.
A previous version of this essay was presented at the W. E. B. Du Bois 50th Anniversary
Commemorative Conference at Atlanta University in 2013. Dr. Johnson is currently collecting the
writings of 19th century AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and directs the Digital Archive The
Henry McNeal Turner Project. He is currently working on a book of speeches of Turner and a
rhetorical history of Turner's career from 1895-1915. Correspondence to: Andre E. Johnson,
PhD., University of Memphis, 212 Art and Communication Building, Memphis, Tennessee
38152, USA. Email: ajohnsn6@memphis.edu
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proceedings and articles,
2
Du Bois’ use of rhetoric has surprisingly not garnered much
attention.
In addition, the few treatments of Du Bois’ rhetoric do not examine his use of
religious rhetoric. Previous scholarship about Du Bois has downplayed the role of
religion in his life, which has in turn influenced rhetorical studies. Biographers have
argued that Du Bois was so hostile to religion that others examining Du Bois followed
suit and have, thus, rarely examined him through the lens of religion. This however, as
scholars such as Zuckerman (2000) and Blum (2007) note, was far from the truth. Du
Bois, far from being hostile to religion, was deeply committed to a rational understanding
of religious views and though many saw his practice of religion as not ascribing to
societal norms, Du Bois found comfort in his construction of religion.
His familiarity with the religious tradition led Du Bois to use prophetic rhetoric as
a mode of discourse. In the May 1913 issue of The Crisis Magazine, Du Bois, penned a
response to Rev. Charles Dole, who believed that The Crisis and Du Bois were not
patient enough for change to happen regarding the civil rights of African Americans. Du
Bois published Mr. Dole’s letter and, in the same issue, offered a response. Du Bois
grounded his response to “Mr. Dole’s notion of gradualism” in the Hebrew prophets of
the Bible. “When the Hebrew prophets cried aloud, there were respectable persons by the
score who said: “Unfortunate Exaggeration, Unnecessary Feeling, and Ungodly
Bitterness! Yet the jeremiads were needed to redeem a people (Du Bois, 1983, p. 74). In
writing about the progression that many believed humanity made during this time, Du
Bois reminded his friend that this progress was made possible by the
[S]oul-torn strength of those who can never sit still and silent while the
disinherited and the dammed clog our gutters and gasp their lives out on our front
porches. These are men who go down in the blood and dust of battle. They say
ugly things to an ugly world. They spew the lukewarm fence straddlers out of
their mounts, like God of old; they cry aloud and spare not; they shout from the
housetops, and they make this world so damned uncomfortable with its nasty
burden of evil that it tries to get the good and does get better. (Du Bois, 1983, p.
76)
He closed his editorial by reminding Mr. Dole that with the “sainted spirits of such as
these The Crisis would weakly but earnestly stand and cry in the world’s four corners of
the way; and it claims no man as friend who dare not stand and cry with it (Du Bois,
1983, p. 77).
By equating The Crisis and his own role as editor in the same spirit of the biblical
Hebrew prophets, Du Bois saw his position as more than just an editor and writer of
editorials. That is, he saw his role as editor as one divinely given to him, one that he must
answer and accept. Du Bois cast himself in the role of a prophet and throughout his life,
by using prophetic rhetoric and adopting prophetic personas, he reached out and
attempted to persuade his audiences.
In this essay, I briefly examine the prophetic rhetoric of W.E.B. Du Bois. By
examining his editorials while editor of The Crisis and other writings, I argue that Du
Bois employed different types of prophetic discourse grounded primarily within the
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African American Prophetic Tradition (AAPT). For purposes of this essay, I specifically
highlight Du Bois’ use of mission-oriented prophecy as a way to call African Americans
to a divine mission of social uplift. In so doing, my aim is three-fold. First, I seek to build
upon the fledgling rhetorical scholarship on Du Bois. Second, following Zuckerman and
Blum, I seek to (re)introduce to readers and (re)claim Du Bois as a religious rhetor.
Finally, I seek to add to the scholarship on prophetic rhetoric.
Prophetic Rhetoric
To talk about the prophetic tradition, we must first talk about prophetic rhetoric
or the language that shapes the tradition. Prophetic rhetoric or prophetic discourse is not
easy to define. Part of the quandary may lie in the fact that prophetic rhetoric “does not
descend from our traditional, systematized, Greco-Roman model of rhetoric.” Prophetic
rhetoric “comes from the Hebraic tradition found in the writings of the Old Testament in
which there is no systematic theory of rhetoric.” Indeed, as James Darsey (1999) reminds
us about Old Testament prophets, they “left us with a considerable body of discourse, but
they were not theorists and were not prone to spend time examining or articulating the
assumptions on which their discourse was built” (p. 7).
