Birth in the Briar Patch: Charles W. Chesnutt and the Problem of Racial Identity

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-03-12 18:48Z by Steven

Birth in the Briar Patch: Charles W. Chesnutt and the Problem of Racial Identity

The Southern Literary Journal
Volume 41, Number 2, Spring 2009
pages 1-20
DOI: 10.1353/slj.0.0040

Daniel Worden, Assistant Professor of English
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

In his speech “The Courts and the Negro,” written around 1908, Charles W. Chesnutt faults the American government’s geographic location for the limits and widespread denials of the Fourteenth Amendment’s power. The government’s central location in Washington, D.C. perpetuated racism, Chesnutt argued, for “inevitably the administration, the courts, the whole machinery of government takes its tone from its environment” (Charles 896). This racism, present within the “clubs and parlors” of the South, feeds the “attitudes of presidents and congressmen and judges toward the Negro,” and therefore, “to men living in a community where service and courtesy in public places is in large measure denied the Negro, there seems to be no particular enormity in separate car laws” (897). Chesnutt goes on to reference the U. S. Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which ruled in favor of Louisiana’s segregated railroad cars: “And under Plessy v. Ferguson, there is no reason why any Northern State may not reproduce in its own borders the conditions in Alabama and Georgia. And it may be that the Negro and his friends will have to exert themselves to save his rights in the North (903). The federal government’s southern context, then, both defers any institutional remedy to America’s racism and produces racism through association…

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