The Souls of Black Folk | Critical Essay by Arlene A. Elder

This literature criticism consists of approximately 35 pages of analysis & critique of The Souls of Black Folk.
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Critical Essay by Arlene A. Elder

SOURCE: "Swamp Versus Plantation: Symbolic Structure in W. E. B. Du Bois' The Quest of the Silver Fleece," in Phylon, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, December, 1973, pp. 358-67.

In the following essay, Elder discusses the themes of class, race, and morality in Du Bois's novel The Quest of the Silver Fleece.

Although in the past commentators on the writing of W. E. B. DuBois have concentrated upon his historical and sociological works, some recent critics are intrigued by his fictional presentation of the black adventure in America. Most of this new critical interest centers upon his trilogy, The Black Flame (1957–1961), a historically based saga of the Mansart family. DuBois' first novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911), is, nonetheless, equally interesting in its artistic presentation of the economic, political, and social forces shaping black life. It is a crowded and complex work, shifting its action from the rural South to Washington, D.C. and back again, and achieves its unity of plot and statement through a carefully constructed framework of contrasting symbols. The Quest of the Silver Fleece is structured upon the clash of two opposing world views, that of the Swamp and that of the Plantation. The Swamp represents all that is free, wild, joyful, and loving, the Plantation, all that is self-serving and exploitative.

DuBois successfully avoids the obvious trap of simplistically equating the Swamp with black life and the Plantation with white. While his main concern in the book is to demonstrate the physical and mental serfdom which trapped blacks even after Emancipation and to suggest effective courses of action to overcome this kind of slavery, he recognizes that some whites, too, were oppressed by economic and political conditions and that some blacks knowingly profited from the subservience of their people. Therefore, he presents self-sacrificial whites, like Miss Smith, the Northern schoolteacher who devotes her life to educating Southern blacks, and Afro-Americans like Caroline Wynn, who have capitulated to the world's injustice and wish only to manipulate it to their own advantage. Plantation and Swamp morality, then, have more to do with the tone of the soul than with the color of the skin.

Nor does DuBois paint the Swamp mentality as all good and the Plantation view as all evil. Primitivism, which is the weaker side of Swamp life, he shows as insufficient to advance a people in an industrial economy. Primitivism consists of limiting qualities, historically generated in blacks, such as the subservience, ignorance, and acceptance of degradation found in the swamp witch, Elspeth, which must be eliminated before blacks can compete with whites. Moreover, for all its inhumane aspects, the Plantation viewpoint does encourage ambition and a thirst for knowledge, which DuBois considers essential for any group's success. Racial, class, and even human advancement, then, rest for DuBois in the development of the best qualities of both philosophies.

The actual swamp in the book is an area a short distance from the white-dominated town and farms. It is both ugly and beautiful, a source of nightmares as well as dreams, of despair as well as hope, a spot where black exploitation has traditionally festered as well as the place where black self-determination could ultimately flourish.

Its first description suggests the danger, despair, and loss of vision which it represents: "Night fell. The red waters of the swamp grew sinister and sullen. The tall pines lost their slimness and stood in wide blurred blotches all across the way, and a great shadowy bird arose, wheeled and melted, murmuring, into the black-green sky." Deep in the darkness of the swamp is the hut of Elspeth, "an old woman—short, broad, black and wrinkled, with fangs and pendulous lips and red, wicked eyes." It is in this hut that local white men gather at night to drink and carry on the ante-bellum tradition of sexually exploiting black women.

Zora, the wild, ignorant "elf-girl," was born in the swamp and knows it intimately. Hating Elspeth, her mother, and the sordid life at the hut, she lives in a private world of fantasy, conjuring up creatures symbolic of both the beauty and ugliness she sees around her. "And over yonder behind the swamps," she imagines, "is great fields full of dreams." Zora's dreams, spawned by the contrasts she observes, hang "like big flowers, dripping dew and sugar and blood." The inhabitants of her dream-land reflect both the hope and despair of her life:

"And there's little fairies there that hop about and sing, and devils—great ugly devils that grabs at you and roasts and eats you if they gits you!… Some devils is big and white, like ha'nts; some is long and shiny, like creepy, slippery snakes; and some is little and broad and black…."