Perhaps another reason for the difficulty in defining this type of rhetoric may “lie
in the unwillingness of some to deem credible anything having its foundation in the
Bible, religion, or prophecy (Johnson, 2012, p. 7). Darsey echoes this point when he
writes:
In our everyday usage, we acknowledge the possibility of something like a
religious commitment at the base of radical social movements: we talk of
revolutionary “faith” and “zeal”; we refer to radical leaders as “prophets”; and
we analyze radical rhetoric according to its “God terms” and “devil terms.” At
the same time, while we admit of the existence of some blatantly “messianic”
or “millennial” or “revitalization” movements that have unmistakably
religious roots, we are also victims of our own enlightenment and generally
prefer explanations of a more secular order. (Darsey, 1999, p. 8)
Therefore, to understand the prophetic, one has to suspend modern tendencies
toward rationalized incredulity and “humble ourselves before what we understand
only incompletely” (Darsey, 1999, p. 8).
Elsewhere, I define prophetic rhetoric as discourse grounded in the sacred, rooted
in a community experience that offers a critique of existing communities and traditions
by charging and challenging society to live up to the ideals they espoused while offering
celebration, encouragement and hope for a brighter future. It is a rhetoric “characterized
by a steadfast refusal to adapt itself to the perspectives of its audience” and a rhetoric that
dedicates itself to the rights of individuals. Located on the margins of society, it intends
to lift the people to an ethical conception of whatever the people deem as sacred by
adopting, at times, a controversial style of speaking (Johnson, 2012, p. 7).
Moreover, the rights of individuals that prophetic rhetoric dedicates itself to is,
especially that of the poor, marginalized, and exploited members of society. It intends to
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lift the people to an ethical conception of the Deity (Heschel, 1955, p. 413). In addition,
prophetic rhetoric also acts as social criticism because it “challenges the leaders, the
conventions, the ritual practices of a particular society” by way of what society deems
sacred (Walzer, 1996, p. 33). Prophetic rhetoric becomes, then, a critical rhetoric that
“examines the dimensions of domination and freedom as these are exercised in
relativized world” (McKerrow, 1989, p. 91).
This definition of prophetic rhetoric also explicates a four-part rhetorical
structure. First, speakers must ground prophetic discourse in what the speaker and the
audience deem as sacred. In short, the speaker must appeal to something that both
speaker and audience hold as sacred and that is recognizable. For a speaker to appeal to
anything sacred that the audience does not recognize as such would render that message
unimportant and meaningless. This means that the prophet is indeed part of the
community fabric and understands the beliefs of the audience. Therefore, there is no
prophetic discourse outside of community” (Johnson, 2012, pp. 7-8). For people adopting
prophetic personas, they must speak out of a recognizable tradition and appeal to those
sacred beliefs and values within that tradition. People who adopt prophetic personas
cannot do so as rugged individualists, but must root their “prophecy” within communal
traditions, beliefs and expectations.
Second, there is an element of consciousness-raising through a sharing or an
announcement of the real situation. In short, the proclaimer pronounces what is “already
known” and “bears witness to what the speaker believes as truth(Johnson, 2012, p. 8).
Thus, instead of unveiling the hidden, the prophet reveals the hidden in plain sight. In
other words, “the prophet goes beneath the surface and states the obvious that others
might be afraid to speak. It is consciousness-raising because once it is out in the open; the
prophetic desire is that the audience reflects on the situation with the hope of changing its
ways” (Johnson, 2012, p. 8).
The third element in the rhetorical structure is the charge, challenge, critique,
judgment, or warning of the audience(s) (Johnson, 2012, p. 8). Moreover, the prophet
does not just address the primary or initial audience, but the much wider audiences
those that include institutions, governments, and society in general. The prophet usually
does this by offering reinterpretations of what is sacred and casting a vision of the world
not as it is, but as it could and should be.
The final part of the prophetic rhetorical structure is the offer of encouragement
and hope (Johnson, 2012, p. 8-9). There are two types of hopes in prophetic rhetoric.
First, there is an eschatological hope. It is a hope that things will get better in some
afterlife or some other spiritual transformation to some other world. The second type of
hope is a “pragmatic hope.” It is a more “this-worldly” and earthy type of hope. It is a
hope that grounds itself in the prophet’s belief in the Divine to make right order in this
world. It is also similar to what Cornel West calls “tragicomic hope.” About this
experience, West (1988) writes,
Tragicomic hope is rooted in a love of freedom. It proceeds from a free
inquisitive spirit that highlights imperial America’s weak will to racial justice.
