Themes and Meanings
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.)