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  • The Anatomy of a Symbol:Reading W. E. B. Du Bois’s Dark Princess: A Romance
  • Rebecka Rutledge Fisher (bio)


For this reading of Du Bois's 1928 narrative Dark Princess: A Romance, I briefly take recourse to the aesthetics propounded by Du Bois two years earlier in "Criteria of Negro Art." As with many of W. E. B. Du Bois's writings—whatever their genre or disciplinary field—"Criteria" has become famous for that metaphor with which it culminates: "[A]ll Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists" (1000). The content of his essay indicates that art is both a concept and an activity of major importance in an aspect of criticism that was central to Du Bois's interests: the linking of art, including literature, to various types of social phenomena, and an articulation of his vision of the role and function of art in social and political life. In his conception of art as a medium of exchange, Du Bois saw its expression as representative of a preponderance of ideas and ideals; its charge was that of a heuristic, no matter its power to condense social relations to symbols of augury or possibility. Certainly there is something dreamlike in art's power of condensation, such that [End Page 91] its expression of individual and collective desire might propel the reader and artist alike into another world. Like the dream image, the work of art mirrors something of our present existence; like the dream image, again, it bypasses the conflicts of the present to imagine an action that lies in a longed-for future.

In "Criteria of Negro Art," longing and reason are interrelated; it is the desire—a very human desire—to know the world through the eye of an ideal and "true" spirit that leads the thinking and moral African American to order his or her world, according to a perception of the beautiful. In Du Bois's parlance, we may take as synonyms for Beauty a number of correlating classical ideals that Du Bois names outright: Truth, Goodness, and Right all pertain to the beautiful (Du Bois 1926, 1000). The reasoning mind—the working mind possessed by those who think in a space that is seemingly and paradoxically unlimited by the bounds of tradition but that is, in fact "ever bounded by Truth and Justice" (1000)—is able not only to perceive the beautiful, but also to create (to "realize") the beautiful. Said otherwise, the beautiful is an effect of what Du Bois terms the "Seeing Eye," the "Cunning Hand," and the "Feeling Heart" (994). Each is indicative of one's ability to perceive and, in turn, of one's capacity to realize.

The criterion of Beauty emerges here as a concept-metaphor that guides his discussion of African American desire, which, in turn, serves as the somewhat veiled motivity that advances his lecture. Du Bois asks pointedly, "What do we want? What is the thing we are after?" (993). This question leads him to present his auditors with a sort of cultural intertextuality that draws into focus the countryside of Scotland, the rural beauty of a Vai village, the medieval majesty of the Cathedral at Cologne, the "haunting" phrases of (what we might imagine to be) the sorrow songs, and the feminine beauty of the Venus of Milo, frozen in marble and eroded by time. Such beauty African Americans would—were they truly free, were they free to inhabit a world where they know, create, realize, and enjoy—ultimately desire as a foundation for life. He describes this desire as multiply social, in that it responds to strictures of economy, education, racial and ethnic identity, and so on. Beauty as an object of desire is thus central to his discussion of African American art. And art, as Du Bois puts it, is not separable from a political program that has as its goal the liberation of black folk. [End Page 92]

So many critics have felt themselves plagued by Du Bois's creative stance because they feel it privileges propaganda over art, and indeed Du Bois seems to say so himself: "I stand in utter...


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