The Brownies' Book
Appropriating Change Through the Brownies' Book

Beginning even with his choice of title, The Brownies' Book, DuBois sought to redirect the course of children's literature by offering a, perhaps unconscious, commentary on fairies. By the late nineteenth century fairy tales had been firmly established as children's fare. Jack Zipes confirms that "by the beginning of the twentieth century, the fairy tale had become fully institutionalized in England and America (qtd in Kory 93). In fact, the 1905 "Christmas Stocking" series included Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, Fairy Tales From Andersen, and Fairy Tales From Grimm along with Little Black Sambo. St. Nicholas frequently included poems and stories that shared fairy tale motifs (including princes and godmothers) and incorporated language such as "fairy forests" and "reads like a fairy tale" (qtd in Kory 92). Indeed, the name St. Nicholas refers to the magical, fairy-like figure who delivers Christmas gifts to children. Significantly, as Fern Kory points out, he is a "jolly, white-haired, pale-faced northern European elf. …[making] him a fitting icon for a magazine whose privileged readership is assumed to share northern European descent and to be able to afford to underwrite the activities of this mythical figure" (97). This particular figure spoke far less to children of color, though all children could appreciate the concept of fairies.

Brownies offered DuBois an opportunity to employ fairies while making a grander statement. "Brownie," refers to "an elf-like creature, said to come out at night and finish the housework left undone in the day, in return for a reward of milk and cream and food" from Scottish and Northern English tales (qtd in Kory 96). Additionally, brownies are know to be playful, even trickster-like, embodying a contradictory nature that is both hard-working and amusing. Thus in titling his announcement of the new magazine, "The True Brownies," DuBois invoked a known figure in the white world as well as common white conceptions of the black servant. Moreover, the use of a known mythical figure replicates that of St. Nicholas while connoting the dual constitutions, or double-consciousness, of African American children: although no longer slaves, they still carried the burden of their ancestors' slavery, but as free, educated youths (the readers of The Brownies' Book, at least, would have been educated) they glimpsed the privileged life of their white peers. In short, though they may not have recognized it, these children had experienced both sides of the veil. DuBois attempted to inform their sense of double-consciousness, promoting it as both a defining and worthy characteristic of being an African American, before the children's even become aware of the duality. He left no room for ulterior, negative interpretations for the experience.

The practice of adopting and transforming existing white discourse was hardly novel to DuBois. A disciple of German philosophy, he adopted the existing paradigms of "national stocks" to offer a more benign commentary on being black in America. In slavery, his race shared a common experience that set it apart from the rest of the world, but this difference was social, not biological, and therefore alterable. In Chapter one of Souls of Black Folk, titled "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," DuBois adopts evolutionary, proto-Darwinist language, which traditionally pushed African Americans to the social fringe, and applies it instead to the psychological development of the race. He discusses the "child of Emancipation [growing] to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self respect" (14). With this awareness comes a sense of "two-ness--an American, a Negro, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two unreconcilable strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder" (11). Moreover, DuBois establishes this "double-consciousness" as a positive attribute of the black man, a characteristic the white man can neither claim nor from which he can benefit. Thus his approach to educating children is hardly surprising.

The notion of the fairy tale plays a strong role in DuBois' writing, even that aimed at adult audiences. Derived from an oral tradition, found in all cultures, and associated with a people's myth-making, the fairy tale offered both an easily identifiable and powerfully evocative platform for storytelling, and DuBois repeatedly mimicked the form to reincarnate black history. In 1941, DuBois penned a story for Fisk News called "Phillis Wheatley and African American Culture," which commences with a stanza from a Rosetti poem:

The blessed Damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven:
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand
And the stars in her hair were seven ("Phillis Wheatley" 328).

DuBois assigns the role of "Damozel" to Wheatley, depicting her as the saintly mother of African American culture: the seven stars now represent social activist David Walker, writer William Wells Brown, historian George Washington Williams, singer Armand Lanusse, singer Alberry Whitman, writer Charles Wendall Chesnutt, and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. In this graceful and artfully crafted allegory, DuBois expresses confident hope that Wheatley's legacy will continue. He concludes: "And so the story ends and the phantasy [sic] is finished. The seven stars have lived and died, if stars ever die; while the tradition of Phillis the Blessed sinks with odor of lilies below the horizon, as her memory rised; Last night and each night" ("Phillis Wheatley" 342).

In this way, DuBois engages in a bit of myth-making of his own, even incorporating a number of fairy tale motifs, albeit in unconventional ways. As a slave girl, though she was treated fairly well according to DuBois' account, Wheatley experienced unnatural cruelty; as a black woman who could read, write poetry, and garner some respect for her talents, she was somewhat of a taboo; and as a living, human woman turned to a mythical mother figure, Wheatley experiences a transformation of sorts (Hastings). DuBois achieves a similar end in "The Star of Ethiopia," written in 1913, where he mythologizes a civilization founded on black culture and endowed with seven essential gifts from the Negro: iron, faith, humility, sorrow, freedom, laughter, and hope. In each of these examples, an African or African American persona fills the central role; they place the race in a positive, culturally inspiring light; they bestow a sense of pride, purpose, and accomplishment on the race--a far cry from Little Black Sambo.

Moreover, both examples rely heavily on "seven," a significant number in fairy tale constructs, to frame the story. According to the Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore, and Symbols, the number is symbolic of balance, completion, and quietness--all accurate descriptions of a society free of racial turmoil. Additionally, seven suggests intelligence, strength, and wisdom--characteristics that DuBois claimed African Americans derive from the unique experience of double-consciousness. These are also necessary qualities for the survival of the black race in the face of a white-dominated social hierarchy. DuBois' use of seven eloquently connects African origins with white, Christian traditions. For example, the name of the supreme Egyptian deity comprises seven vowels while Christianity asserts the existence of seven angels before the throne of God and practices seven sacraments, among other uses of seven. Finally, because seven alludes also to the biblical story of creation, DuBois intimately links the contributions of the black race to the beginning of time in describing Wheatley's seven stars and the Ethiopians' seven gifts. "Phillis Wheatley and African American Culture" and "The Star of Ethiopia," which bookend The Brownies' Book in terms of publication dates, demonstrate DuBois' repeated application of the fairy tale format, even in his adult writings, his familiarity with the genre, and his firm belief in its power to convey potentially controversial and race-based social messages.