Many of the blacks of the region bedevil themselves and participate in the creation of their own hell by rejecting the education Miss Smith offers and forgetting any dreams they once had of escaping the oppressive conditions of tenant farming. Because they cannot read the contracts they are required to sign, they ignorantly bind themselves for life to the wealthy white Cresswells. At first, they even reject the chance for self-determination which Zora offers them with her plan for a black-run farming commune. They cling, instead, to the old gospel of happiness-in-the-hereafter fed to them by the self-serving Preacher Jones. Ignorance, fear, jealousy of each other, despair, and hopeless acquiescence in their own debasement are the self-defeating qualities which the hag, Elspeth, and the terrible "gray and death-like wilderness" of the swamp represent.

There is, however, a beautiful, joyous, vibrant aspect to the swamp which is reflected in the souls of some of the black and white characters. Zora, "black, and lith, and tall, and willowy," with her music, her poetry, and her dreams is DuBois' most striking representative of good Swamp qualities. Despite the area's general gloom, at times the "golden sun" pours "floods of glory through the slim black trees," and "the mystic sombre pools [catch] … and [toss] … back the glow in darker duller crimson." The intensity of this description is reflected in Zora, her "heavy hair" bursting from its fastenings and lying "in stiffened, straggling masses, bending reluctantly to the breeze, like curled smoke." She recognizes in herself the pent-up aspirations of her people and dreams eventually not of her childhood devils and dripping blood but of the escape from Elspeth which Miss Smith and the world beyond the swamp offer to her.

Her plans for escape are dependent upon the Silver Fleece, the special crop of cotton which she and Bles grow on her island deep in the swamp. From its sale, she intends to finance her education. DuBois extends the symbol of the Fleece to include all the cotton grown in the South and uses it to reveal the close relationship Southern blacks feel with the soil and the difference between this kinship and the Plantation mentality's emphasis upon property and profits.

"I don't like to work," Zora once confided to Bles. "You see, mammy's pappy was a king's son, and kings don't work. I don't work; mostly I dreams. But I can work, and I will—for the wonder things—and for you." As a matter of fact, she works until her hands are raw and bleeding, clearing the island to plant the magic cotton seeds. She even comes close to losing her life in a flood, building dikes to protect her young crop. The tender, young cotton sprouts become her new "dream-children, and she tended them jealously; they were her Hope, and she worshiped them."

It is thematic that it is Elspeth who provides the seed, "wonder seed sowed with the three spells of Obi in the old land ten thousand moons ago," and sows it herself in a ritual during the dark of the moon. Its product is magnificent, but neither its inherent value nor Elspeth's magic is sufficient to guarantee Zora's success in an exploitative society.

Although Zora's relationship to the Silver Fleece is intensely personal, her love of the land and complete involvement in the creative process of growth is representative of the attitude of her people. Bles rapturously describes the sprouting cotton to Mary Taylor, his Northern-born teacher: "… we chop out the weak stalks, and the strong ones grow tall and dark, till I think it must be like the ocean—all green and billowy; then come little flecks there and there and the sea is all filled with flowers—flowers like little bells, blue and purple and white." Other blacks, "huge bronze earth-spirits," who harvest the crops do so joyously, although they know that most of the profits from their labor will fatten the pockets of the Cresswells: "The cry of the Naked was sweeping the world, and yonder in the night black men were answering the call. They knew not what or why they answered, but obeyed the irresistible call with hearts light and song upon their lips—the Song of Service."

DuBois recognizes worldwide economic forces at work in the production and sale of Southern crops. The blacks, most directly responsible for the cotton, however, know next to nothing about supply and demand or fair profits and wages. This ignorance, the author suggests, is one of the major reasons for black entrapment. Even when coupled with childlike joy in the harvest and pride in the land, black ignorance can only result in black powerlessness. Nevertheless, DuBois appreciates the richness of the workers' natural, creative relationship with the land and describes it lyrically: "All the dark earth heaved in mighty travail with the bursting bolls of the cotton while black attendant earth spirits swarmed above, sweating and crooning to its birth pains."

The Plantation viewpoint is most clearly distinguished from that of the Swamp by its purely economic attitude toward the cotton crop: "… the poetry of Toil was in the souls of the laborers…. Yet ever and always [sic] there were tense silent white-faced men moving in that swarm who felt no poetry and heard no song…." To the white Southern landowners and their counterparts, the Northern speculators, the cotton sings only of profits. Plantation mentality, North or South, is paternalistic, exploitative, self-deceptive, and, ultimately, cruel.

Recognizing Zora's crop as the most valuable ever produced on their land, Harry Cresswell, nevertheless, denigrates it as "extra cotton," worthy only to be turned into lint, and through dishonest financial manipulation manages to cheat her of the entire crop and even to place her twenty-five dollars in his debt. Zora's loss is common. The blacks all find themselves deeper in debt after each year's toil. They are kept at their labor by false promises of freedom, cheated by contracts "binding the tenant hand and foot to the landlord," and threatened with being sold out and put in the chain-gang if they resist.

