As of thus far, there have been many great short stories and poems to analyze for American identity. The task to choose from just two of these was difficult alone because there have been so many insightful ones – Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” and Zitkala-Sa’s “Impressions of an Indian Childhood” are two great ones to talk about that easily have essay potential. However, I ultimately decided on W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” because these two authors directly talk about two major issues that helped define what it meant to be an American at that time – slavery (Du Bois) and the Great Depression (Fitzgerald). It is unique to note when these two works were written: one after the end of slavery and the other at the beginning of the Great Depression.
Du Bois is not afraid to state in these two chapters (“I: Of Our Spiritual Strivings” and “III: Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others”) his hopes of what America should give the black people: the right to vote and to be treated equally instead of as inferior beings. “He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face” (Du Bois and Levine 563). Du Bois was born in 1868, three years after the end of slavery yet in the time of The Souls of Black Folk, racism had found a different way to thrive in American society: Jim Crow. The Jim Crow laws were doctrines established by Congress to separate African Americans from white Americans, made popular by the Supreme Court’s 1897 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.
“Of Our Spiritual Strivings” is about Du Bois’ declaration of equality for black people. It also accurately describes how Du Bois felt when it came to being black: “Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house? The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all” (Du Bois and Levine 563). This quote alone exemplifies Du Bois’ anger at being treated differently, shunned as an outcast and a stranger in his house. What does this phrase, “mine own house” mean, though? Du Bois does not refer to America as his house, instead he is talking about his own body, bringing it to a more personal level. As I previously stated, Jim Crow was being used around the same time that The Souls of Black Folk was written to separate the two races, establishing the separate but equal doctrine that was most prevalently used in the Southern part of the United States where Du Bois worked at Atlanta University, perhaps explaining how he further felt isolated from his body.
A key observation in the first chapter that Du Bois points out is that the “Negro” should be included in the classification of American peoples. “ There are to-day no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes; there is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave” (Du Bois and Levine 567). Du Bois is most probably referring to this part in the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (US 1776).All men deserve to be treated fairly and equally under the law of America – this is Du Bois’ argument for himself as well as all other African Americans. A part of this quote could also be a reference to the struggles faced by black Americans in the time of The Souls of Black Folk: “There are to-day no truer exponents” – Du Bois is making the argument that black people are just as deserving or, perhaps even more deserving, of American rights than white people due to the black slaves’ unjust torture and imprisonment by their owners, not to mention the severe discrimination after freedom.
It seems as if the rivalry between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington paved the way years later to a similar rivalry for the black American population: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Walter Rucker, who wrote an article about Du Bois’ contributions to black society makes a similar statement: “Du Bois effectively created a model for the community-control black nationalism that Black Power advocates of the mid to late 1960s would passionately argue for” (Rucker 38). There is an interesting aspect to point out here: W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X could both serve as members of the Black Power movement which demanded for black rights; whereas Booker T. Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., while also similar, have a difference. Dr. King not only participated in peaceful protests but was one of the major leaders of the Civil Rights movement but would Washington have also participated in the Civil Rights movement? It is hard to say concerning his speech at the Atlanta Exposition which did not necessarily call for complete equality and justice for the black American population but rather to provide jobs and education for them – this is exactly why Du Bois criticizes him so much in “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others”.
The chapter is appropriately given the title of “Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” because Du Bois is attempting to send a message to his philosophical opponent – that black Americans can do much more than get a job; instead, they can be leaders of any field in any community. One of the most key quotes in this chapter gives some insight to Du Bois’ criticism of Washington: “In these years there have occurred: 1. The disfranchisement of the Negro. 2. The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro. 3. The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of Negro” (Du Bois and Levine 573). Du Bois writes this conclusion after stating that it is a result of Washington’s insistence on black people giving up their demand mostly for civil rights but also among other factors such as political power and higher education in order to be treated as equal.
Du Bois is concluding that Washington is to blame for all of black Americans’ problems? No, even Du Bois states this himself: “These movements are not, to be sure, direct results of Mr. Washington’s teachings” (Du Bois and Levine 573). Instead, the whole purpose of the chapter is a message to Booker T. Washington and others like him to advocate for the civil rights of black people instead of encouraging them to feel satisfied that they have just survived another day. How does The Souls of Black Folk contribute to American identity? It takes it a step further – it wishes for a black American identity in a white American society. Du Bois is stating to the world that black people in America are Americans despite their different skin color. Lastly, to sum up Du Bois’ message – all black men should be created equal just as much as all men are created equal.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” is quite a different story than The Souls of Black Folk because it is a fictional story set during a real-life event, the Great Depression. Charlie Wales is an American trying to move on after losing it all in the stock market crash and trying to regain custody of his daughter Honoria from his sister in law Marion and her husband Lincoln. Wales is having trouble doing this as a result of a double whammy: he is a recovering alcoholic and Marion blames him for her sister’s death. However, Charlie is able to visit Honoria and never loses hope of being reunited with his daughter. As we have discussed during class time, the significance of the daughter being named Honoria as in honor. So, would Charlie’s way of achieving honor be successful by being with Honoria?
