The (Dis)Ability of Color; or, That Middle World: Toward A New Understanding of 19th and 20th Century Passing Narratives

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-03-25 13:16Z by Steven

The (Dis)Ability of Color; or, That Middle World: Toward A New Understanding of 19th and 20th Century Passing Narratives

University of Massachusetts, Amherst
2015

Julia S. Charles, Assistant Professor of English
Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama

This dissertation mines the intersection of racial performance and the history of the so-called “tragic mulatto” figure in American fiction. I propose that while many white writers depicted the “mulatto” character as inherently flawed because of some tainted “black blood,” many black writers’ depictions of mixed-race characters imagine solutions to the race problem. Many black writers critiqued some of America’s most egregious sins by demonstrating linkages between major shifts in American history and the mixed-race figure. Landmark legislation such as, Fugitive Slave Act 1850 and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) are often plotlines in African American passing literature, thus demonstrating the failure of America to acknowledge its wrongdoings against people of color. While this project surveys passing narratives collectively, it pays careful consideration to those novelists whose presentations of the mixed-race figure challenge previously conceived notions of the “tragic mulatto” figure. I investigate how the writers each illuminate elements of the history of slavery and its aftermath in order to remark on black disenfranchisement at the turn of the century. Ultimately, however, I argue for the importance of the mixed-race figure as a potent symbol for imagined resolution between the larger narrative of American freedom and enslavement of blacks in the United States.

I examine several works of African American racial passing literature: William Wells Brown’s The Escape; Or, A Leap for Freedom (1858), the first published play by an African American writer. It explores the complexities of American culture at a time when tensions between North and South were about to explode into the Civil War. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (1860), tells the true story of the mixed-race Ellen Craft and her husband who escaped to freedom through various racial performances. Nella Larsen sets her novella Passing (1929) in Harlem in the 1920s. The story centers on two childhood friends reunited, but each dealing with their mixed-race ancestry in different ways. Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral (1928) and The Chinaberry Tree: A Novel of American Life (1931) and Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth” and “A Matter of Principle” (1900). endeavors to depict a better class of blacks through her examination of the fair-skinned bourgeois-striver Angela Murray. Each of these stories address American legacies of racism and representation beginning with the Civil War.

I investigate how these authors use the mixed-race figure (mostly) following the Civil War to mark the continuing impact that its legacy has had on black Americans through the New Negro Harlem Renaissance, but also to gesture to the mythic moment of freedom symbolized by successfully crossing the so-called color line. In addition to cataloguing an era of migration, the African American passing narrative represents the moment in which we shift from only seeing characters in terms of monoracial identities. These writers suggest that new performative modes of racial affiliation are necessary to achieve freedom. Reminding us that characters of mixed status practiced race in ways that enabled them to build shared identity despite an often disparate cultural heritage, these works suggest that identities like blackness are always constituted through performance. I argue that racial passing facilitated the “performance” of whiteness together with, an acknowledgment of what is accepted as blackness.

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White Supremacy and the Dangerous Discourse of Liberal Tolerance

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Justice, United States on 2018-02-15 02:06Z by Steven

White Supremacy and the Dangerous Discourse of Liberal Tolerance

The Paris Review
2018-02-13

Ismail Muhammad
Oakland, California


A scene at the race disturbance in Wilmington, North Carolina. Originally published in Colliers Weekly, November 26, 1898.

Watching Donald Trump speak about the violent white-supremacist rally that took place in Charlottesville last summer was a surreal experience. Not the first press conference where he referred to neo-Nazi protestors as “very fine people.” I mean the second time, when he repudiated those fine people. “Racism,” he intoned, clearly reading from a teleprompter, “is evil … white supremacists and other hate groups are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” Nobody could mistake his droning boredom for actual investment in the words he was speaking: his attempt to embrace the decorous discourse of liberal tolerance was baldly hypocritical.

As the summer ended and the fall semester began at U.C. Berkeley, where I study literature, far-right agitators descended along with the cool weather. A succession of activists and pundits—Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, and their ilk—made their way to campus. They brought the far-right protestors and threats of violence along with them, all the while invoking the language of tolerance and free speech. Berkeley’s former chancellor Nicholas Dirks even cited the campus community’s “values of tolerance” in defending Yiannopoulos’s appearance. The myriad ways in which people were deploying the word tolerance managed to drain the already-insufficient term of its content. All that was left was am empty concept that could accommodate any agenda. It was more clear than ever that the language of tolerance had become ineffective, just a mask behind which antipluralist demagogues could hide.

