W.E.B. Du Bois, Gender, and Black History

W. E. B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois viewing the May Day parade in Moscow’s Red Square, May 1, 1959. (Photo: W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries).

In Axel’s Castlecritic Edmund Wilson wrote of Gertrude Stein’s enigmatic novel of nearly a thousand pages, The Making of Americans, “I confess that I have not read this book all through, and I do not know whether it is possible to do so.” I have had similar feelings about The Black Flame by W. E. B. Du Bois, a trilogy of novels comprised of The Ordeal of Mansart (1957), Mansart Builds a School (1959), and Worlds of Color (1961). I have read them all the way through, but I acknowledge that the full trilogy is an endurance test. Du Bois’s historical and sociological ambition in the novels, with their saturation of historical details, political commentary, and an unwieldy ensemble cast of characters, makes The Black Flame a challenging read.

In “The Black Flame Revisited,” Lily Wiatrowski Phillips candidly states, “I have been writing about these novels for 20 years yet I cannot say that I even like them. Nor do I feel close to a good understanding of them. They seem to resist that.” However, Phillips goes on to add that the novels are significant because they show the aging Du Bois revisiting and “recasting” the knowledge and experiences that he accumulated over the years. In The Black Flame, Du Bois strives to make sense of his life’s intellectual work and the Black experience through a narrative centered on a Black educator named Manuel Mansart who was born in 1876 and lived into the 1950s. I have written about the books because I find them rewarding for scholarly and intellectual reasons, even if the novelistic qualities leave something to be desired. I also think an honest critical approach to the novels must reckon with their length and difficulty.

Fundamentally, there are two salient details for understanding The Black Flame. The first is that they were written by an elderly Du Bois in the last stages of his life. The second is that his wife Shirley Graham Du Bois was a major influence on the novels as the inspiration behind some of the characters and storylines in the text. In 1951, Shirley Graham and W. E. B. Du Bois were married. At the time, she was fifty-four, and he was eighty-three. That same year Shirley sold her house in St. Albans, Queens, where they had been living, and they moved to 31 Grace Court in Brooklyn Heights under a cloud of federal investigation. Du Bois had refused the Justice Department’s demand that he register as a foreign agent of the Soviet Union because of his involvement in peace activism and nuclear disarmament. Shirley and W. E. B. purchased their Brooklyn Heights home from the playwright Arthur Miller, who had faced his own problems with McCarthyism and was sympathetic to their plight. They lived in Brooklyn until 1961 when they departed the United States for Accra, Ghana, where he died on August 27, 1963. During their stay in Brooklyn Heights, W. E. B. Du Bois completed four books including In Battle for Peace: The Story of My 83rdBirthday and the three novels of The Black Flame, which were first published when he was eighty-nine, ninety-one, and ninety-three years old.

W.E. B. took some elements from Shirley Graham’s life and lent them to his female characters in The Black Flame, most notably in the form of Jean Du Bignon, a light-skinned educated Black woman sociologist who becomes dean of the Black college in Georgia where Manual Mansart is president. The creative side of Shirley Graham is depicted in Mansart’s daughter Sojourner, a talented violinist and composer who marries an A. M. E. minister. Sojourner is a fascinating character; however, she recedes into the background as her husband and his pastoral career fills up the narrative, even though Sojourner is actually part of the Mansart family at the center of the novels. Sojourner’s depiction becomes a critical example of how Du Bois is aware of feminist critique and includes Black women intellectuals, yet frustratingly lapses back into patriarchal tropes.

Worlds of Color, the third book of The Black Flame depicts Manuel Mansart’s evolving internationalism and his global vision of the Black intellectual who lives in a Jim Crow society at home, yet sees the potentials for coalition with non-white populations around the globe. For Mansart, his tour of Europe and Asia helps broaden his intellectual horizons as he considers the relationships between education, capital, and labor. In chapters with titles like “The Color of Europe,” “The Color of Asia,” and “Color in the West Indies,” Du Bois uses the travels of Manuel Mansart and Jean Du Bignon as a device to explore a broader “world of color” beyond the reaches of white supremacy.

In chapter six, “Color in the West Indies,” Mansart sends Du Bignon on a trip inspired by a Caribbean intellectual he met in Europe. “A Negro named James gave me his book to read and it is revolutionary. We must include the West Indies in our survey,” he says, referring to a grand study of the race problem that he and Du Bignon were compiling. The reference is, of course, to the Trinidadian intellectual C.L.R. James and his book The Black Jacobins, one of numerous cameo appearances made by historical figures in the novels. Jean Du Bignon travels to Cuba, Jamaica, and Haiti, while deepening her analysis of colonialism: “It seemed curiously clear now to Jean what had happened since. Great Britain had transformed her investments in the West Indies, and in the name of emancipation exchanged West Indian plantations for new investment and expanded capitalism in African and Asian colonies. Thence came the industrial revolution and the new imperialism born of the blood of Negro Slaves.” Born into the violent racism of post-Reconstruction South Carolina, Manuel Mansart begins to look outward to a greater world in which the darker races are numerous and diverse, and have histories that predate chattel slavery and colonialism. Most of his life’s work was bound up in the struggle for African American education and civil rights, but he comes to recognize that his own particular situation is part of a larger reality:

Somehow it seemed to him that his students as individuals, and the seething dark millions back of them were melting away from his touch, were getting further and further from his influence. Once they were all his people. He had had his arms about them and was protecting and guiding them. This was no longer true. Other things, the world itself, had intruded, and come between him and the Negro people. He had been sucked up into greater and wider causes – Peace, Socialism, the meaning of all life. He wanted now to rid himself of diversion and get back to the Negro problem, to concentrate all his energy and hope there. And yet, if he and his folk were part of this wider world, how could he or they ever really separate?

In a chapter near the end of Worlds of Color titled,“The Dismissal of Jean Du Bignon,” the storyline follows a conspiracy against her at the college, a development that clearly reflects on Du Bois’s own last years as he ran afoul of America’s anti-communist hysteria. The chapter mentions some of the touchstones of that hysteria, including the cases of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Harlem communist city council member Benjamin Davis, and the case of Black labor organizer Angelo Herndon. Worlds of Color, the last book that Du Bois himself would publish in his long career, fittingly explores the idea that the Black American, who was defined by white supremacy to be nothing more than property and after emancipation continued to be marginalized as a non-citizen by its legal system, turned to the global world as a way of discovering and recovering his humanity. The Black Flame is a remarkable document that reflects Du Bois’s international vision and his skepticism about the future of democracy in the United States. Despite its literary challenges, the trilogy deserves a larger place in the scholarship on his life and legacy.

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Lavelle Porter

Lavelle Porter is a writer and scholar of African-American literature. He is an assistant professor of English at the New York City College of Technology (CUNY), and he is currently working on a book about academic fiction and black higher education. Follow him on Twitter @alavelleporter.