A sermon by Trevon Tellor (he/they) in honor of W.E.B. DuBois
August 5th, 2022
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN
Speaking about the countless escapes, both successful and attempted made by enslaved Africans in Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. DuBois writes:
“This was not merely the desire to stop work. It was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work. It was a general strike that involved directly in the end perhaps a half million people. They wanted to stop the economy of the plantation system, and to do that they left the plantations.”
How often do we think of the agency of enslaved Africans when we think about the abolition of slavery and the civil war? We think about free Black individuals like Harriet Tubman, or Fredrick Douglas, and of the many allies and accomplices of the times, the greatest example being John Brown. We think about the conditions of the enslaved Africans, the scars, the cramped living quarters, the horrific auctions, and the backbreaking work. We even may think of the many escape attempts… but these escapees are nameless and abstract individuals to many of us. The only names or faces that we can put to ending slavery are the free Black individuals and allys and accomplices. But surely, during the roughly two centuries of chattel slavery in America Black slaves had to be doing something?
This is the context and the question that W.E.B. DuBois addresses in Black Reconstruction. W.E.B. DuBois, one of the founding fathers of sociology, a major thinker and leader of the Black Liberation Movement, and my favorite sociologist… even above Karl Marx. Black Reconstruction is in my opinion his greatest work, and is a fundamentally marxist understanding of American slavery and the reconstruction period after. In Black Reconstruction, DuBois approaches slavery from the viewpoint of the enslaved Africans, and this viewpoint necessarily means acknowledging the agency of the enslaved.
DuBois does just this, brilliantly, in the chapter “General Strike”. Escape from slavery is no longer framed as enslaved people “tired of work and wanted to live at the expense of the government; wanted to travel and see things and places,” but instead as a general strike – a conscious act of resistance against the conditions of work. This was not organized by any sort of union, or outside organization, but the agency and will of the enslaved themselves. DuBois writes that the escaped slaves were not treated well, socially or materially, by the Union soldiers that they encountered crossing the front line, and sometimes even driven away. Despite this, they kept coming and eventually, as DuBois documents, were given land and work by the Union army for a brief period. Generals created “negro colonies” that proved important to the war effort, growing food in place of the many drafted Northeners either fighting or dead on the battlefield. These were self-governing Black farming communities, some of them even operating as a cooperative. This also drained Confederate resources; the Confederacy depended on its cash crops to finance the war, food to feed their army, and labor to build fortifications. Like any strike, it left the bosses high and dry, as producing capital depends on labor, on the worker, and the worker had fled. While these exemplary and productive Black agricultural communities would be stomped out violently by White supremacist terrorism during the reconstruction era and afterwords, this brings to light what might have been a decisive factor in the war, a general strike that crippled the Southern economy.
This is a radical reframing of how we think of the civil war and slavery. Agency, and social transformation as a whole, was now rooted in the actions and resistance of enslaved Africans, not free individuals, not white allies, not a government, but the social class of those most affected, and are the underclass of our society. And with this new reframing, our eyes are turned to the current and other historical movements of Black agency and liberation. We can draw connections, and learn lessons from its past, and find inspiration that can help us in the struggle for liberation. It is sociology, harnessed for understanding social harm and its transformation, rather than merely observatory and objective or even worse, actively affirming the status quo of white supremacy. Simply put, DuBois’ method for history is the experience of the underclass, the poor, beginning the narrative with them and ending with them.
This method, I find, is similar to the method of theology we find in Liberation theologies. In Liberation theology, we find that theology begins with the experience of the poor. The experience of the poor is in a way the experience of a God who came to earth as a poor carpenter, who suffered under colonial occupation and was eventually murdered by an empire. One could argue that like DuBois’ Black Reconstruction, the Bible begins and ends with the experience of the poor: in Genesis, humanity is cursed to toil and labor, and in Revelation Jesus returns and the first is made last. The bible also recognizes the agency of the poor, who God can work through. Think of Moses and the Israelites, the widow and Elijah, Rahab and the spies in Jericho, the hundreds of people who housed Jesus and his disciples. God’s work is liberation, and it is brought to fruition in part via the agency of the poor.
Too often churches, non profits, and even radical organizations make the fatal mistake of not recognizing the essential agency of those most affected by the issue. We, the free individuals and allies of our time, are not what will bring forth the great social transformation that we desire on our own. Whether you believe in change through a ballot box or revolution, no matter how much organizing and planning you do, the impetus for social transformation is in the so-called nameless masses, those on the margins, whose bodies, created in the image of God make change happen.
