Professor Child Discusses the Relationship Between Works by Du Bois and Washington


English Professor Ben Child lectured on Black Cultures in the Post Slavery South.

Assistant Professor of English Ben Child welcomed his audience in ALANA Cultural Center for a talk called “Black Cultures in the Post Slavery South: Du Bois and The Quest of the Silver Fleece” on Friday, March 23. Throughout his lecture, Child used DuBois’ The Quest of the Silver Fleece to formulate arguments on the relationship between Booker T. Washington and Du Bois as well as the symbol of agriculture in the novel. Child’s presentation is part of a larger project that he is working on to investigate the connection between English and Environmental Studies.

To begin his lecture, Child defined basic terms such as “ecocriticism” and “geopolitical” to help the audience understand the organization of his work. Ecocriticism is a mode of literary analysis that explores literature’s ability to represent and probe relations between people and the environment. Moreover, the term “geopolitical” acknowledges the intersections of economics, ecologies and politics. 

Although Child focused on Du Bois’ lesser known work The Quest of the Silver Fleece, he emphasized that most students are familiar with Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk from the course Challenges of Modernity. By including this information, Child provided an important backdrop to understanding Du Bois’s The Quest of the Silver Fleece.

Professor Child explained that the focus of The Quest of the Silver Fleece is on a young African-American couple named Zora and Bless. Bless has come to a fictional town in Alabama to teach in a school run by white New England women, and Zora lives with a sixth sense working in the cotton fields. There are two powerful white families involved, who are trying to monopolize the cotton market throughout the novel. Although this novel was minor in the big picture of Du Bois’ works, it provides a different perspective on Du Bois’ theory, as well as the relationship between Washington and Du Bois.

Child then examined some of the points that show agreement between Du Bois and Washington, who often had opposing views and disagreed about how African Americans should integrate into society after the abolition of slavery. For example, the school Bless works at is similar to schools modeled on Washington’s ideas of education through specific labor areas to make a living. 

In addition, Bless pushes Zora to educate herself in order to fit in with white civilization, which was also one of Washington’s main points. Finally, Zora and Bless split and when she leaves the plantation and travels north, she grows and learns through reading. She returns and reconciles with Bless, which Child argued emphasizes Washington’s thought that education to the standards of whites would allow integration and more stable lives.

Child also presented the role of agriculture in the novel, specifically the cotton industry. Cotton and slavery were interwoven, but through the lens of Du Bois’ novel, it provided the characters with forms of resistance. In the book, the brutality of harvesting cotton is minimized and Child argues that it looks through the lens of the fact that cotton puts African Americans at the base of a powerful, global industry.

First-year Christina Weiler reflected on the lecture. 

“I think Professor Child took a unique perspective on agricultural issues in the South. I became aware of the layered value of property ownership. Tending to land is empowering, contributes strength to one’s identity, and even serves as a mode of resistance. I found these ideas to be thought-provoking,” Weiler said.

Child concluded that the use of agriculture and the apparent agreement between Du Bois and Washington makes the novel extremely puzzling. The novel pulls the usual conversation about black culture and agriculture in a new direction, and this is what makes it so important.

First-year Celine Turkyilmaz found the lecture to be relevant to her previous studies. 

“I took Professor Child’s American Texts and Contexts class last semester, and one of our most interesting topics of discussion was regarding the writings of Du Bois and Washington [and emphasized that] its important that Colgate students can appreciate the significance of these writers, as their works can enrich students’ perspectives and help create stronger understandings of African American history,” Turkyilmaz said.

Contact Kelsey McGeough at [email protected]