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
[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.
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.
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:
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"
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.
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.