Admitting that Trump and the far right are capable of surprising me makes me feel unforgivably naive. At this point, to be surprised feels like a luxury, and I find myself bored with the chorus of outraged liberal critics who sound the alarm every time Trump breaks another democratic norm. But it’s worth inquiring why white supremacy continues to surprise us when white-race hatred is such an intractable aspect of American society. And how our shock perpetuates that violence.

In Charlottesville’s aftermath, I turned to Charles Chesnutt’s 1901 novel, The Marrow of Tradition. In his novel, Chesnutt—an impossibly industrious author, activist, lawyer, and educator—looks back at the wreckage of post-Reconstruction racial politics and attempts to answer these questions via historical fiction. Marrow is, among other things, an examination of how the genteel language of tolerance obscures and enables antiblack violence. In his focus on historical calamity—the Wilmington massacre narrowly and the collapse of Reconstruction more broadly—Chesnutt uses the form of the novel to examine how our shared language reinforces white supremacy’s grip on American society…

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No Exit: Mixed-Race Characters and the Racial Binary in Charles Chesnutt and Ernest J. Gaines

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-07-11 01:14Z by Steven

No Exit: Mixed-Race Characters and the Racial Binary in Charles Chesnutt and Ernest J. Gaines

Studies in the Literary Imagination
Volume 49, Number 1, Summer 2016
pages 33-48
DOI: 10.1353/sli.2016.0003

Keith Byerman, Professor
Department of English
Indiana State University

While Ernest J. Gaines has generally emphasized the importance of white writers rather than black ones in his career, he shares with Charles Chesnutt an interest in the role of mixed-race characters in narrative. Repeatedly in his brief fiction-writing career, Chesnutt engaged with both the passing tradition and the status of those who were marked as black though they clearly had white ancestry. Similarly, Gaines, in both novels and short stories, depicted the social and racial pressures on light-skinned characters.1 The focus of this essay will be on narratives of those who have been clearly labeled black regardless of ancestry. While Gaines shows little interest in stories of passing, he shares with Chesnutt a concern for Black Creoles and for those who choose or are compelled to identify as black. The texts I will be examining are Chesnutt’s Paul Marchand, F. M. C. and “The Wife of His Youth” and Gaines’s Catherine Carmier and “Bloodline.” The two novels treat Creole characters and their status within multiracial and multiethnic societies, while the two stories focus on light-skinned men and their relationships to other blacks as well as whites.

Each of these works in one way or another signifies on the tradition of the tragic mulatto/a. For example, there is no deceit or confusion on the part of the central characters about their racial category, as there is in Chesnutt’s House Behind the Cedars. Nor is there the angst of white and mulatto romance such as we see between Robert and Mary Agnes in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Instead, we find a free man of color who turns out to be white, a “black” man who has the arrogance and racial superiority of his white father, a family of Black Creoles who are the only members of the community who define themselves as different from blacks, and a light-skinned man who at the end of the story may or may not identify with his black past.

Both authors, in effect, depict complex performances of race along the socially constructed boundary that constitutes the color line. Thus, each of them rejects straightforward ideas of essentialism, but does so in the context of his particular historical moment. For Chesnutt, this moment of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the time of retrenchment in civil rights, white racial terrorism, and the development of a racial “science” that sought to give a biological, social, and anthropological basis for essentialist thinking and policies. Gaines’s moment came at the high point of the civil right movement, with the emergence of black nationalism and a reversed claim of essentialism that asserted black moral superiority. Thus, it can be argued that each writer uses mixed-race characters to subvert fixed notions of race while acknowledging the power of such notions in shaping the lives of their characters.

It is also worth noting that all four works involve some moral violation that extends beyond white supremacy (which both writers see as a fixed aspect of the societies they depict) and the violations of black women’s bodies that produced the mixed-race characters that are their subjects. Thus, the texts create an implicit link between such figures and the moral failure that is the nation’s racial ideology.

