W. E. B. Du Bois was 39 years old when “The Song of the Smoke” was published in the February 1907 issue of Horizon, a magazine which he himself edited. The poem is understood as “an affirmation of black pride,” but Du Bois’s ultimate acceptance of the need to call for black pride was the culmination of a difficult process. He was born into a community of free blacks in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868, and after his mother’s death, he was given a scholarship by the primarily white town. Although he had deeply desired to go to Harvard, it was the town’s stipulation that this scholarship was to be used at Fisk University, founded for the children of emancipated slaves. While Du Bois had long believed that education and a sense of purpose were all that blacks needed to gain a place as Americans after having been freed from slavery in 1865, his education at Fisk was twofold. Here he could feel what it was to engage with educated minds, with no race considerations to affect the exchange. He also was made acutely aware of “the color line” in the South, and realized it would take far more than the higher education of African Americans to overcome this barrier.
In 1895, Du Bois became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. His reputation as a distinguished scholar commenced with the acceptance of his dissertation, “The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade in the United States of America, 1638–1870,” as the inaugural work in the Harvard Historical Studies series. Du Bois soon acknowledged, however, that his subsequent scholarly work in the new field of social science was not having the impact that he expected. Thus he turned to other forms of writing, including poetry, to present his theories and beliefs regarding “the problem of the color line,” which he considered the major problem of the twentieth century. He further took responsibility for bringing this message to the public by editing the magazines Moon, Horizon, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) publication Crisis, all of which introduced the work of many new black writers, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
Du Bois was one of the first African Americans to foster the idea of race-consciousness and of the African American as hero. His life’s work focused on the rebuttal of the claim that the African race engendered only slaves and savages unable to make contributions to civilization and American culture. “The Song of the Smoke” clearly stands as an affirmation for African Americans, but it is also a proclamation to America as a whole of the historical and economic significance of African Americans.
As this poem begins, Du Bois identifies the persona of the poem as “the Smoke King.” The second line proclaims that, despite this light color, the persona is “black.” This was a startling proclamation for the time, as “color” had become as much of an issue in the African-American culture as outside it. Lighter skinned people “passed” as white, of course, but there was also a general acceptance of the notion in the African-American culture that lighter skin was preferable. Du Bois himself was a very light-skinned black man, and he strongly objected to this kind of distinction.
There is an immediate identification here with the characteristic of “smoke” to float upward; this will be expounded upon in lines 5–7. The poet is likely also making reference to the popular spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which includes the phrase “coming for to carry me home”— “home” being Heaven. The implication is that the persona has been raised up.
The use of the alliterative “wr/w” sound focuses attention on this particular image. There is, of course, the sound association with the word “ringing,” which combines with the image of the persona “swinging in the sky” to create the metaphor of the Smoke King’s words pealing out like a bell for all to hear. But the purpose of the words themselves is focused in “wring,” which means “to twist forcibly.” Hence, the Smoke King’s aim is to change “the worlds,” which would seem to be a reference to the two separate black and white worlds. And he wants this change to “twist” the worlds “away from the expected direction,” that is, perhaps, to stop racism’s effects on both black and white Americans.
The image of “smoke” takes the shape here of an idea, as well as of the smoke coming from the stacks of the factories where great numbers of blacks who had come north worked at low-paying jobs. The “thought” is the collective black memory of the extremes of labor in both the South and the North.
The use of the phrase “soul of the soul” is inextricably linked to Du Bois’s own philosophy of the “two souls” of “Black Folk.” Here it indicates that even after the excesses of killing labor imposed by whites through slavery and low-paying jobs there is a “soul” that lives.
“Wraith” means “a visible spirit,” and probably refers to the ancestors of those who were kidnapped from Africa and brought over along trade routes to be sold into slavery in the United States. This suggests that it is vital to remember this history, the beginnings of the African American in the United States.
The Smoke King’s image of “smoke,” now identified with slave labor, rises from the land on which it has toiled and, as in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” carries itself home to God.
At this repetition of these lines the “Smoke King” becomes more than simply the light-skinned African American identifying with the darker “black” African American, but a true identification with what all African Americans have experienced as citizens of the United States.
Note that in line 2, “I am black!” is exclamatory, a proclamation. In line 11, it is stated, by use of the period, as a fact. Further note that this restatement is linked to the emotional historical content of the stanza by the use of the semicolon at the end of line 9. Thus there is an equation between what is said prior to the semicolon and what comes in these two lines.
These lines take on the power of incantation at the beginning of this second stanza, and are now understood as well by the reader to provide a frame for the emotional memory of the history of the African American. Each stanza begins with the lines as proclamation, and each stanza concludes with their factual restatement.
The use of “wreathing” plays on a central alliterative sound used by the poet. It contrasts with “wringing” in line 4, as well as “awry.” All of these words are defined as having to do with “twisting,” although there is a gentler implication in “wreathing.” The reference may be to these words soothing the broken hearts of African Americans at the time the poet is writing, but it also draws on the association of a wreath to honor the dead, and so honors the “broken hearts” of people kidnapped...
(The entire section is 1858 words.)