W. E. B. Du Bois, Higher Education, and the Black Intellectual

W.E.B. Du Bois, ca. 1946. (Photo: Flickr; Van Vechten Photographs, Yale University)

The Quest of the Silver Fleece, published in 1911, is the first of five novels that W. E. B. Du Bois published over the course of his long life. In two previous posts, I have written about The Black Flame trilogy and the genre of the academic novel. Even though The Quest of the Silver Fleece does not feature the conventional college student or professor as a protagonist, and does not have a college campus setting, I am also placing this novel in conversation with other works of academic fiction. The narrative thrust of Quest comes from its main characters’ aspirations for higher education, which effectively becomes an absent presence in their lives. The narrative focuses on two young Black people coming of age in the post-slavery South. Du Bois makes the case for the necessity of Black higher education, maps out the political and financial challenges facing Black educational institutions, and extends the arguments that he initiated in The Souls of Black Folk, including his critiques of Booker T. Washington and the vocational model of Black higher education.

In his 2016 article “Behold the Land: W. E. B. Du Bois, Cotton Futures, and the Afterlife of the Plantation in the U.S. South,” Jarvis C. McInnis begins his analysis of The Quest of the Silver Fleece by noting how previous scholars have focused on the matter of genre and the “interplay of romance, realism, and naturalism” in their interpretations of the novel.While I, too, am guilty of approaching Quest through genre by drawing out Du Bois’s emphasis on education, I also remain attentive to political economy in the novel. In fact, these two aspects of the novel are related. Du Bois situates the challenge of building Black higher education in the context of labor amidst the South’s plantation economy and in its Jim Crow legal structures. In Quest, Du Bois repeatedly addresses the fact that resistance to Black higher education was often driven by white fears about what education will do to the Black worker.

The Quest of the Silver Fleece begins with young Bles Alwyn traveling through the woods on his way to school. It is on this journey that he meets his romantic interest Zora, who lives in the swamp. Du Bois eventually associates the swamp with their hopes and dreams; an undeveloped place where they would devise a scheme to make money from cotton on their own land away from the plantations where much of the Tooms County, Alabama, Black population works.

Zora is a remarkable character as one of the earliest dark-skinned heroines in American literature. As Nellie Y. McKay puts it, Quest is “the first novel in the Black American literary canon in which a woman, Black in color, stands at the center, not in a stereotypical role, but as an autonomous, positive character in a position of leadership.”1 Du Bois’s depiction of young Zora is that of a free-spirited country girl, witty and full of raw intelligence, and rightfully suspicious of formal education. Zora is initially skeptical of Bles’s educational aspirations, but Bles argues with her that, “even if white folks don’t know everything, they know different things from us, and we ought to know what they know.”

Sarah Smith is the white principal of the Black school who is trying to convince her wealthy white friends to help fund her educational mission. Mary Taylor is a white Wellesley graduate who reluctantly comes South to Miss Smith’s school to teach there at the behest of her brother John Taylor, a Wall Street speculator who paid her way through college. He now wants her to run interference for his economic interests in the South, particularly to make connections with the Cresswell family, the largest plantation owner in Tooms County. Through this storyline of these two wealthy white families from North and South, Du Bois ties the cotton economy of the South to corporate interests of the North. The novel represents a kind of triangular relationship between Alabama, Wall Street, and Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, Colonel Cresswell is suspicious of this whole Black education enterprise, and he says so outright: “Damn it! This thing is going too far. We can’t keep a maid or plough-boy in the place because of this devilish school. It’s going to ruin the whole labor system.” The goal of the planters and the Northern speculators is to keep the plantation economy that existed before the Civil War humming along and profitable. Black education is only valuable to the extent that it helps to achieve that goal and fortifies the existing racial hierarchy. Creswell is particularly suspicious of Bles because he represents what might happen if this education went too far:

“Mr. Creswell knew the Negro by sight and disliked him. He belonged in his mind to that younger class of half-educated Blacks who were impudent and disrespectful toward their superiors, not even touching his hat when he met a white man… if this went on, the day would surely come when Negroes felt no respect or fear whatever for whites? And then – my God!”

In one scene, a local white minister, Dr. Boldish, visits Miss Smith’s school and speaks to the students. What he says to them is indicative of Du Bois’s critique of white supremacy in the novel: “Remember that slavery of your people was not necessarily a crime. It was a school of work and love. It gave you noble friends, like Mr. Cresswell here.” There’s a perverse truth in what he says. Slavery was a kind of school, and the regimes of discipline in enslavement were a kind of education designed to condition the enslaved to her place outside of whiteness and humanity. Formal education had the potential to erode those carefully maintained boundaries, and no one saw that more clearly than the Southern white leaders who made it their business to keep watch over what was being taught in Black schools.

Another key moment comes near the end of the novel after Bles returns home from his adventures in Washington, D.C., where he gets involved in politics and rubs shoulders with members of the Talented Tenth, and after Zora returns from a stint traveling as the domestic servant for one of Miss Smith’s wealthy benefactors, Mrs. Vanderpool. By this time Zora has matured into an autodidact and has taken control of the house of the aging Miss Smith. When Bles enters Zora’s room and sees her books Zora tells him, “This is my university.” In Arnold Rampersad’s study of Du Bois’s creative writing, he emphasizes the significance of the books that Du Bois lists here: Plato, Gorky, Balzac, Spencer, Tennyson. Embedded in this scene is that familiar Du Boisian notion of liberal education as a key ingredient in the development of Black self-determination. But in a gesture to Washington’s utilitarianism, Zora’s book collection also includes an encyclopedia of agriculture. Her statement, “This is my university” also marks the absent presence of higher education in the narrative. Quest is an academic novel of a thwarted education. Zora and Bles do encounter other college-educated characters in the novel, including some Blacks who have college degrees, but Du Bois shows how their lack of opportunity to pursue a higher education is directly related to the economy of the South that constricts their options and keeps them bound to the land.

The Quest of the Silver Fleece is an example of how Du Bois used fictional narratives to aestheticize the Black educational experience and give it a heroic trajectory. For Du Bois and other Black writers of academic novels, the form is a means by which they articulate their subjectivity as intellectuals, as artists, and as producers of knowledge. It is a genre that allows the Black intellectual to interrogate their relationship to academic institutionalism, and to express the possibilities and potentials of an academic life.

  1. Nellie McKay, “W. E. B. Du Bois: The Black Women in His Writings – Selected Fictional and Autobiographical Portraits,” Critical Essays on W. E. B. Du Bois. Ed. William L. Andrews (GK Hall, 1985), 244.
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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.