In “The Wife of His Youth,” Chesnutt can be seen as critiquing if not satirizing the pretensions of northern, middle-class, light-skinned blacks. It is worth noting that this is Chesnutt’s own social category, so the story may be read as self-criticism. The central character, Mr. Ryder, has become the leader of the Blue Vein Society, so called because its members are assumed to be light enough to have visibly blue veins. While the group denies such an exclusionary requirement, Ryder himself, though slightly darker than others, establishes a standard:

“I have no race prejudice,” he would say, “but we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race…

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Feeling Cosmopolitan: Strategic Empathy in Charles W. Chesnutt’s Paul Marchand, F.M.C.

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-12-16 01:42Z by Steven

Feeling Cosmopolitan: Strategic Empathy in Charles W. Chesnutt’s Paul Marchand, F.M.C.

MELUS (Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States)
Published online: 2016-12-10
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlw046

Alexa Weik von Mossner, Assistant Professor
University of Klagenfurt, Klagenfurt, Austria

“By modern research the unity of the human race has been proved,” asserts Charles W. Chesnutt in “The Future American” (122). As a black American who was light-skinned enough to pass for white, Chesnutt deeply believed in monogenesis and in the universality of the human experience. It is therefore unsurprising that the racial identities of his fictional characters are often fluid and that many of them display a distinctly cosmopolitan attitude, affirming a common and equal humanity. Matthew Wilson reminds us that while Chesnutt chose to live as an African American in a society that forced its members into clear-cut racial groups, in his writing he “strove for a universal subject position that he perceived as outside of race” (Whiteness xvii). A typical example is Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (1998), one of Chesnutt’s late and long unpublished novels, in which a fair-skinned black man learns that he is biologically white and finds himself faced with the question of whether he should embrace a white identity and abandon his mixed-race wife and children. It has been argued, for example by William Ramsey, that the political efficacy of the novel suffers precisely from Chesnutt’s universalist desire to “exalt humanity above race” (Chesnutt, “Race Problem” 199) because such desire “can restrict the constructive, necessary black social agency that Chesnutt himself agitated for” (Ramsey 39). Even more detrimental in the eyes of many critics is the utter lack of realism in Chesnutt’s celebration of a universal humanism that leads his idealized protagonist to forsake his newly acquired privileges in favor of his mixed-race family and a more authentic and honest life abroad.

However, Chesnutt’s reliance on romantic idealization and other sentimental narrative strategies is in fact crucial for the political charge of his novel, which he conceived in the early 1920s. As…

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Charles Chesnutt Racial Relation Progression Throughout Career

Posted in Biography, Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2016-05-24 21:09Z by Steven

Charles Chesnutt Racial Relation Progression Throughout Career

Cleveland State University
May 2011
60 pages

Lindy R. Birney

Submitted in partial fulfillment of requirements for the degree Master of English

Charles Chesnutt began his career with an ideology that race should not be a category in which to judge others. He felt that through literature he could help influence society and help create a less racial centric civilization. His career began with positive reviews from short story publications in multiple magazines. However, most critics and readers at the time did not know of Chesnutt’s racial background. It was not until his second collection of short stories that Chesnutt revealed the truth about his heritage. After his success with The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth (both published in 1899), Chesnutt began to assert his political agenda more aggressively into his writing. His second novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901) received very poor reviews; critics were repulsed by Chesnutt’s revolutionary philosophies concerning the racial caste system. The poor reception of Chesnutt’s three novels forced him to retire from a literary career. Years later, during the Harlem Renaissance, a time of prolific African American writers, Chesnutt was disappointed in the baseness of black characters in literature. He scolded Harlem Renaissance writers for their lack of strong black characters, but Chesnutt’s short stories that were published in The Crisis also lacked the racial uplift that he so desperately sought. Chesnutt’s intensity of racial relation literature had dwindled over time and he left it to the next generation of writers to fulfill the social agenda that his literature was never able to achieve.

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Dying to Be Black: White-to-Black Racial Passing in Chesnutt’s “Mars Jeems’s Nightmare,” Griffin’s Black Like Me, and Van Peebles’s Watermelon Man

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-05-09 15:16Z by Steven

Dying to Be Black: White-to-Black Racial Passing in Chesnutt’s “Mars Jeems’s Nightmare,” Griffin’s Black Like Me, and Van Peebles’s Watermelon Man

Prospects
Volume 28 / October 2004
pages 519-542
DOI: 10.1017/S0361233300001599

Baz Dreisinger, Associate Professor of English
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York

Is racial passing passé? Not according to contemporary book sales. The theme remains central to at least three recent best sellers: Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Roth’s novel made it to the big screen this fall, just as Devil in a Blues Dress, the adaptation of Walter Mosley’s novel starring Denzel Washington, did in 1995. Renewed academic attention is being paid, of late, to “classic” passing narratives; once-ignored ones, including Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars, are being revived; and still others being reread in the context of passing.

