Set in Alabama and Washington, D.C., in the early part of the
twentieth century, W. E. B. Du Bois's first novel weaves the themes
of racial equality and understanding through the stark reality of
prejudice and bias. Originally published in 1911 and conceived
immediately after The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois turned
to fiction to carry his message to a popular audience who were
unfamiliar with his nonfiction works. Du Bois addresses the fact
that, despite the legal emancipation of African Americans, the
instruments of oppression, in both the economy and government,
remained in good working order. At the time he was writing,
powerful white industrialists controlled the cotton industry, the
"silver fleece" that depended, as it did during slavery, on the
physical labor of African Americans. White Americans also
controlled local and national government.
In the novel, Blessed "Bles" Alwyn, a young man seeking formal
education to improve himself, is captivated by Zora, a vivacious,
independent woman who lives outside society in a mysterious swamp.
Faced with shocking events in Zora's past and ambivalence about how
a black man should integrate into American society, Bles pursues
his goals and ends up in Washington to assist on a senator's
campaign. While in the city, he meets successful African
Americans-and falls in love-but he ultimately recoils from the
hypocrisies they must endure in order to be accepted in society.
Instead, he is compelled to return to Alabama and Zora, where he
must face his greatest challenges and fears.
With its frank and clear language, The Quest of the Silver
Fleece is a remarkable portrait of racial prejudice at the
turn of the twentieth century. Through the characters, Du Bois
demonstrates the efficacy of self-sufficiency for those who face
discrimination while championing the benefits of strength in
diversity to American society as a whole.
Subjects: Language & Literature
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