Nor is this exploitation aimed solely at blacks. Southern poor whites, employees in the mills which Northern capitalization brought with it, are as over-worked, cheated, and trapped as the black tenant farmers. In the third part of the novel, when it appears that the oppressed of both races might combine and, through their superior numbers, overwhelm the wealthy landlords, John Taylor, the Northern speculator, remarks, "even if they do ally themselves, our way is easy: separate the leaders, the talented, the pushers of both races from their masses, and through them rule the rest by money." Although the blacks, because of racial bigotry and their historical position as serfs in the South, are the primary victims of men of Plantation mentality, any member of a powerless minority is in danger.

Furthermore, the Plantation morality is no respecter of social rank. Not only poor whites, but Southern "aristocrats," as well, are in danger of becoming victims if they are ignorant of the economic complexities affecting them. The prospect of a poor cotton crop and the persuasive arguments of John Taylor convince Colonel Cresswell to forget his "southern honor" and to entangle his fellow cotton planters in a business deal from which he stands to make two million dollars in five years. When Taylor announces his plan to form an "All-Cotton combine" and corner the year's market, the Colonel asks, "And the other planters?":

"They come in for high-priced cotton until we get our grip."

"And then?"

"They keep their mouths shut or we squeeze 'em and buy the land. We propose to own the cotton belt of the South."

At this revelation, Colonel Cresswell automatically starts from his seat and indignantly sputters something about betraying "southern gentlemen" to Northern interests. But the chance for tremendous profits quickly outweighs the sense of honor by which he likes to believe he lives, and he agrees to the scheme.

Taylor, as well as the Cresswells, is obviously a Plantation type. The only difference that DuBois recognizes between Northern and Southern manifestations of the attitude is the degree of self-deception Southerners have traditionally allowed themselves. In most matters involving other whites, Colonel Cresswell is much more honest than John Taylor. "But there was one part of the world which his code of honor did not cover," and this was the part inhabited by blacks. Despite the fact that he, himself, has a mulatto granddaughter, he still looks upon blacks as inherited property. As long as they remain "faithful niggers" like Johnson and Preacher Jones, the Colonel ignores them, cheating them periodically in the comfortable, time-honored way, content to be oblivious to their existence. When blacks try to break out of the rigid class-race structure of Plantation economics, however, as Zora does with her Silver Fleece, or when she attempts to buy the swamp for her farm commune, he is willing to perjure himself and others to maintain the status quo. "The uninitiated," DuBois explains,

… cannot easily picture himself the mental attitude of a former slave-holder toward property in the hands of a Negro. Such property belonged of right to the master, if the master needed it; and since ridiculous laws safeguarded the property, it was perfectly permissible to circumvent such laws. No Negro starved on the Cresswell place, neither did any accumulate property. Colonel Cresswell saw to both matters.

It is this fractured concept of honor which John Taylor most dislikes about his Southern father-in-law and business partner, and it his refusal to cooperate in cheating Zora of the swamp which leads to the destruction of their relationship. No less self-serving than Cresswell, Taylor, nevertheless, is a genuine admirer of talent and ambition, whether they belong to a white or a black. "The weak and the ignorant of all races he despised and had no patience with them." The able, he respects. And it is only the able, DuBois insists, who can hope to undermine Southern paternalism and overcome Northern indifference.

Throughout the first part of the novel, the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece appears as a mythic referent for DuBois' Plantation-Swamp dichotomy. The story is first alluded to by Mary Taylor, who, responding to Bles's lyrical description of the growth of the cotton, murmurs, "The Golden Fleece—it's the Silver Fleece!" Pleased by the opportunity to "uplift" one of her charges, she tells the boy of Jason and the Argonauts and is startled and puzzled by his response:

"All you is Jason's." He pointed with one sweep of his long arm to the quivering mass of green-gold foliage that swept from swamp to horizon. "All you golden fleece is Jason's now," he repeated.

"I thought it was—Cresswell's," she said.

"That's what I mean."…

"I am glad to hear you say that," she said methodically, "for Jason was a brave adventurer—"

"I thought he was a thief."

"Oh, well—those were other times."

"The Cresswells are thieves now."

