Sitting in Darkness:  New South Fiction, Education,

And the Rise of Jim Crow Colonialism, 1865-1920

by Peter Schmidt

Complete Notes and Discussion for Chapter Eleven

(Du Bois)

Supplementing the print edition of this book


1.  With Bles Alwyn, Du Bois well shows the temptations that come with wealth and white patronage, but he also focuses on Alwyn’s sexism—he learns only gradually not to be intimidated by strong women leaders.  Zora is briefly tempted to join elite Washington society as well.  Carolyn Wynn is Du Bois’ most important representative of this world.  Du Bois’ portrait of her shifts in provocative ways:  at first an example of the black middle class’s delicate balance between resisting racism and displaying their own material and cultural success (cf. 259, 264-65), Wynn increasingly becomes Du Bois’ indictment of those “modern” black women so concerned with their own advancement that they undercut the progress of the race.  How should we interpret the strange convergence of Bles’ and Carolyn’s last names, Alwyn and Wynn?  Neither “wins” in D.C., though Bles eventually finds his proper role as black male hero when he returns South and rejoins Zora.  Curiously, Bles is blessed only when subordinate to Zora.  Bles Alwyn’s misadventures among Washington’s white and black elites to some degree may represent Du Bois’ own ambivalence in having to work with those groups.

It may also be noted that, despite Du Bois’ rather critical portrait of Carolyn Wynn in Silver Fleece, Wynn’s cynical realism surely found an echoing chord within her creator.  Cancelled passages from the Silver Fleece manuscript reveal the narrator’s fascination with this character.  For instance, cancelled from Chapter XXIV were the following lines, which were to come after the paragraph ending “saw the line even where it did not exist” near the top of 254 in published book. “[Carolyn] lost faith in the world and sneered at its professions of goodness.  Then peering further, it occurred to her that the world might be beaten at its own game.  She, therefore, watched it narrowly, receiving its protestations with a smile, taking what it gave, and giving up easily what it took.  Herself, she stooped to no absolute wrong, to no great deception; such things were not only beneath her dignity but in the end useless.  Let the world lie on, she would enjoy herself watching, be as happy as might be at its expense and leave it with no very great regret.  [new paragraph:]  This at least was her expressed philosophy, and on the whole she acted it out with reasonable consistency.  She became a teacher in the colored schools; partly because she saw no chance for a career in art and must do something to help out her income; partly because the position kept her busy, gave her power and opened avenues of quiet intrigue….”  Fisk University, Franklin Library, Special Collections, Du Bois Papers, Box 48, Silver Fleece typescript.


2.  For readings of Du Bois’ Silver Fleece that emphasize both problems of its narrative form and its engagement with contemporary history, see in particular Lewis’ biography, Volume One 443-51; Rampersad 116-32; and essays by Lemons, Lee, and Byerman.  For crucial historical background on Du Bois and the debates over vocational vs. liberal arts education for blacks, see Anderson, Education of Blacks in the South, especially Chapter 7.

3.  For Du Bois’ famous critique of Booker T. Washington’s educational philosophy and political strategies, see Souls of Black Folk, Chapter III.

4.  The bonfires protecting black rights in Du Bois’ narrative may also be a conscious rebuke to and rewriting of the famous ending of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, where bonfires signify the victory of the KKK.  About the only point of agreement between Du Bois and Dixon would be that black schools functioned as sites for counterrevolution.

5.  For more on the crop-lien system, farmers’ alliances, and other topics, see Woodward, Origins of the New South 131-35, 181-204, 206-09 (on black sharecropping, including comments on Alabama), 222-25, and 413-23 (on Farmers’ Union, child labor laws, and mills); and Ayers, Promise of the New South 208-10 (on blacks) and 214-59 (includes discussion of the Colored Farmers’ Alliance).  I should add that any page of Woodward’s or Ayers’ histories cited above will show that Du Bois’s narrative does not account for all the anomalies locally and regionally within the crop-lien system or the various farmers’ alliances; nor can my simplified summary.  As a novelist, Du Bois tries to strike an Aristotelian middle way between history and philosophy, what was and what could be.  The whole topic of farmers’ alliances and fiction is worth more investigation.  It is striking how absent farmers’ organizations are in so-called “local color” fiction about rural areas, as opposed to the epics of novelists like Frank Norris, whose TheOctopus (1901) and The Pit (1903) focused on wheat, railroads, speculators, and farmers from California to Chicago.  Norris’ work provided a clear precedent for Du Bois’ Silver Fleece.

6.  Darkwater is now in print again in Sundquist’s The Oxford Du Bois Reader, ch. 6.  For readings of Darkwater that influenced mine, see Lewis’s biography, Volume Two 11-23; Rampersad 170-83; Sundquist, To Wake the Nations 540-625 and “Introduction” to the W. E. B. Du Bois Reader; Bramen’s The Uses of Variety, “Identity Culture and Cosmopolitanism,” especially 105-11; and Kaplan, Anarchy of Empire, Chapter 6.  Lewis focuses on the heterogeneous circumstances behind the composition of different chapters in Darkwater that, to some degree, explain the text’s inner tensions.  But I argue here that such tensions are in the colonialist languages Du Bois assimilates and rewrites, not just his text’s autobiographical circumstances.

7.  Women’s identity dilemmas are central to many captivity narratives popular in the U.S. from the early and middle colonial periods through twentieth-century films such as John Ford’s The Searchers (1956).  (Though captivity narratives could feature men, the future of a woman’s womb and identity was a more highly charged issue.)  In Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902), interestingly, the heroine Molly is never directly threatened with physical abuse.  But Margaret Mitchell’s Courtenay Ross is in her revealing colonial romance Lost Laysen, written when she was 16.   In Wister’s more genteel world, the worse barbarities the Virginian must revenge are committed against animals, via torture or rustling.  Yet he does defend Molly’s honor against the villain Trampas’ insinuations, and hanging over the whole narrative is the threat that women on the frontier may indeed be kidnapped and tortured as animals are, or worse.