Witnessing Charles Chesnutt: The Contexts of “The Dumb Witness”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2013-12-18 14:43Z by Steven

Witnessing Charles Chesnutt: The Contexts of “The Dumb Witness”

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Volume 38, Issue 4 (December 2013)
pages 103-121
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlt045

Benjamin S. Lawson
Florida State University

The silence and silencing of the character Viney in Charles Chesnutt’s short story, “The Dumb Witness” (c. 1897), artfully addresses the issue of exploitation related to race, gender, and slavery. Viney has no voice, no speaking, and no say-so; however, she employs this voicelessness for her own subversive ends. The story’s technique of embedded narratives problematizes issues of identity and consequent uses of power. Who is exploiting whom? Chesnutt’s narrator is a sympathetic white outsider who gains knowledge of the rural South by quizzing a slave, Uncle Julius. Yet Uncle Julius solidifies his own status by being a story-telling virtuoso who knows and narrates the tale of the mixed-race Viney and her cruel master. The suggestiveness of this theme expands beyond the story’s borders, for scholars have posited that Chesnutt himself was a black voice censored and exploited by his white publisher. Or was Chesnutt actually using his publisher to promote his own reputation? Decades later, African American studies appropriated Chesnutt as a primarily black rather than Southern writer. Mainstream and African American academic institutions and publishers promote him variously to express their own perspectives. We as readers continue to dictate the parameters of his realities—to manipulate his voice—as we use him for our own academic and political purposes. We forget that Chesnutt himself was immensely complex and conflicted as an Ohio-born and mostly-white man. Just as we witness Charles Chesnutt, he witnesses us: he interrogates our motives.

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