To Mary Taylor, the Jason myth embodies the values of ambition, daring, and heroism; to Bles, the "stealing" of the Fleece represents an immorality basic to an outlook which values property and power over people. The cotton means only gold to those Northerners and Southerners who maintain and enforce the Plantation system, rather than the bounty and beauty of the earth, as it does to Bles and his people.

The Jason story is also employed, however, to reveal the short-comings of Swamp mentality. When Bles tells Zora of Jason and Medea, she asks,

"Do you s'pose mammy's the witch?"

"No; she wouldn't give her own flesh and blood to help the thieving Jason."

She looked at him searchingly.

"Yes, she would, too."

By maintaining her cabin for the pleasures of the local whites, Elspeth has sold Zora and others into a moral slavery. Her nonresistance increases her own helplessness and is reflective of the general condition of her people.

Weakness and ignorance, the dark sides of Swamp life, are qualities which both Zora and Bles realize that they and their race must outgrow. Both travel North in the second part of the novel in quest of personal development. What they find there is a political version of the Plantation morality which they hoped to leave behind in the South.

In his picture of Northern blacks, DuBois suggests that the victims of exploitation frequently adopt the very techniques which were used against them. The members of Washington's black middle class seem to Bles "at times like black white people—strangers in way and thought." Caroline Wynn, a confidante of white politicians and an influential force in black social circles, is cynical about the promises of the democratic system and is willing to compromise with the whites in power to mislead the black electorate if it means her own security and advancement.

"I use the world," she explains; "I did not make it; I did not choose it." Sophisticated in the intricacies of political manipulation, she undertakes to mold Bles into a charismatic, but controllable, racial leader. Her goal is not the elimination of the injustices of a racist society, but a secure foothold for herself within that society. She schemes to have Bles appointed Register of the Treasury and envisions herself, not as Mrs. Bles Alwyn, but as the wife of the new Register of the Treasury.

Bles's refusal to defend the Republican Party, after it has capitulated to Southern pressure and abandoned a racially important education bill, seals his political and personal fate. The enraged Republicans drop him as quickly as they dropped the piece of legislation and fill the position of Register with Samuel Stillings, a "shrewd" black man who has jealously plotted against Bles all along. Just as rapidly, Caroline Wynn agrees to become Mrs. Stillings.

While DuBois clearly rejects the opportunism which determines Carrie Wynn's choices, he understands her, just as he understands Colonel Cresswell. Her youthful ambition to be recognized as an artist was quickly thwarted by the racial realities of Washington, D.C.: "she found nearly all careers closed to her." Even her job as a teacher is precariously dependent upon political circumstances. Her early disappointment, moreover, is daily reinforced by the insults of the jim crow city in which she must live. Her decision that idealism and honesty are commodities too dear and self-deceptive for Afro-Americans, DuBois realizes, stems from years of social and economic injustice.

Within the tensions of Caroline's and Bles's relationship, then, DuBois subtly reinforces the structural symbolism of the earlier part of the book. As a spokesman for the simple, hopeful members of his race, Bles insists upon absolute honesty in his dealings with both races in Washington. As a spokesman for those blacks who, because of disillusionment and a desire for wealth and power, have accepted the tactics of the Plantation, Carrie Wynn considers deception the only useful tool for the Afro-American. "Honesty," she tells Bles, is "a luxury few of us Negroes can afford." Limited by her desire for social acceptance and material advancement, she rejects Bles as an anomaly: "that good Miss Smith has gone and grafted a New England conscience on a tropical heart, and—dear me!—but it's a gorgeous misfit." This suggestion, that in order to succeed, blacks must continue the tradition of deception foisted upon them in slavery days, is every bit as destructive of racial progress as the particular kind of debasement practiced in Elspeth's cabin. Caroline Wynn wishes Bles to deceive other blacks about the intentions of the Republicans, thereby personally securing the Party's patronage. Elspeth receives free rent from the Cresswells for her services.

The third segment of the novel returns DuBois' protagonists to the South. Like Bles, Zora has encountered the power politics of Northern life and, through her betrayal by Mrs. Vanderpoole, has learned that self-reliance is the only solution for her people. Moreover, she has spent her time in the North well, educating herself through literature and observation to the complexities of the world at large. She returns to the swamp not as the defeated "elf child" who left it, but as a woman, worldly-wise, and dedicated to leading her people out of their morass of powerlessness.

