Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1858
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 and sold into slavery, losing everything in the process.
The internal rhyme between “wreathing” and “sheathing” suggests also a gentleness, although “sheathing” might also refer to putting the “darts” into a sheath for use. In any case, these “darts” are “light” and they will be shot with “love.” This likely means that the words of the Smoke King are spoken to both white and black out of love, though the words will be shot like “darts” to get the attention they deserve.
The Smoke King’s words are inspired by the hard times his people have experienced; “iron” can also refer specifically to labor in northern factories. In fact, “[w]edding” is likely used to disclose that what the African American is expected to do in the North is not much different from the slave labor performed in the South. Both involve “bloodless” crimes, in that the conditions of labor under which African Americans have toiled are not intended for the purpose of individual murders or genocide of a people. Nonetheless, blood has been shed.
Alliteration and internal rhyme enhance the importance of these lines and their reference to contradictions inherent in two positions. The “blue” may refer to “high moral ground,” to the Union Army whose victory brought about an end to slavery, or to being high in the sky. Hence, those whites who are at the top of the social structure in America, still do things that lower them. Contrarily, blacks who have been considered socially lower than whites, can bring themselves up toward truth, though this will require passionate (“torrid”) involvement.
The matter of fact restatement of these two lines emphasizes the statement of the preceding lines 19–20. Furthermore, the lines are not “mere” restatement, but an idea closely connected to lines 14–20, as evidenced by the use of the comma at the end of line 20.
These lines become a chant that re-establishes the energy of identification with the history of the Smoke King’s people.
The internal rhyme of “darkening” with “hearkening” links the purpose of these two lines, a pur- pose which is directly related to the poem itself through the use of the word “song.” It is clear that the poet intends for this poem to inspire.
The Smoke King himself, despite his light skin, is accepting his place alongside darker blacks. Reciting his emotional history through this poem deepens his association with African Americans and allows him to understand that the wrongs that have been perpetrated on his people historically— and on each and every one of his people now—are done to him as well. This may also be a reference to the fact that a similar kind of wrong is done by blacks who line themselves up against a color line from lighter to darker.
Each line emphasizes the focus on “black.” The Smoke King promises to be “black” in every possible way, historically, culturally, and politically. Thus in line 28 “black” comes to mean the race or group of the Smoke King’s people, rather than a color which can be judged along a continuum from lighter to darker. Furthermore, the full acceptance of being “black,” with all the historical and cultural burdens it might carry with it, is how African Americans will gain true power. The reference in line 29 is to the common knowledge that humans first appeared on this earth on the African continent. It is a reminder that even though whites believe themselves superior, the original human was black.
The Smoke King is claiming God for himself. Typically black has been associated with evil and white with good, so that Heaven is seen in visions of whiteness. The Smoke King transposes this. The reference to “swabbing Hell in white” likely refers to the fact that African Americans through kidnapping and slavery, as well as conditions of labor and culture, experienced hell on earth at the hands of whites.
The colon at the close of line 31 indicates that it is as a result of what is said in lines 25–31 that the Smoke King can make this statement.
It is because of the strengthening connection of these lines as statement at the close of each stanza—through use of comma, then semicolon, then colon—that the repetition as proclamation gains power as introduction to each succeeding stanza.
The power now established by lines 34–35 allows the Smoke King to “curse” the morning over the night. Again, this refers to an association of “black” with night, “white” with day, and by the use of the word “ruddy” refers back to the “blood” of the second stanza.
This power also manifests itself in the knowledge that to accept all of African-American history, to remember the slavery as well as the African heritage, is vital. In effect, the Smoke King sees this poem as a rehearsal for the song that African Americans as yet “unborn” will sing as they find their own hearts in the history of their people. Another interpretation of this line, however, might be that the “broken hearts” of line 14 were never truly born because they never truly lived, thus the “wreathing” of line 14 is brought into play here with “hearsing,” so that the Smoke King is finally memorializing those who were cheated of African life through kidnapping and American life through slavery.
The connotation of night, with darkness and blackness, is given beauty and light through the placement in it of stars which are souls. It seems as if the Smoke King is using his association with God, begun in the first stanza, to emphasize that no soul is black or white. A further interpretation might be that shades of blackness and lightness are also irrelevant, for the color or shade of color of a person’s skin has nothing to do with a human being’s strength of purpose. Thus, again is sounded a call for all African Americans to identify—as black—with one another.
“Hail!” is a salute to the slaves, characterized as “hands,” who labored for America. Though the slave past is “gritty” and “grimy,” it is “great,” and should be remembered and acknowledged as the past of African Americans. In fact, the Smoke King calls to the son of God to pity those hands which toiled on these lands.
The final chant of these two lines stands alone as an independent statement, signalled by the exclamation point at the end of line 42. This would seem to indicate that it is only through acceptance of the past history of blacks as Africans and as American slaves that blacks can move forward into an identity which is independent, which in fact we now refer to as African American.