It is a sad yet sweet indictment of abusive power and blind greed run amok. It
is a melancholic yet melioristic stance toward America’s denial of its terrors
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and horrors heaped on others. It yields a courage to hope for betterment
against the odds without a sense of revenge or resentment. It revels in a dark
joy of freely thinking, acting, and loving under severe constraints of
unfreedom. (216)
It is a hope that sees a new day cominga hope that again grounds itself in the prophet’s
deep connection to the Divinethe One that gives the prophet the strength to make it one
more day.
Traditionally, critics studying prophetic rhetoric tend to situate the discourse
within two primary traditions.
1
The first tradition is apocalyptic prophecy. Barry
Brummett offers a working definition of apocalyptic rhetoric by calling it a “mode of
thought and discourse that empowers its audience to live in a time of disorientation and
disorder by revealing to them a fundamental plan within the cosmos.” Further, he writes
that apocalyptic rhetoric is “discourse that restores order through structures of time and
history by revealing the present to be a pivotal moment in time(Brummett, 1991, p. 9).
In addition, apocalyptic rhetoric “assumes a position of having knowledge through
visions, dreams, or meditations that the prophet/speaker shares with the audience. It is a
secret or divine revelation revealed only to the prophet and it becomes the speaker’s job
to disclose the previously hidden (Johnson, 2012, p. 10).
For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on the second type of traditionthe
jeremiad. The term jeremiad, “meaning a lamentation or doleful complaint,” derives from
the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who warned of Israel’s fall and the destruction of
Jerusalem. The fall came because of the people’s failure to keep the Mosaic covenant.
Even though Jeremiah denounced Israel’s wickedness and prophesied destruction in the
short term, he always looked for the day when the nation would repent and be restored
(Howard-Pitney, 2005, p. 5).
The jeremiad became part of the American rhetorical tradition around the
seventeenth century among the New England Puritans as a way to express their self-
identity as a chosen people. Believing that they had a divine plan to “flee from corrupt
European religious and social establishment,” the Puritans, as many would later call
them, felt the need to establish a “holy society” in the wilderness of America (Howard
Pitney, 2005, p. 5). According to Bercovitch (1978), the Puritans, once they settled in
America, started to reshape the jeremiad (7). Drawing from the biblical story of the
Exodus, the Puritans saw themselves as the “New Israel” leaving the bondage of Europe
to come into a new world they believed to be the “Promise Land.” They felt sure of
themselves because in being the “New Israel,” the Puritans believed themselves to be the
1
Alan D. DeSantis argues for the inclusion of a third type, Amostic prophecy. Derived
from the biblical prophet Amos, this is when the speaker (prophet) speaks as one outside the
covenant as she exhorts the audience to live up to their own covenant. See Alan D. DeSantis, “An
Amostic Prophecy: Frederick Douglass’ The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” Journal of
Communication and Religion, 22 (1), 65-92. In addition, I argue that prophetic rhetoric is a genre
unto itself associated with the aforementioned four-part rhetorical structure. I see apocalyptic and
jeremiad forms of rhetoric as types of prophetic rhetoric or subgenres. See Johnson’s The
Forgotten Prophet and Robert Terrill’s Malcolm X: Inventing Radical Judgement.
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“chosen ones” whom God had called and ordained to be an instrument of His will. With
the chosen people leading the way, America was to become the “city on a hill” whose
light shined for all to see.
When the Puritans fell short of their call and ideal, typically the ministers in the
community called the people to task. According to Howard-Pitney,
As Puritan society fell short of its goal of civic perfection, the jeremiad became a
ubiquitous ritual of self-reproach and exhortation. Puritan ministers deplored a
long list of perceived social failings, denounced the people for their sins and
social misconduct, and warned of worse tribulations and divine punishments to
come if they did not strictly observe once more the terms of their covenant with
God. (7)
The terms of the covenant were spelled out in unambiguous form: God has called us to be
a peculiar and special people. We are the New Israel and America is the new Promised
Land. We must remember this and act accordingly. When we forget this, God’s judgment
will come upon us.
