Purity in Black and White, Male and Female

“Beauty, Purity, Whiteness, and Godliness in W. E. B. Du Bois’s First Novel”

All of the recent blogging here on sex, beauty culture, notions of purity, and religion reminded me of an important scene in the first novel of W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963). We know him best as an intellectual and Civil Rights activist. We know him best for his work with the NAACP and his brilliant historical analysis. But he was also a fantastic literary artist. Below is printed a few paragraphs from my study of religion in Du Bois’s life and times that discusses connections between beauty, purity, race, and the sacred. The novel shows interesting connections between notions of purity and impurity, the sacred and profane, and the bending social power of racial categories. I apologize for the “self promotional” flavor to this post, but I think the material applies. If not, feel free to flay me with the comments or curse me with bad looks or modest swimwear.

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Perhaps one of the most remarkable discussions in The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911) occurred after Bles and Zora built a house in the swamp and Bles placed a picture of the Madonna on the wall. As Du Bois described, it was “a little picture in blue and gold of Bouguereau’s Madonna.” A French painter of the nineteenth century, Adolphe-William Bouguereau was known for his tender images of young children and women. Bouguereau painted numerous images of the Madonna, including “The Madonna of the Roses” and “Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist.” The image entranced Zora. She “was staring silently at the Madonna,” and asked of Bles, “Who’s it?” Bles responded reverently, “The mother of God.” Zora expressed confusion over the picture, especially the lily and the baby held by the Madonna. Bles explained that the lily “stands for purity–she was a good woman” and the baby “is the Christ Child–God’s baby.” Zora retorted, “God is the father of all the little babies, ain’t He, Bles?” When Bles responded, “Why, yes–yes, of course; only this little baby didn’t have any other father.” Christ’s lack of an earthly father resonated with Zora, for either she knew no human father or she had been raped by a white man and her baby had never known its father. “Yes, I know one like that,” Zora said softly, “Poor little Christ-baby” (81).

Zora’s interpretation of the painting, however, was not finished by her empathy and sense of familiarity with the Christ baby. Referring to the Madonna, Zora exclaimed, “How white she is; she’s as white as the lily, Bles; but–I’m sorry she’s white–Bles, what’s purity–just whiteness?” Unsure of how to answer, Bles claimed that purity was about “being good,” not about color. And Zora responded with “a strange breaking voice” and a “sob.” “I’m–pure” More of a question than a declarative statement, Zora sought to make meaning of her own soul in terms of her rape and of western culture’s fixation on whiteness as godliness (81–82).

In her own unsophisticated way, Zora offered a beautiful analysis of color symbolism; notions of purity, race, and violence; and one soul’s hopes to find redemption. To her, purity and whiteness were not the same. They could not be. The conflation, moreover, must be questioned, if not lamented, for it had disastrous consequences on women like herself. She viewed the portrait of the Madonna and the Christ through the eyes of an impoverished and violated black woman. While she related with Christ’s seeming lack of a father, she failed to feel that Mary was her sister because of her whiteness and hence supposed purity. Much of Zora’s tale in The Quest of the Silver Fleece was creating her own sense of purity, one based not on her culture or circumstances but on her moral reserves and ethical actions. …

Later, in the final pages of the novel, after Zora had proven herself to Bles, he declared of Zora: “She is more than pure” (378).

By the end of the novel, Zora’s redemption and apotheosis was complete. She not only became the mouthpiece for Du Bois’s critique of modern religion and for a new faith to come to African Americans, but she also had risen above the Madonna. If the Madonna was pure, Zora was “more than pure.” Du Bois blasted away at the association of whiteness and godliness by presenting a black female character who transcended racial and sexual violence to a spot beyond the mother of Christ herself.

from Edward J. Blum, W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet, chapter 4.


Edward Carson said…
I have read this post a few times trying to figure out why it reminds me of something else. I got it! I recall reading Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye; in it, Morrison takes on similar issues as Du Bois did in the Quest for the Silver Fleece. Zora's interest in the white Madonna's whiteness and purity draws comparisons to three of Morrison's characters:

Maureen, who was loved by all because of her fair skin, green eyes, etc. Then there was Claudia, who hated blacks for assuming that good things revolve around whiteness. I am most reminded of Pecola, who was obsessed with Claudia's Shirley Temple mug. Her love for Temple marks some comparison to Zora, who was obsessed with the Madonna. Furthermore, like Zora, Pecola was raped, but not by a white man. Pecola's love for the purity and beauty of Shirley Temple's whiteness reflects what Zora was thinking....White is pure and beautiful.

Both Du Bois and Morrison concluded that white culture and white society conditions us into accepting the supremacy of white religion, white beauty, and white constructs. As you mentioned in your book, Ed, Du Bois could not understand why blacks saw Christ in the image of a white man, but could not see Christ as a black man.

White supremacy conditions us into accepting whiteness as pure and perfect; we black men desire white women because they are the ultimate prize -- that is what Hollywood and Miss America teaches us. Of course Pecola did not rise above the matter of whiteness like Zora did.
Anonymous said…
Not being a person of color, I would never get presume to understand how one would feel about the depiction of the savior as "Jesus of Nazarath, Pennsylvannia" with fair white skin and light brown hair.

I suspect it might create distance. But I take comfort that God in his wisdom did not place the incarnation in Norway or Kenya. Jesus likely had darkish olive-toned skin, and cannot be visually depicted accurately as either lily-white or jet-black.

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