- The Black Flame RevisitedRecursion and Return in the Reading of W. E. B. Du Bois’s Trilogy
W. E. B. Du Bois, Mansart, Black Flame, Ordeal of Mansart, Mansart Builds a School, Worlds of Color, socialist realism, critical realism, Cold War, recursion, prophecy, conspiracy, retrospective, history, novel, autobiography
One of the least read of W. E. B. Du Bois’s major works, the massive trilogy The Black Flame has finally been getting a reading. In the years since I published my first article on these little-known Du Bois novels, scholars have started to look at them more closely (Byerman 2010; Christian 2014; Simpson 2015). What has become clear is that these novels have a unique place in the Du Bois oeuvre. As historical fictions, they provided Du Bois with an opportunity to develop his narrative of history freed from the “insuperable difficulties” and “clouding of facts” that he felt plagued pure historical research (Du Bois 1957, 315). As expansive works that cover the entire age of Du Bois’s own lifetime, he uses them to provide a retrospective overview of his own oeuvre. Within these novels, Du Bois explored his ideas about the relation of history to thought, action, and identity, and he even provided some of the clearest examples of his thinking about thinking. And yet these [End Page 157] are profoundly odd, perhaps flawed, works, and very few readers tackle them.
Why not? I have been writing about these novels for 20 years (Phillips 1995; 1997; 1999; 2007). Yet I cannot say that I even like them. Nor do I feel close to a good understanding of them. They seem to resist that. And that, actually, is the heart of their allure for me. As the last major work by Du Bois, they feel important, and I want to understand that importance. I think that to do so, one must approach these works as an entry into a way of thinking, and for that their placement at the end of Du Bois’s oeuvre is key. The novels are recursive—they are a revisiting and a recasting.
So too is this article. Parts of this piece are from my earlier article on The Black Flame; parts are reworkings of a conference paper that has been lost. In trying to place that paper into print, I found myself taking on the same kind of work that I see Du Bois doing in the trilogy, reproducing this aspect of the work as I revisited mine, recasting my own past interpretations and thoughts about them. It is this work, this level of intellectual introspection, that I see as a key to these novels and that I try to present here.
The Black Flame is a trilogy of novels published between 1957 and 1961. The novels are The Ordeal of Mansart (1957), Mansart Builds a School (1959), and Worlds of Color (1961). They cover the historical period from 1876 to 1956, which is roughly the lifetime of the trilogy’s main character, Manuel Mansart. In the first volume (1876–1914), Manuel Mansart is born and becomes an educator. In the second volume (1912–1939), he builds Atlanta University. In the third volume (1939–1956), he travels, and we follow the youngest generation. Intertwined with his story is the story of a wider American South.
The trilogy follows four Southern families over three generations. The Mansart family is an African American family that over time moves from the laboring class to the upper middle class. They value education, and the most common adjective attributed to them is “manners” (Du Bois 1957, 18). The Scroggs family is white and poor. They belong to the laboring class and are often concerned with issues of racial purity. The Breckinridge family is white landed gentry and soon capitalist. They exude race/class pride and confidence. The Du Bignon family is Southern aristocracy from Louisiana with both white and African American branches on the family tree. They emphasize [End Page 158] manners over status, are supremely confident in their place in the social landscape, and are not threatened by race.
The novels are progressive; that is, they each...