Not only did the jeremiad come with “self-reproach and exhortation when things
went wrong, it also had what Bercovitch calls an “unshakable optimism.” In short, what
the Puritans believed was that when turmoil and trouble came upon them, it was indeed
God’s punishment for sin, but the punishment was a “corrective” and not for
“destruction.” In other words, God may be angry with them, but He had not replaced
them with anyone else. As Bercovitch notes, “Here, as nowhere else, [God’s] vengeance
was a sign of love, a father’s rod used to improve the errant child. In short, their
punishments confirmed the promise” (8).
In one of the few treatments of Du Bois’ rhetoric, Howard-Pitney suggests that
one can situate most of Du Bois’ earlier protest rhetoric within the jeremiad tradition. Du
Bois, he argues, began his career with “great faith in the ability of reason to persuade
people and foment reform.” He grounded his sacred appeal in scientific evidence and
reasoned that his audiences would be appreciative of sound “solid scientific facts(95). It
is with these “facts” that Du Bois would now share his findings and presents the real
situation in the lives of black folksin hopes that it would raise awareness about the
plight of black folk and hopefully produce some much needed reforms. In Du Bois’
Philadelphia Negro, while he “vividly portrayed Philadelphia’s black slum as a center of
crime and vice, his reasoning for these conditions “deviated sharply from conventional
wisdom” (Howard-Pitney, 2005, p. 96). That is, Du Bois argued that the poor conditions
of blacks are not because of an unchangeable heredity, but as a product of the
socialization and history of African Americans.
Du Bois’ critiques early in his career focused on challenging black people to rise
up and take charge of their own situations. Grounded in the rhetoric of social uplift, Du
Bois chastised blacks for their “promiscuity, criminality, and laziness.” Moreover, he
lamented over what he felt was a “lack of racial purpose and unity and the ineffectuality
of black institutions” (Howard-Pitney, 2005, pp. 96-97). Correction would only come, Du
Bois maintained, through “Negro homes,” which he argued must stop being places of
“idleness and extravagance and complaint.” While arguing that “White prejudice was not
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responsible for all or perhaps the greater part of the Negro problem,” Du Bois suggested
that work, be it menial or poorly rewarded, would lead to the road of salvation (Howard-
Pitney, 2005, p. 97).
Du Bois’ concluded his prophetic rhetoric during this period calling both Blacks
and Whites to do their duty towards each other. Offering encouragement and hope, Du
Bois believed that when each race did their own duty, mutual benefit and progress would
happen. Du Bois believed in the American covenant system and called both Blacks and
Whites to return to its principles and ideals. For African Americans, it was the ideals of
hard work, self-help and thrift that would help them succeed, while with Whites, Du Bois
gently reminded them of the ideals of liberty, freedom and justice should apply to African
Americans as well. The hope to which Du Bois called his audiences grounded itself in the
belief that a return to the covenant would produce the peace and prosperity needed in the
land. However, as time passed and as racism gave way to more lynching, deprived
more African American rights from Whites, and an ever-increasing bigoted and racist
society emerged, Du Bois’ rhetoric changed. While Howard-Pitney has noted this shift,
he argues that Du Bois remained in the jeremiadic tradition of prophetic rhetoric. I
suggest, however, that Du Bois moved away from the jeremiad and begins to offer a
prophetic discourse that we find primarily within the African American Prophetic
Tradition mission-oriented prophecy.
African American Prophetic Tradition
Unlike the prophetic rhetoric of the jeremiad, the African American Prophetic
Tradition (AAPT) does not have its origins in freedom. Birth from slavery and shaped in
Jim and Jane Crow America, the African American version of the prophetic tradition has
been the primary vehicle that has comforted and given voice to many African Americans.
Through struggle and sacrifice, this tradition has expressed black people’s call for unity
and cooperation, as well as the community’s anger and frustrations. It has been both
hopeful and pessimistic. It has celebrated the beauty and myth of American
exceptionalism and its special place in the world, while at the same time damning it to
Hell for not living up to the promises and ideals America espouses. It is a tradition that
celebrates both the Creator or the Divine’s hand in history—offering “hallelujahs” for
deliverance from slavery and Jim and Jane Crow, while at the same time asking, “Where
in the hell is God?” during tough and trying times. It is a tradition that develops a
theological outlook quite different at times from orthodoxyone that finds God very
close, but so far away.
It is, also, a tradition that does not exclusively reside in either the apocalyptic or
the jeremiad forms of prophetic discourse. Though African Americans have used both
forms of prophetic discourse, the contextual restraints and rhetorical exigencies have not
always allowed for an apocalyptic or jeremaidic appeal. For example, what if the speaker
does not believe that God will cause a cataclysmic event that will bring in a new agean
apocalypse. What if a speaker does not appeal to a covenantor for that matter, does not
believe the covenant is available to the peoplea jeremiad. What if the covenant itself is
the problemcan one still engage in prophetic discourse?