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Charles W. Chesnutt’s Stenographic Realism

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2016-02-28 23:18Z by Steven

Charles W. Chesnutt’s Stenographic Realism

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S.
Volume 40, Number 4, Winter 2015
pages 48-68

Mark Sussman
Hunter College, City University of New York

Speaking before a meeting of the Ohio Stenographer’s Association on 28 August 1889, Charles W. Chesnutt declared: “The invention of phonography deserves to rank, and does rank, in the minds of those who know its uses, with the great inventions of the nineteenth century; along with the steam engine, the telegraph, the sewing machine, the telephone” (“Some” 74). Phonography, the name Isaac Pitman gave to his popular system of shorthand notation, had been an obsession for Chesnutt going back about a decade. While he supported himself and his family for a short time solely by writing fiction, his income largely came first as a free-lance legal stenographer and then as the owner of his own successful stenography practice. In the midst of teaching himself Pitman’s shorthand, Chesnutt wrote in his journal on 28 June 1880: “I must write a lecture on phonography—the principles of the art; its uses, and the method of learning it” (Journals 143), and so his speech marked the culmination of his desire to entwine the practice of shorthand with his other obsession, that of becoming a writer of fiction.

This essay takes as its point of departure the idea that Chesnutt’s two coinciding writerly practices—stenography and fiction—are more than merely coincidental. The connection of writing to stenography and stenography to writing, far from being limited to the singular professional development of Chesnutt (the first major black American novelist), reflects some of the shared anxieties and contradictions of the racial and literary imaginations of the nineteenth century. Stenography, as a writing system that claims to record and preserve the inflections of human speech, and literary realism, a form of writing that claims to register the vicissitudes of human experience, both participate in a form of mimesis that was, by the end of the nineteenth century, the primary site of critical discord surrounding American fiction.

However, that discord was not only literary. Rather, debates about the role of mimesis in literary production, while they found their mute brother in the technology of stenography, also shaded into debates about the nature of imitativeness and, more specifically, whether or not imitativeness was an epistemic quality rooted in race. For race scientists, anti-abolitionists, and, later, for post-Reconstruction critics of black education, the idea that “Africans” possessed an imitative nature posed an insurmountable obstacle to any real education. Further, the idea that a black person appearing to have acquired knowledge through education was, in truth, only “parroting” what they had heard suggested that while blacks could use knowledge, only whites could truly possess it. Chesnutt’s dual practices of writerly mimesis turn racialized models of imitation on their head. His novel The House behind the Cedars (1900) suggests that imitation, in the form of learned manners and etiquette, constitutes the only identifiable form of “racial” behavior, white or black. Far from a perceived special “African” quality, imitation demonstrates the literal insubstantiality of race itself. Dialect fiction, an ostensibly mimetic writing form that portrays human speech as the locus of racial authenticity, ironically materializes and substantializes what Chesnutt elsewhere strove to demonstrate was insubstantial. For Chesnutt, then, writing was the sole arena in which the paradoxes of race thinking could take shape; to write race was, in some sense, and perhaps only for Chesnutt, to literally bring race into being.

The story “The Goophered Grapevine” exemplifies this phenomenon. One of Chesnutt’s stories written largely in dialect, this tale almost seems designed to look like one of Chesnutt’s stenographic transcriptions. It displays what Lisa Gitelman has described as “the underlying matter of representing orality” (52) in even those domains of literary culture without direct knowledge of shorthand writing. The story begins, as do all of the tales collected in Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman (1899), in the first person. The white Northerner John describes his and his wife Annie’s decision to move from northern Ohio to North Carolina, both for Annie’s health and in order for John to purchase a vineyard. The two encounter Julius McAdoo, a former slave, who warns them away from the vineyard, telling them that years ago some of the scuppernong vines were “goophered” (cursed or hexed…

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Realist Historiography and the Legacies of Reconstruction in Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2016-01-27 20:47Z by Steven

Realist Historiography and the Legacies of Reconstruction in Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition

