William Edward Burghardt Du Bois uses color symbolism in “Of the Coming of John” to reveal the plight of the diverse American population. The author uses opposite colors to point out not only racial differences but also those associated with the opportunities to live a happy life. He refers to varied sentence structure to emphasize important details and make his work interesting to read. Imagery allows placing the readers in the environment of the story and involves them with metaphors, epithets, and other stylistic devices that characterize the white world and the black community. In addition to that, he offers an open ending for the readers to determine the protagonist’s fate.
Du Bois often uses colors to describe people’s emotions and associated characteristics. For instance, he represents two Johns in his story naming them the White John and the Black John. Of course, the author wanted to emphasize the racial difference in this way, but it is also a way to discuss their place in the society and an opportunity to have a happy and successful life. The white color is associated with something good “a little of the white at the edges,—a happy throng” (Du Bois 747). It is also connected to clear mind and aristocracy, as it suits people with multiple opportunities and high status. Du Bois refers to “the white world” to show that the Black John lives in the community that will never accept him because he obtains those characteristics that oppose the whites (Du Bois 745). To make this fact clear, he also adds, “black students have few dealings with the white city below” (Du Bois 743).
In this text, “black” appears to be a synonym to “a limit.” Being a representative of “the black folk,” a person cannot be equal to whites because he/she is believed to be not good enough (Du Bois 743). Interacting with “the while folk” blacks “grew gray,” as the Black John’s mother, and unhappy (Du Bois 744). Gray is a color used to reveal apathy and sadness. In this way, “a gray and cloudy day” on which the Black John leaves his home appears to be a critical time after which the man will realize whether he can improve his life or not (Du Bois 747).
Describing his characters, Du Bois pays much attention to details. The Black John is said to be “a long, straggling fellow,” who is “growing straight out of his clothes,” but looks “perfectly awkward” (Du Bois 743). The author uses contrasting epithets and inversion while describing his protagonist in order to show that being an ordinary representative of his country, the man is different from others. Personalizing the whole black community, John appears to be in a worse financial position than the whites, his “half–apologetic roll” reveals that African Americans are on a lower societal level, but they still remain good-natured and perfect in their way (Du Bois 743). Hyperbole is also used by the author to characterize the protagonist as a stranger: “every step he made offended someone” (Du Bois 749).
The author uses various sentence structures to emphasize significant information and to make his work interesting to read. “I’ll go away,” he said slowly; “I’ll go away and find work, and send for them. I cannot live here longer” (Du Bois 751). The repetition of the initial phrase emphasized that John was eager to make a great change in his life and in the lives of his family members. Moreover, this sentence structure allowed the readers to perceive two main ideas the author wanted to communicate to them. First of all, John was rather determined in his desire to alter something. He had no substantial plans for future, but even the identification of basic purposes was enough for him to start acting. At the same time, the change John wanted to implement was so unbelievable and outrageous that he had to repeat it twice for himself to realize it and to believe that he was ready to do so.
Repeating “too bad, too bad” the Judge wanted to make others understand the Black John will not benefit from studying because “it will spoil him” (Du Bois 743). The use of short sentences and repetitions proves that Du Bois wanted to attract the readers’ attention to this fact. Moreover, he added that education turned out to be “a hard struggle” (Du Bois 745). This word combination sounds rather abrupt and sharp, which allows the readers to understand the feelings of the protagonist during this process. He said, “things did not come easily to him,” revealing that John faced problems not only with particular topics or subjects but with everything connected to studying (Du Bois 745).
The Black John symbolizes African American community that is initially limited and provided only with pseudo-freedom and pseudo-knowledge: “He had left his queer thought-world and come back to a world of motion and of men. He looked now for the first time sharply about him and wondered he had seen so little before” (Du Bois 745). The cases of alliteration in these sentence focus on the repetition of [h] and [d], which can be associated with harsh and hostile perception. A shocking effect is created by the author to prove that while education seemed to benefit African Americans, it also alienated them from their community. As a result, educated blacks could not find their place and merge with the rest of the population; they became “gray.” Thus, it is not surprising that Du Bois called studying an experience that made John “unhappy” (Du Bois 749). Nevertheless, African Americans were willing to become educated, as John’s sister stated, “I wish I was unhappy” (Du Bois 749).
Du Bois’ text is full of imagery, as he wants to make the readers follow the Black John’s experiences. His descriptions are very detailed for this purpose: “Carlisle Street runs westward from the centre of Johnstown, across a great black bridge, down a hill and up again, by little shops and meat–markets, past single–storied homes, until suddenly it stops against a wide green lawn. It is a broad, restful place, with two large buildings outlined against the west” (Du Bois 743). The use of numerous clarifications, epithets, and metaphors allows the readers to imagine the environment, in which the characters live.
The author leaves the ending of his story open stating, “and the world whistled in his ears,” which seems to be a rather complex idea that can be interpreted by readers in different ways (Du Bois 752). As the men were coming for John, he tried to both calm down and escaped. Looking out over the sea, the protagonist focused on the melodious sounds of waves trying to avoid men’s voices that were less melodious and positive. The Sea is personified, and it appears to become a protector who silences the sounds associated with John’s enemies who come on horses. As they approach him, the main character faces the “coiled twisted rope” and a storm “burst round him” (Du Bois 752). Here, the storm reveals the emotional atmosphere that alters and becomes hostile as the men come closer. The world’s whistling may reveal the beginning of the attack, which means that John is injured and captured. However, it is also possible that the Sea managed to protect him and that John hears the wind when he jumps into the water.
Thus, it can be concluded that, in this work, Du Bois emphasizes the fact that non-white Americans are marginalized regardless of their personal characteristics. People’s race determines their opportunities and their future. To communicate all this information to his readers, Du Bois uses numerous stylistic devices, such as metaphors, epithets, personifications, and repetitions. His writing is very colorful and explicit even though he uses informal language. Extensive color symbolism allows the author to place a hidden meaning in his claims. Sentences of different structure and inversions are used to emphasize significant facts and add details for ornamental effect. The author appeals to people’s emotions and imagination, making them perceive the protagonist’s life as if he was their friend. Du Bois makes an open ending, giving his readers an opportunity to make a final decision and determine John’s fate. In this way, he also proves that people’s race does not matter in such a critical situation when they have no opportunity to avoid adverse consequences.
Du Bois, W.E.B., “Of the Coming of John.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Eds. Henry Louis Gates and Valerie A. Smith. 3rd ed., Vol 1, New York: Norton, 2014, pp. 742-52.