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For many African Americans, the jeremiad at times posed a huge problem.
Inherent in the jeremiad is that its proponents never question the foundational premise of
its beliefor in prophetic terms, it never questions the sacred. People primarily using the
jeremiad never once questioned their belief in America’s promise and destiny. They
never questioned their belief that they were the New Israel or chosen people or that
America was indeed the Promise Land. Whenever calamity happened, the Puritans may
have believed it was because they had sinned and deviated from the covenant, but belief
in the covenant never faltered. When calamity came, many Puritans interpreted the
calamity or judgment as God showing His love as parents do from time to time. Once the
people started living up to what the people hold as sacred, then the calamity would cease
and God would “heal the land.” However, many African Americans did not have
confidence or think that the covenant would work for them. If African Americans
adopted a prophetic persona to appeal to their audiences, they had to find other means.
In my work on the career of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, I identify at least four
other types of prophetic rhetoric found primarily, but not exclusively in the AAPT. The
first is celebratory prophecy. I define celebratory prophecy as a prophecy, typically
grounded in a sacred covenant that calls the people to celebrate an event that leads the
people to celebrate the sacred (covenant). In other words, before the event, the prophet
could not invoke the covenant because the audience that the prophet represents was not
included in the covenant. Moreover, the prophet links the event to the will of God, thus it
becomes a sacred event worthy of celebration (Johnson, 2012, p. 10).
The second type of prophecy used by African Americans is a prophetic
disputation or disputation prophecy. Disputation occurs when the speaker offers a
“quotation of the people’s opinion” within the speech context and offers a refutation
“which corrects this opinion” (Graffy, 1984, 105). Prophetic disputations function
rhetorically by giving the speaker a chance not only to speak about the evils perpetrated
by her opponents, but also to do so in a way that creates a sense of empowerment; not
only for the speaker, but also for the community the speaker represents (Johnson, 2012, p.
10). In this way, prophetic disputations are similar to Gregg’s (1971) ego-function of
protest rhetoric because the prophet aims the rhetoric at the “protestors themselves,” the
ones who are in need of affirmation of their personhood (74). While the prophet aims his
rhetoric towards his opponents, the main thrust of his message appeals to his supporters.
Prophetic disputations and, for that matter, prophetic rhetoric in general, do not
follow Gregg’s view that the speaker needs self-affirmation and that the speaker is the
primary audience of the message. What Gregg assumes is that the speaker also needs
“psychological refurbishing and affirmation”—and perhaps in protest rhetoric, the
speaker does. With prophetic rhetoric, the speaker needs no such affirmation. With
prophetic rhetoric, before the speaker speaks, affirmation comes from the Divine. In other
words, the speaker does not need approval or affirmation from anyone to speak. The
prophet’s ego is in check because the ego, the selfin fact the whole person of the
speakerbelongs to God.
The third type of prophecy use by African Americans is a type of prophetic
discourse that I call pessimistic prophecy or the prophetic lament. For many black
orators, finding the racism too entrenched and the American covenant ideals not realistic
for black Americans to ascertain, they become wailing and moaning prophets within what
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I call the lament tradition of prophecy. In this tradition, the prophet’s primary function is
to speak out on the behalf of others and to chronicle their pain and suffering, as well as
her or his own. By speaking, the prophet offers hope and encouragement to others by
acknowledging their sufferings and letting them know that they are not alone (Johnson,
2012, p. 14).
For the purposes of the essay, I focus on the fourth typemission-oriented
prophecy. A mission-oriented prophecy is a constitutive rhetoric that calls a people to
participate in a divine mission by reconstituting the people from their perceived
identities. While a constitutive rhetoric assumes that audiences are already a rhetorical
effect and uses that identification to shape the message, a mission-oriented prophecy
finds the constructed identities problematic and offers a new vision or identity for the
people. Therefore, what the prophet does is to (re)constitute the people in an identity that
would fit the divine call (Johnson, 2012, p. 13).
I argue that in his early years as editor of The Crisis (1911-1925), W.E.B. Du
Bois established a mission-oriented prophecy that attempts to call into being a people
who would fight for righteousness and justice and stand firm in the face of trouble.
Directed initially at the “talented tenth,” Du Bois soon targeted his prophetic zeal to all
African Americans as a response to Booker T. Washington’s program of accommodation.
