February 14, 2011

Chesnutt: the whole race situation

In Wilmington, North Carolina, Charles W. Chesnutt took to the podium to read some of his Stories of the Color Line. His February 14, 1901 reading was the first of several that month throughout the South, mostly North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. Chesnutt, an activist for civil rights and a writer of some renown, also used the tour for research for a novel which he published later that year.

The Marrow of Tradition fictionalized the so-called "race riots" in Wilmington in 1898. More than 20 black people were killed in a successful takeover of the town government by white supremacists. At the time, Chesnutt (who was only about 25% black) referred to it as "pure, malignant and altogether indefensible race prejudice." He was particularly disappointed because he believed North Carolina had "superior fairness and liberality in the treatment of race questions."

Feeling the need "to sketch in vivid though simple lines the whole race situation," Chesnutt changed the setting to the fictitious "Wellington." The Marrow of Tradition plot follows two middle-class mulattoes as their first child is born. Though ostracized by Southern society, Chesnutt emphasizes their potential for social good. On the other hand, white characters in the novel begin their plans for takeover:

"Jerry, now, is a very good negro. He's not one of your new negroes, who think themselves as good as white men, and want to run the government. Jerry knows his place, — he is respectful, humble, obedient, and content with the face and place assigned to him by nature."

"Yes, he's one of the best of 'em... He'll call any man 'master' for a quarter, or 'God' for half a dollar... They're all alike, — they're a scrub race, an affliction to the country, and the quicker  we're rid of 'em all the better."

In writing the novel, Chesnutt believed it would be his most important to date and hoped that it "might create sympathy for the colored people of the South in the very difficult position which they occupy." He hoped the book would "become lodged in the popular mind as the legitimate success of Uncle Tom's Cabin... as depicting an epoch in our national history."

*Further reading: Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, and Essays (Library of America). Much of the information for this post comes from The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt (1980) by William Andrews.

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