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  • Of Forms and FlowMovement through Structure in Darkwater’s Composition
  • Allison Blackmond Laskey (bio)

W. E. B. Du Bois, Darkwater, Jesus Christ in Texas, structure, movement, ring composition

The composition of Darkwater should be understood as central to its reading. Comprised of ten chapters, plus the opening “Postscript” and “Credo,” each chapter contains a “Thought for the Fancy” and a “Fancy for the Thought,” that is, an essay and a story or poem (Du Bois 1920, vii). The “sterner flights of logic,” the essays, precede and lead to the poetry of each section, and each poem also always portends the essay ahead. “Credo,” for instance, Du Bois’s opening affirmation of beliefs, follows the initial “Postscript” and precedes “The Shadow of Years,” the autobiographical chapter telling of the author’s life’s work, beginning with Du Bois’s birth and ending with the book’s writing on his 50th birthday and his dutiful nod to death. Later on, “Children of the Moon,” following “The Damnation of Women” and preceding “The Immortal Child,” recounts from a woman’s perspective about children’s “freedom and vast salvation” (1920, 187) with the haunting imagery of blood, death, and almighty wings. Implacably, the poetry ties the essays together, alighting [End Page 107] on the reader and carrying one piece to the next with the serious work of play. The “Thought” and “Fancy” can also be seen as a call and response, bolstering each other in affirmation. Furthermore, the varying genres serve as a reminder that Du Bois’s message is not so logical or straightforward as to warrant a single style or a singular Truth. Rather, every accent, hue, and intonation lends a view reflecting an idea on which to think, of life.

A further step through the text brings into relief that Darkwater follows a somewhat complex variation of a ring composition. Ring compositions, typical of oral storytelling since antiquity, follow “a construction of parallelisms that must open a theme, develop it, and round it off by bringing the conclusion back to the beginning” (Douglas 2007, x). Ring compositions are found the world over. A simple ring might follow an A-B-A’ or A-B-B’-A’ structure. A ring depends most importantly on the ending circling back to the beginning, creating a nice envelope for everything in between and bringing unity to the structure, as Mary Douglas writes (2007, 1). A ring composition is also chiastic, a composition that depends on a “crossing over” in its middle. That is, the sections build up in a stepwise fashion, change direction at the middle point, and then parallel sections trace back the steps toward the conclusion. In the chiastic structure, parallelisms are juxtaposed on either side of the midpoint (Douglas 2007, 6).

Darkwater’s parallelisms powerfully echo the book’s point of view of “double-consciousness” (Du Bois 1903, 3; 1920, vii). Together, the two sides of the parallels reflect something of the white world and something of the black. Darkwater’s parallels often contrast each other in tone and style, emphasizing the shift in perspective that “second sight” reveals. As is typical of parallelisms, the second will often use similar phrasing to echo the first; in Du Bois’s case, the second section sometimes responds directly to its parallel. For instance, “A Litany at Atlanta,” the second poem, is the formulaic church style petition addressing “O Silent God” at Atlanta’s travail of “twin Murder and Black Hate,” four days of riots in 1906 leaving dozens of black people murdered. From the viewpoint of the battered black community, “A Litany at Atlanta” pleads—“Hear us, good Lord!”—and wavers, beseeches, and sinks in silence before a silent God (1920, 25–28). Its parallel, the book’s penultimate poem, “The Prayers of God,” addresses “Name of God’s Name!” in [End Page 108] a less formally structured invocation. The white supplicant, begging mercy in the face of death, responds to Atlanta’s black petitioners, “Beneath the silence, now,—/I hear!” God is not silent but rhetorically responds, as the supplicant learns, “Thou? / Thee? / I lynched Thee?” and then finds in surprise, “Thou needest me?” While the “Litany” concludes with...


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pp. 107-118
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