This new people would be emboldened to stand up and speak out and demand their rights
afforded to them by the Constitution and by their Creator.
Du Bois’ Mission Oriented Prophecy
During the early years at The Crisis, to establish his mission-oriented prophecy,
Du Bois grounded or appealed his rhetoric to both the religious and secular conceptions
of the sacred. As for a secular conception of the sacred, Du Bois readily grounded his
prophecy in an understanding of the sacredness of citizenshipof being an American
citizen first. He starts an editorial titled A Philosophy for 1913 by stating, “I am by birth
and law a free black American citizen. As such, I have both rights and duties. If I neglect
my duties, my rights are always in danger. If I do not maintain my rights, I cannot
perform my duties” (Aptheker, 1983, p. 47).
Those sacred rights and duties meant supporting the country during the First
World War. Du Bois urged African Americans to support the war effort because, as he
argued, “this is our country” and if it is our country then “it is our war.” By appealing to
the sacredness of citizenship, Du Bois was then able to offer a critique of America as “not
perfect,” but “its continued existence and development is the hope of mankind and of
black mankind” (Aptheker, 1983, p. 160).
Understanding citizenship as a sacred entitlement led Du Bois to support
women’s suffrage. In his 1914 editorial “Votes for Women,” Du Bois called on African
Americans to help “bring it to pass.” Du Bois argued first, “any extension of democracy
involves a discussion of the fundamentals of democracy. Second, he argued, “if it is
acknowledged to be unjust to disenfranchise a sex, it cannot be denied that it is absurd to
disenfranchise a color” (Aptheker, 1983, p. 80). Finally, he saw women as potential allies
in the ongoing struggle for African American civil rights.
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In another editorial arguing for equal treatments of all races, Du Bois grounded
his appeal in the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Golden Rule. In writing about Jesus,
Du Bois called the church to live up to the standards espoused by Jesus. By offering a
biblical interpretation of Jesus’ life, Du Bois situated Jesus within the life of African
Americans by way of analogy. After lamenting blacks were not welcome in white
churches, Du Bois writes
Yet Jesus Christ was a laborer and black men are laborers; He was poor and we
are poor; He was despised of his fellow men and we are despised; He was
persecuted and crucified and we are mobbed and lynched…. Why then are His so-
called followers deaf, dumb, and blind on the Negro problemon the human
problem. (Aptheker, 1983. p. 69)
In order to establish unity and build camaraderie, Du Bois often recounted the
atrocities that African Americans faced throughout his editorial writings. In one, he
confessed that he was taking an “indefensible joy” at the “lynching, licking, and mob
rule” against some whites that went on during this time in the United States. Then he
gives the reason why.
For fifty years you have murdered our men, raped our women, stolen our property
and maimed our children’s body and soul; and when we told you that this failure
of government, decency, morals and mercy was your problem more than ours,
you grinned at us pityingly…. But it’s coming home, Old Top—it’s coming
home. (Aptheker, 1983, p. 364)
One of Du Bois main critiques was against the churchbut more specifically the
black church and its leadership. In one editorial, after lamenting that “All is not well with
the colored church,” Du Bois focused on what he found to be the problems with the
church’s leadership. In writing about the bishops and pastors of the church, Du Bois
argued, “the paths and the higher places are choked with pretentious ill-trained men and
in far too many cases with men dishonest and otherwise immoral.” Further he wrote, “the
church is still inveighing against dancing and theatergoing, still blaming educated people
for objecting to silly and empty sermons, boasting and noise, still building churches when
people need homes and schools, and persisting in crucifying critics rather than realizing
the handwriting on the wall” (Aptheker, 1983, pp. 34-35).
He also challenged African American churches to “stop building and purchasing
new church edifices and start investing the “money of the church in homes, land and
businesses and philanthropic enterprises for the benefit of the people.” He called for
churches to adopt a cooperative economic model reasoning that if “a group of people can
buy and pay for a hundred-thousand-dollar church,” they can purchase a hundred-
thousand-dollar apartment house and run it” (Aptheker, 1983, p. 238).
Du Bois typically ended his editorials with encouragement and hope to his
readers. After critiquing the country for its negative attitude against blackness, Du Bois
challenged his readers to “gird up [their] loins, because a “great day is coming.” Though
he reminded them “we have crawled and pleaded for justice and we have been cheerfully
Carolinas Communication Annual XXXII 2016
26
spit upon and murdered and burned,” he closed by writing, “we will not endure it
forever(Aptheker, 1983, p. 17). This spirit moved Du Bois to proclaim hope that one
day that society would afford all of the rights and privileges of citizenship to African
Americans.