American Literary Realism
Volume 48, Number 2, Winter 2016
pages 147-165

Peter Zogas

Charles W. Chesnutt had high hopes for his novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901). He thought that his retelling of the 1898 race riot and Democratic coup in Wilmington, N.C., was “by far the best thing I have done,” and he noted in a letter to Booker T. Washington that he thought he “may have ‘arrived’ with this book.” Chesnutt’s optimism extended to the political effects The Marrow of Tradition might have as well. The novel “is not a study in pessimism,” he noted, “for it is the writer’s belief that the forces of progress will in the end prevail, and that in time a remedy may be found for every social ill.” However, it was not the success that Chesnutt had hoped for, and critics, most famously W. D. Howells, objected to its portrayal of race relations punctuated by violence and revolution.

Yet we can consider the significance of Chesnutt’s optimism and desire for progress in relation to Amy Kaplan’s analysis of realism as an encounter with the mechanisms of social change. In The Marrow of Tradition this encounter takes on a decidedly historiographic dimension. The precarious hope presented by the novel’s final line—“There’s time enough, but none to spare!”—references pressing concerns ranging from the restructuring of the local and national political systems to the enfranchisement of freed slaves, threats of racial violence, and the necessity of economic reform (718). In this way, we can read The Marrow of Tradition as intimately engaged with the legacies of Reconstruction and offering a counterpoint to Chesnutt’s more explicit treatment in his later novel The Colonel’s Dream (1905). The progress that Chesnutt anticipates ties his project of realism with the contested status of Reconstruction as a historical concept at the turn of the twentieth century. Chesnutt’s particular employment of realism creates a historiographic project that contests contemporaneously emerging narratives of Reconstruction that would play a determining role in imagining the nation’s progress into the twentieth century.

William A. Dunning and the South’s “cruel dilemma”

The era of Reconstruction was first conceptualized in historical discourse during the late 1880s and 1890s, most systematically through the work of the historian William A. Dunning. As one of a new generation of historians who followed positivistic methodologies, Dunning was deeply involved in establishing history as an academic field in the United States. He was awarded his Ph.D. by Columbia University in 1885, and he expanded his dissertation to be published as Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction in 1898 (a revised edition appeared in 1904). Like many of his peers, Dunning spent time in Berlin studying under the influence of Leopold von Ranke, and beginning in 1886 he served on the faculty of Columbia, where he taught until his death in 1922. During that time Dunning trained an influential generation of graduate students, and many of them completed their doctoral work by writing accounts of Reconstruction efforts in individual states.

Contemporary readers are quick to grasp the racial prejudice at work in the histories of Dunning and his disciples, to the extent that it is easy to lose sight of just how influential such work was throughout much of the twentieth century. It was not until after the Civil Rights era that Dunning’s basic narrative of Reconstruction as a failed project—one anchored in misguided attempts to enfranchise African Americans while simultaneously disenfranchising whites through post-war loyalty oaths—was dismantled in historical studies. But this is not to say that his pronouncements went unchallenged. As early as 1935, W. E. B. Du Bois identified the central thesis in the so-called “Columbia school”: “first, endless sympathy with the white South; second, ridicule, contempt, or silence for the Negro; third, a judicial attitude towards the North, which concludes that the North under great misapprehension did a grievous wrong, but eventually saw its mistake and retreated.” For Du Bois, Dunning’s methods clearly demonstrate the prejudiced political and racial attitudes that determine his analysis. Of Dunning’s explicit vilification of African Americans, Du Bois pointedly asks, “if the negro was admittedly sub-human, what need to waste time delving into…

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Contested Identities: Racial Indeterminacy and Law in the American Novel, 1900-1942

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2016-01-27 03:14Z by Steven

Contested Identities: Racial Indeterminacy and Law in the American Novel, 1900-1942

University of Connecticut
2014-05-08

Rebecca S. Nisetich

In Contested Identities, I chart the path of the legal and literary discourses on racial identity, codified by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision and culturally ascendant in the early decades of the twentieth century. In this period, a group of American writers produced fiction that implicitly challenged this legal and cultural discourse. My project explores the literary productions of Charles W. Chesnutt, Nella Larsen, and William Faulkner—three writers who undermine, question, and critique the legal and social practices that seek to define and contain individual identities in binary terms. Specifically, in Contested Identities I explore why Chesnutt, Larsen, and Faulkner create characters whose identities are not clearly articulated, defined, or knowable, and why they intentionally position these figures in relation to the law.

