June 20, 2011

Birth of Charles W. Chesnutt

Though he was born in Cleveland, Ohio on June 20, 1858, Charles W. Chesnutt was raised in his parents' home town. His parents were free blacks (both were half-white) from Fayetteville, North Carolina, where his father was a grocer. After continuing his education elsewhere in the state, Chesnutt returned to teach there (he soon became the principal). There, he married and had two children. He soon recognized, however, that he was not easily categorized, lamenting in early 1881 that he was "neither fish, flesh, nor fowl," that he was not truly white nor truly black, nor even mulatto. "Too 'stuck up' for the colored folks, and, of course, not recognized by the whites," he wrote.

Chesnutt was determined to make a name for himself: "I want fame; I want money; I want to raise my children in a different rank of life from that I sprang from." Optimistically, he determined that "literature pays the successful." He moved to New York City for a short time before raising the money to move his family back to Ohio. He began as a court reporter before publishing his first literary work in 1885, "Uncle Peter's House." Like Chesnutt himself, the narrator of the short story is determined to rise in the world.

Ever since abolition left Southern blacks "free" but "destitute," Peter has believed his success will be measured by owning "a two-story white house, with green blinds," much like the master's house on the North Carolina plantation where he was born. After emancipation, Chesnutt writes, "the freed people learned to assume the burdens as well as enjoy the sweets of liberty." After difficulty with procuring land, incurring debt, being taken advantage of by whites, and legal troubles, Peter's dream almost comes true — until a gang of racists burns down the unfinished house, claiming blacks don't deserve two-story homes. In rebuilding, the now-elderly Peter falls off the roof and lies dying. The family calls for a black priest:

"Elder," said Peter faintly to the preacher, "I did n' finish dat house."

"My brudder," said the preacher, "you shall have a better house on de udder sho'."

"Yas, bless de Lo'd," murmured the old man, "a house not made with hands, but etarnal in de hebbens." Then, after a pause, to his younger son, "Primus, it's de las' thing I kin ax yer to do; take care o' yer po' ole mammy, and finish dat house, dat de good Lo'd didn' 'low me to finish."

No comments:

Post a Comment