Conclusion
After the NAACP removed him as editor of The Crisis in 1934, Du Bois
prophetic persona shifted. Though not examined in this essay, Du Bois would later
become a pessimistic prophetcritiquing both African Americans and the wider society
to live out the meaning of the ideas they espoused. For instance, Du Bois eventually no
longer believed that the talented tenth could lead African Americans because they too had
capitulated to the rapacious capitalism that he had begun to critique as harmful to Blacks.
Moreover, Du Bois also argued that an international socialism would benefit Blacks
more. While earlier in his life, he was hopeful that scientific inquiry and education
would solve the race problem, in his book Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace, he
lamented, “It is with great regret that I do not see after this war, or within any reasonable
time, the possibility of a world without race conflict” (as cited in Howard-Pitney, 2005, p.
133). Du Bois earlier in his life thought that the First World War would bring the peace
and prosperity that many wanted. Later in his life, however, his views on war had
changed. He argued for peace with the Soviet Union on two fronts. First, he realized that
war was not the “path to the millennium” and second; he argued that war came from
capitalists wanting to “stem the worldwide tide toward socialist democracy” (as cited in
Howard-Pitney, 2005, p. 133). Marginalized as his prophetic pessimism became stronger,
Du Bois still wrote and spoke out until the end of his lifea life that would lead him to
Ghana where he died in 1963.
Typically, in my study of the AAPT, prophets start as optimistic prophetswho
see themselves as universal prophets for all people; believing that if, their audience would
just live up to the ideals espoused by what they hold sacred, that somehow everything
would work out. It is also during this stage that the prophet sees America and its
covenantal blessings as available to African Americans.
However, as time goes on, African American prophetsfinding the racism too
entrenched and the American covenant ideals not realistic for black Americans to
ascertainbecome wailing and moaning prophets within what I call the lament tradition
of prophecy. In this tradition, the prophet’s primary function is to speak out on the behalf
of others and to chronicle their pain and suffering, as well as her or his own. Just a
cursory examination of Du Bois life and works would suggest that he also followed this
trajectory. Du Bois started as an optimistic prophet believing that if blacks would just
return to American covenantal ideals, then African Americans’ living would improve. At
the end of his life, however, Du Bois rejected American covenantal ideals as being the
harbinger for black success. He began to look toward an international socialism as the
only route to a kinder and more meaningful humanity.
In this essay, I first sought to build upon the fledgling rhetorical scholarship on
Du Bois. Again, while scholars from other disciplines are doing good work examining
Carolinas Communication Annual XXXII 2016
27
Du Bois, rhetoric scholars simply have not taken advantage of the textual corpus that Du
Bois left behind. For example, his editorials in The Crisis would make for a good study
on any number of themes or topics beyond what I have studied here.
Second, by (re)introducing Du Bois and (re)claiming him as a religious rhetor,
scholars may want to examine the large amounts of writings devoted to the topic. While
Religious Studies scholars such as Gary Dorrien (2015) connect Du Bois to the Black
Social Gospel movement in the early twentieth century, scholars of religious rhetoric may
want to study the way Du Bois used and constructed religion in his attempts to persuade
audiences. In addition, writings found at WEBDuBois.org, curated by Robert Williams,
Associate Professor of Political Science at Bennett College, offer a good starting point for
such analyses.
Finally, I wanted to also make a contribution to scholarship on prophetic rhetoric
and more specifically, the African American Prophetic Tradition. While there have been
studies on prophetic rhetoric in general, until recently, outside of David Howard-Pitney’s
work, there has not been much in the way of understanding prophetic discourse through
an African American lens. Thankfully, this is beginning to change. In addition to my own
work The Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American
Prophetic Tradition, there are two others works that center on the African American
Prophetic Tradition: Willie J. Harrell Jr.’s Origins of the African American Jeremiad: The
Rhetorical Strategies of Social Protest and Activism, 1760-1861 (2011) and Christopher
Hobson’s The Mount of Vision: African American Prophetic Tradition, 1800-1950
(2012). I suggest that studying Du Bois as prophet is another way to understand his life,
legacy and challenge to all of us to continue to fight structures, institutions, and
governments that continue to oppressno matter where they may be.
Endnotes
1
See Carl McDonald Taylor’s W. E. B. Du Bois: The Rhetoric of Redefinition
(1971), Vanessa Wynder Quainoo’s “The Souls of Black Folk”: In Consideration of W.
