Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The central theme of any bildungsroman is the education and formation of its protagonist. Understanding High Cotton is to a considerable extent a matter of following the process that leads the narrator to the level of self-understanding he has reached by the end of the novel. The issue with which he must contend, in spite of his gift for evasion, is how to deal with the questions of race and status that confront him as one of his generation of the Also Chosen. Spokesmen such as W. E. B. Du Bois have defined the responsibilities that go with the advantages he enjoys, and Grandfather Eustace relentlessly enunciates the theme of advancing the race.

The narrator’s instinctive strategy can be described as one of refusal. As a child, he withdraws from his environment into his Anglophile fantasies. In his adolescent flirtation with the militancy represented by the Heirs of Malcolm, he assumes briefly a role that asserts his racial identity, but in a form deviant from the calling of the Talented Tenth. Although he seems for a time to immerse himself in the life, or a corner of the life, of Harlem, spiritually he is there as a visitor: No one has to know that he sets himself apart. His deliberate descent into the lower classes seems to be an unsuccessful attempt to deny the status into which he was born; it is an irony that he finds himself employed as handyman by a writer he might have studied at Columbia.

If refusal were all, however, there would be no education. The...

(The entire section is 614 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

As the book’s range of characters shows, the meaning of being black in America has both not changed and changed tremendously over the generations. The African American experience has always involved suffering, but the degree and nature of that suffering have varied; hence, responses that once seemed valid eventually grow out of date. Thinking of the old-timers, the narrator realizes that he “would never know what they knew”; in the same way, Grandfather Eustace “considered it good form not to talk to us about the hardships he had witnessed,” and his grandfather, in turn, “had thought it wise not to speak too truthfully about his years in bondage.” Grandfather Eustace’s suffering “from being black at a time when everyone was white” and his fusty idea of a black aristocracy date him as “a terrible snob,” while the revolutionary poses and rhetoric of the Heirs of Malcolm render them comic.

In particular, High Cotton seems to portray the morning after the Civil Rights movement, critiquing with cold realism both low expectations and high hopes. These mixed messages are suggested by the demonstration that the young narrator attends; to him, it is merely confusing and anticlimactic, a spectacle gawked at by white spectators. Grandfather Eustace calls such marches “ Congo’ lines,” but then the whole movement occurs without his permission. He is even disappointed that his grandson suffers no traumas in white schools....

(The entire section is 467 words.)