What Zora learned in the North was the necessity of maintaining in her people the best values of the Swamp—their honesty, joy, and reverence of the land—while infusing them with cleverness and ambition, the best aspects of the Plantation. As she demonstrates in her handling of Colonel Cresswell when he attempts to cheat her out of the land she has purchased from him, she has become cognizant of the political changes which accompanied the industrialization of the South and understands the regional psychology well enough to predict local reactions to her efforts. She informs Bles that she intends to take Cresswell to court and believes that she stands a good chance of winning because the men in power in the town are no longer the landowners, but the rising lower class of whites who share, to some degree, her class concerns. Moreover, after studying the laws governing her land purchase, she intends to conduct the case against the Colonel herself: "as a black woman fighting a hopeless battle with landlords, I'll gain the one thing lacking … the sympathy of the court and the bystanders." When Bles replies incredulously, "Pshaw! From these Southerners?" she explains:

"Yes, from them. They are very human, these men, especially the laborers. Their prejudices are cruel enough, but there are joints in their armor. They are used to seeing us either scared or blindly angry, and they understand how to handle us then, but at other times it is hard for them to do anything but meet us in a human way."

Like Caroline Wynn, Zora realizes the necessity of knowing the people with whom she must deal, recognizing their weaknesses and strengths, and turning them to her own use. Unlike her Northern counterpart, however, Zora intends to deceive no one, and her only selfishness is her ambition for her people. Furthermore, by the close of the book, she has moved beyond strictly racial concerns and sees her struggle as one in behalf of the oppressed class of both races.

It is fitting, in terms of DuBois' dichotomies, that Zora, not Bles, develops into the far-seeing political leader. Bles's defeat in Washington is predictable and demonstrates the powerlessness of ignorant idealism in the face of entrenched corruption. His defeat is an honorable one, of course, but does nothing toward advancing social justice. Zora's success, on the other hand, depends largely upon her perception of political realities. She is not tricked by traitorous blacks or manipulative whites because she sees her situation clearly and does not rely on either of these groups for help. The worst quality of the Swamp is the powerlessness and ignorance which fester in it; Bles, despite his training at Miss Smith's, demonstrates these traits in Washington. Zora moves from her sure knowledge of white values and laws and with the strength of black farmers committed to working with and for each other.

Even the love story between the two main characters can be understood in terms of DuBois's symbols. Bles's attitude toward Zora "had always been one of guidance, guardianship, and instruction. He had been judging her and weighing her from on high, looking down upon her with thoughts of uplift and development." This is, obviously, the same attitude as that of the most benevolent Southern whites towards blacks, one of superiority and paternalism. Bles rejects Zora because he discovers that life in Elspeth's cabin has left her "impure." He is concerned only with not appearing a fool in others' eyes and reveals himself finally insensitive to the realities of the master-slave relationship. Unlike Zora, he has been affected by the conventional standards of Mary Taylor; significantly, it is she who tells him of Zora's past. It is only when he suffers, himself, and realizes the insufficiency of his past training and returns to the swamp that he is enlightened enough to appreciate Zora's true worth.

Zora, even after she becomes a student in Miss Smith's school, resists Mary Taylor's instruction. Mary Taylor forfeits any claim she might have to moral superiority over her ignorant charges by despising the black students and eagerly becoming Mrs. Harry Cresswell in order to escape from her dark-skinned pupils to "the lighter touches of life … new books and periodicals and talk of great philanthropies and reforms." Echoing the sentiments of Booker T. Washington, DuBois's antagonist, and of most of the whites in the novel, she "believed it wrong to encourage the ambitions of these children to any great extent; she believed they should be servants and farmers, content to work under present conditions until those conditions could be changed; and she believed that the local white aristocracy, helped by Northern philanthropy, should take charge of such gradual changes." Zora becomes and remains a protegé of Miss Smith, who is frequently exasperated and outraged by her young, white colleague.

In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the work for which he is most widely known, DuBois comments on the valuable contribution which the culture of Afro-Americans could make to American society: "all in all, we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness." "Smartness," nevertheless, is a quality he deems essential for his people and, despite his reservations about the effectiveness of the Freedman's Bureau, credits it with "best of all … inaugurat[ing] the crusade of the New England schoolma'am." Because of the nation's unwillingness to commit itself morally and financially to the development of the newly freed blacks, the Bureau eventually failed, and in 1903, DuBois could look around him and see that "in well-nigh the whole rural South the black farmers are peons, bound by law and custom to an economic slavery, from which the only escape is death or the penitentiary."

The Quest of the Silver Fleece is the fictional working out of this problem in American racial history. Its understandings are long-held concerns of DuBois; its symbolic structure is his attempt at an artistically effective framework for presenting his convictions about social, political, and economic tensions, North and South, black and white.

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