As church, we must take DuBois’s method and apply it to the social movements we find ourselves involved in. We are not the heroes, we are not the leaders, we must understand movements from the perspective of those most affected. In other words, we must be in solidarity with the underclasses and the marginalized. When I say solidarity I mean more than “showing up,” I mean embodying the perspective of the poor, attempting to look at the world and movements from their point of view, in the same way that God embodied the experience of the poor as Christ. When we do this, we are not only acting *for* the poor, we are also acting *with* the poor. By taking on this perspective, we allow the poor, the underclasses and the marginalized to evangelize to and convert *us.* After all, they are already close to God, and perhaps know God more than we ever have.
So how can we understand these current times in the way of DuBois as church? Racial capitalism and colonization haunt our nation, its contradictions are sharpening, and crisis seems to be rapidly approaching. As church we must look at this situation from the perspective of the working class and poor Black neighbors in our community. We cannot root our theology and action in the platitudes of palatable Black leaders and academics, or the band-aid like solutions proposed by non-profits. Our theology and actions must come from the demands of the poor and working class Black folks struggling against poverty, colonialism, capitalist exploitation, and white supremacy on a daily basis. The demand is always clear, its the same demand throughout history as Frantz Fanon found, it is simply “Bread and land”… coincidently the same needs of the Hebrews as they escaped from slavery, bread from the sky and a safe land to live free. During the uprisings in our city, the demands were loud and clear. Working and poor Black folks demanded bread, stores were broken into and their high priced goods found their way into the community. Looting is always a targeted and political act. The demand for land was also clear, an attempt (that worked for a brief period) pushed police out of the 3rd precinct area, and an autonomous zone set up on 38th and Chicago. This was a clear attempt at finding our own land.
Our job as church and Christians then is to heed demands of bread and land, for these are the demands of the ones whose experience is closest to God, who were created in the image of God. Their innate dignity shines a light on injustices, and their actions set the pace of our work. Our job in solidarity, embodying their perspective, is not passing judgements on the desperate yet intentional actions of the poor, but to act for and with them in whatever capacity we can.
We as church can not be in solidarity with, nor can we be effective in action, if we are not converted to the viewpoint of the marginalized and can see the world from their eyes, we must recognize the agency and leadership of our Black relatives in Christ in our struggle for liberation.
Tre Tellor (he/they) is a youth pastor at Christ The King Lutheran Church in Bloomington, Minnesota. He graduated from Augsburg University with a degree in sociology and religion in 2022. Tre is also a youth organizer and Marxist political educator. In a few years Tre hopes to go to seminary, be ordained in the ELCA, and utilize his organizing skills to push the church into a
revolutionary and liberatory direction.
William Edward Burghardt DuBois was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. As a young man he had already developed a deep concern for the advancement of his race, and at 15, he began to advocate for Black Americans in his capacity as the local correspondent for the New York Globe.
In 1896, following the completion of his doctoral degree, DuBois received a fellowship to conduct research in the seventh ward slums of Philadelphia. His work with the urban Black population there marked the first scientific approach to sociological study, and for that reason, DuBois is hailed as the father of Social Science.
In 1903, while teaching at Atlanta University, he published his book The Souls of Black Folks, in which he outlined his philosophical disagreement with important figures such as Booker T. Washington, who argued that Black people should forego political equality and civil rights and focus instead on industrial evolution. DuBois believed instead in the higher education of a “talented tenth” whose education would naturally help other African Americans achieve.
In 1906, he sought others to aid him in his efforts toward “organized determination and aggressive action on the part of men who believe in Negro freedom and growth.” The result was the so-called “Niagara Movement” (named for the group’s first meeting site, which was shifted to Canada when they were prevented from meeting in the U.S.), the objectives of which were to advocate civil justice and oppose discrimination. In 1909, most of the group members merged with white supporters and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed. DuBois advanced his causes, sometimes at odds with the white leadership of the NAACP, in the magazine Crisis.
A leading participant in several Pan-African meetings, DuBois renounced his American citizenship and moved to Ghana, where he died in 1963, on the eve of the March on Washington. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote of DuBois, “His singular greatness lay in his quest for truth about his own people. There were very few scholars who concerned themselves with honest study of the Black man and he sought to fill the immense void.”