Du Bois begins Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece describing a cotton field through the use of the Greek myth, The Golden Fleece. The cotton mill, as the most important part of the South, was the golden fleece of the day. Many argued that whites were the center of the cotton industry in the south, but the truth was that the expansion of the cotton kingdom relied heavily on black labor; it had originally began to flourish because of the institution of slavery. The black laborers, heavily reliant on credit, were strikingly poor, but the fields in which they worked and the Southern landscape was rich and beautiful.
His description of the Golden Fleece develops into an analysis of the Negro family in the South, particularly in Dougherty County. Because of economic condition of the South, blacks lived cramped together in tenements and slums. Large families crowded into one and two-bedroom houses and apartments. Young adults moved away seeking better opportunity, and those who remained were newlyweds with very small children. The poor economic prospects in Dougherty and in the general Southern region led to smaller families and to sexual immorality amongst young adults. While these young black men and women barely ever engaged in prostitution, they did engage in sexual activity outside of wedlock.
Du Bois contends that this ability to engage in relationships and move in together despite having legal marital status resulted from the years of oppression as salves. During the time of slavery, a black man would ask his master if he could “take up” (Du Bois, Page 104) with another slave. Once the right was granted, these two would be considered married until one was eventually sold. The Negro Church, in direct opposition to this practice, sought to change this. As such, preachers and ministers performed ceremonies that granted marital rights to these individuals. Although this was a step in the right direction, Du Bois argued that the first thing that needed changing was the standard of living for the Negro people.
The stratification of the Negro was exacerbated by the lack of education within them. According to Du Bois, four fifths of all Negros were ignorant, with a full two thirds of the population displaying a form of complete illiteracy. The Negro, thus, was not a recipient of the opportunity that America was supposed to allot to all of its children. Instead, they remained in a world in between slavery and freedom that still did not quite understand how to navigate. The ignorance and illiteracy of the Negro resulted from the necessity of a labor force filled with children. When there was a lot of work, children would not go to work and instead go into the fields to be able to work and win money for their parents. The abundance of children in the workforce not only amplified ignorance, but also diminished their collective physical development.
This strife extended beyond child labor and into the economics of cotton in the South. The African-America, with this one crop, could not gain property or ever achieve true freedom. They could not afford clothing or the groceries to sustain their families. This led them back to the plantations where they were once slaves, to perform the same duties they had performed throughout enslavement, but this time, for an undetermined salary. The Negro quickly transformed from laborer to merchant because of the falling prices of cotton. In both of these scenarios, he was not encouraged to save, and instead to use the cotton they had harvested to pay for rent. Du Bois explains that the reason the South was filled with mostly one crop was because whites had begun to accept only this crop as currency.
After Emancipation, the Negro saw himself in a quixotic state: newly free, he had no ability to truly accept this freedom because of the injustices forced upon him throughout slavery. Upon gaining freedom, he was left without money or an education, and remained in a position that was not conducive to success or excellence in American society. Although some of these newly freed men were able to acquire success and ownership of land, this was but a small portion of the overall black population. The one solution to this, he states, is to move away from Dougherty, and into town.
In this chapter, Du Bois expands on his analysis on the area of the Black Belt and the Golden Fleece. As he has mentioned in much of the book, despite the hard work of African-Americans, whites often ignore this and cite and attribute their successes to others. While blacks were the center of the Cotton Kingdom, whites believes that they are. This is not because white people work harder, but because the work of the black man is often ignored due to his race.
The Golden Fleece, while it had provided blacks with employment opportunities within the South, also alluded to the experience of African-Americans throughout slavery. Many of the skills that the African-American had were gained during slavery; they were thus forever cursed with a memory of what once had been. Not only did their skills limit them, but the credit on which they relied also stratified them. Du Bois, therefore, demonstrates that racism exists on an institutional level.
In this chapter, Du Bois analyzes the black family. The black family and the institution of marriage, Du Bois suggests, is a very "white American" thing. Before blacks had arrived to the United States, they engaged in relationships outside of marriage and within tribal groups that were acceptable. As slaves, however, they had to ask for permission from masters. After being free from slavery, the legitimacy of their relationships was proved by a mere paper.
The reliance on legal documents further marginalized African-Americans and stripped them of the culture they had held on to for many centuries. The institution of marriage, thus, is an example of the duality within which the African-American lives. While he attempts to embrace his own customs, he must also realize and accept the customs of his new country. This is not entirely just, however, as it essentially delegitimizes any relationship that existed before.
Du Bois completes this chapter by arguing that the Negro was not fully free, because of the position in which Emancipation placed him. As they had previously been slaves, they had not had access to any economic forms of payment. Upon being freed, they had no homes and no money, and needed to begin with very little. This importance of wealth persisted past slavery and into modern day America, where the African-American continues to strive to achieve a comparable level of wealth, but fails to do so. The injustices of slavery have persisted throughout the centuries, and despite civil rights and government programs, it cannot yet be changed.