E. B. Du Bois and the Exigency of an African-American Philosophy of Rhetoric (1993),
and Fendrich R. Clark’s W.E.B. Du Bois and the Rhetoric of Social Change, 18971907:
Attitude as Incipient Action (2009).
2
See Robert Terrill and Michael Leff’s “The Polemicist as Artist: W. E. B. Bois’
‘Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others’” (1995) and Aric Putnam’s “The Ethos of
Pan-Africa: The Rhetorical Visions of Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois” (2008).
Works Cited
Aptheker, Herbert, ed. Writings in Periodicals Edited by W.E.B.Du Bois: Selections from
the Crisis, Volume 1:1911-1925. Millwood, New York: Kraus-Thomson
Organization Limited, 1983.
Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.
Blum, Edward. W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet. University of Pennsylvania Press,
2007.
Carolinas Communication Annual XXXII 2016
28
Brummett, Barry. Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric. Praeger, 1991.
Clark, Fendrich R. W.E.B. Du Bois and the Rhetoric of Social Change, 18971907:
Attitude as Incipient Action. Dissertation, Duquesne University, 2009.
Darsey, James. The Prophetic Tradition and Radical Rhetoric in America. New York
University Press, 1999.
Dorrien, Gary. The New Abolition: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel. Yale
University Press, 2015.
Du Bois, W. E. B. Color and Democracy: Colors and Peace. Harcourt, Brace and
Company, 1945.
---. The Philadelphia Negro. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1899.
---. “I Won’t Vote.The Nation, 20 Oct. 1956, http://www.thenation.com/article/i-wont-
vote. Accessed 15 March 2013.
Graffy, Adrian. The Prophet Confronts His People: The Disputation Speech in the
Prophets. Analecta Biblica, Loyola Pub., 1984.
Gregg, Richard. B. “The Ego-Function of the Rhetoric of Protest.” Philosophy &
Rhetoric 4.2 (1971): 71-91.
Harrell, Willie, Jr. Origins of the African American Jeremiad: The Rhetorical Strategies
of Social Protest and Activism, 1760-1861. McFarland and Company, Inc., 2011.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Prophets. Harper and Row, 1955.
Hobson, Christopher Z. The Mount of Vision: African American Prophetic Tradition,
1800-1950. Oxford University Press, 2012.
Howard-Pitney, David. The African American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America.
Temple University Press, 2005.
Johnson, Andre. E. The Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the
African American Prophetic Tradition. Lexington Books, 2012.
McKerrow, Raymie E. “Critical Rhetoric: Theory and Praxis.” Communication
Monographs 56.2 (1989): 91-111.
Putnam, Aric. “The Ethos of Pan-Africa: The Rhetorical Visions of Marcus Garvey and
W.E.B. Du Bois.” National Communication Association 94th Annual Convention,
20 November 2008, San Diego, California. Conference presentation.
Quainoo, Vanessa W. “The Souls of Black Folk”: In Consideration of W. E. B. Du Bois
and the Exigency of an African-American Philosophy of Rhetoric. Dissertation,
University of Massachusetts Amherst, 1993.
Rogers, Melvin L. “The People, Rhetoric, and Affect: On the Political Force of Du Bois’s
The Souls of Black Folk.” American Political Science Review 106.1 (2012): 188-
203.
Taylor, Carol M. W. E. B. Du Bois: The Rhetoric of Redefinition. Dissertation, University
of Oregon, 1971.
Terrill, Robert E. Malcolm X: Inventing Radical Judgement. Michigan State Press, 2004.
---. and Michael Leff. “The Polemicist as Artist: W. E. B. Bois’ ‘Of Mr. Booker T.
Washington and Others.Argumentation and Values: Proceedings of the Ninth
SCA/AFA Conference on Argumentation edited by Sally Jackson, Speech
Communication Association, 1995. 230-236.
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Walzer, Michael. Prophecy and Social Criticism. Let Justice Roll: Prophetic Challenges
in Religion, Politics, and Society, edited by Neal Riemer, Rowman and Littlefield
Publishers, 1996, pp. 23-37.
Watts, Eric K. “Cultivating a Black Public Voice: W.E.B. Du Bois and the ‘Criteria of
Negro Art.Rhetoric & Public Affairs 4.2 (2001): 181-201.
West, Cornel. Prophetic Fragments: Illuminations of the Crisis in American Religion and
Culture. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988
Zuckerman, Phillip. Du Bois on Religion. AltaMira Press, 2000.
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