At the center of each of these texts there remains a void where racial information might be clearly articulated, defined, or corroborated, but isn’t. This enables Chesnutt, Larsen, and Faulkner to underscore an unresolved tension between what must be true and what cannot be known, a dynamic which throws into relief the maddening complexity of human experience in opposition to cut-and-dry legal and popular definitions of “race,” which operate under the assumption that blood proportions are easily known, and that specific blood proportions determine identity. I argue that it is racial indeterminacy that animates these writers’ explorations of identity, and that it is the fundamental theme that binds these characters and texts together. The law treats race as a matter of identity; my dissertation argues that the law is instead a crucial factor in the formation of the racial identity of individual characters.

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Racial Fictions and the Cultural Work of Genre in Charles W. Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-12-29 19:20Z by Steven

Racial Fictions and the Cultural Work of Genre in Charles W. Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars

American Literary Realism
Volume 48, Number 2, Winter 2016
pages 128-146

Melissa Asher Rauterkus, Assistant Professor of English
University of Alabama, Birmingham

I intend to record my impressions of men and things, and such incidents or conversations which take place within my knowledge, with a view to future use in literary work. I shall not record stale negro minstrel jokes, or worn out newspaper squibs on the “man and brother.” I shall leave the realm of fiction, where most of this stuff is manufactured, and come down to hard facts.

Charles W. Chesnutt, 16 March 1880, The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt

Fifteen years of life in the South, in one of the most eventful eras of its history; among a people whose life is rich in the elements of romance; under conditions calculated to stir one’s soul to the very depths;—I think there is here a fund of experience, a supply of material. . . . [I]f I do write, I shall write for a purpose. . . . The object of my writings would be not so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites.

Charles W. Chesnutt, 29 May 1880, Journals of Chesnutt

In a pivotal scene in The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Judge Straight and John Warwick, the formerly black office boy turned white attorney, discuss the legal loopholes that permit his racial passing. Pleased to see his old disciple, but afraid that John’s stay in Patesville will compromise his new identity, Straight reminds John that “custom is stronger than law” and in matters of race “custom is law.” Alluding to the legal technicality that makes John a white man in South Carolina (where race is determined by reputation and social standing) but a black man in North Carolina (where race is defined by fractions of blood), Straight suggests that when it comes to the color line, the cultural fictions we create (as in the one-drop rule) ultimately organize our reality. In many respects, this critical observation sits at the center of the novel’s racial critique, opening up into a broader analysis of the relationship between the fictiveness of race and fiction in a more literal sense. Exploring the subject of racial passing through the lenses of realism and romance, the text issues a complex metaliterary statement that articulates how generic traditions and conventions produce racial identities.

That genre is tangled up in the novel’s deconstruction of race suggests that literary traditions and their conventions can in fact perform important cultural work. In some ways, the novel’s greatest realist achievement is its insistence that popular fiction can be deployed to bring about social and literary change. In the epigraphs that begin this essay, Chesnutt expresses his desire to use fiction as a means to initiate an ethical and moral revolution to eradicate racism. The first passage promises a more realistic approach while the second one highlights the romantic quality of black life, suggesting that it might provide the ideal material for socially conscious fiction; that is, documenting the unbelievably horrific conditions under which most black people suffer may be the single most effective strategy for softening white people’s feelings towards blacks and stamping out racial injustice. In The House Behind the Cedars, Chesnutt combines both perspectives, playing out the story of racial passing along generic lines to demonstrate the power of fiction to alter the social and literary landscape.

In what follows, I offer a metaliterary critique of the novel’s textual complexity, calling specific attention to the racial uses of genre. In a series of close readings, I explore the at times puzzling and seemingly contradictory aspects of a novel whose formal intricacies have not yet been fully acknowledged or evaluated. Focusing on three major developments that stand at the center of the novel’s subtly ironic deconstruction of race—the opening sequence, the tournament, and the fatal conclusion in the swamp—I investigate how Chesnutt and his characters marshal the discourses of realism and romance to manipulate the fictions of race. Accentuating the ways in which they use genre as a tool to reinvent their racial identities, I want to underscore the connections between literary fictions and racial fictions. By working through these connections, I seek to bring into greater relief the generic significance of Chesnutt’s…

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