It is possible that he has done this already with his addiction to alcohol. Wales has admitted that he struggled with alcohol abuse and he has turned a new leaf but yet it is still not enough to satisfy Marion. This is evident when Charlie explains his reason for only having one alcoholic drink a day and when asked is if she sees the purpose of it, Marion’s response is “ “No”, said Marion succinctly” (Fitzgerald and Levine 997). It might be possible Marion believes that Charlie shouldn’t have any alcohol at all. Alcohol, like drugs, is an intoxicating agent that when drunk, can disorient people and possibly, can make them extremely violent. F. Scott Fitzgerald was an alcoholic and his wife, Zelda, was admitted to a mental institution after the partying days of the Jazz Age, quite similar to Charlie’s situation with his wife, Helen.
The theme of trauma is prevalent throughout the story – Marion has trauma over the death of Helen while Charlie has it over multiple issues such as trying to regain money after the crash, achieving sobriety and the fear of completely losing his daughter. The question that I believe Marion is asking Charlie is which trauma does he suffer from more: losing alcohol or Honoria? By the time the story begins, Wales is already sober and determined to be united with his daughter. Why is it that Marion cannot see this? Does she not want to? This could be a reasonable conclusion since she already has a bias towards Wales over Helen’s death. Yet, this apparent bias should not cloud her judgement on what is best for Honoria. Literally, Marion’s reasons for keeping Honoria are countless but will any of them really affect Honoria emotionally? Probably not as much as keeping her from Charlie since she adores her father so much.
An additional way to prove how much Wales has changed is the way he feels about Duncan and Lorraine. The very fact that he is not associated with them anymore is a milestone for Charlie’s road to redemption. Unfortunately, the two mess everything up for him when they show up at Marion and Lincoln’s home asking for him, completely ruining Charlie’s goal of gaining Honoria just when they were going to give him custody. This is ultimately why the story is left on a cliffhanger instead of a happy ending, simply because Marion has yet another reason to doubt on how Charlie could provide for Honoria. Make no mistake, though, Wales does not deserve to wear a halo and be put up on a pedestal – he did lock Helen out of the house which could have been a factor in her death.
All of this in mind, does Charlie deserve to have redemption? Elsa Nettels, in her analysis on “Babylon Revisited” weighs in by stating if Wales’ predicament is hopeless: “Fitzgerald’s story does not render final judgement of the characters or reveal the ultimate effects of their actions… the decisive force is hate, which leaves the reader to wonder whether Charlie will be forced to “pay forever” ” (Nettels 265). Hatred is the connection which ties The Souls of Black Folk and “Babylon Revisited” together – hatred against black Americans for being black and against Charlie Wales for his past lifestyle. Hate is not an aspect of a true American yet it has existed on American land before America was even a country. The Founding Fathers said that all men are created equal but when will all persons be treated equal? The United States is full of people who are different and it is our differences that make us American. This is exactly why society must unite together to work against hatred before hate itself becomes a part of American identity, speaking as if it hasn’t already.
Du Bois, W.E.B., and Robert S. Levine. “The Souls of Black Folk: Chapter I: “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Ninth Shorter Edition, Volume 2, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, p. 563, 567, 573.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott, and Robert S. Levine. “”Babylon Revisited”.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Ninth Shorter Edition, Volume 2, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 997.
Nettels, Elsa. “Howell’s ‘A Circle in the Water’ and Fitzgerald’s ‘Babylon Revisited’.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 19, no. 3, 1 June 1982, p. 265, EBSCO Academic Search Complete . web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=6&sid=726e4630-7f75-4cf8-aab9-53c195633eea%40sdc-v-sessmgr05. Accessed 5 Apr. 2019.
Rucker, Walter C. ““‘A Negro Nation within the Nation’: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Creation of a Revolutionary Pan-Africanist Tradition”.” Black Scholar, vol. 32, no. 3-4, 1 Sept. 2002, p. 38, EBSCO Academic Search Complete . web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=19&sid=e2282fb7-eff6-434d-a266-89233e3e8ddc%40sdc-v-sessmgr06. Accessed 31 Mar. 2019.