Charles Chesnutt's "The Dumb Witness" and the Culture of Segregation

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In 1897, when Charles Chesnutt composed "The Dumb Witness," he was returning to the literary form--his conjure tales"--that had won him his earliest successes. That literary return was likely bittersweet for Chesnutt, because while it led directly to the publication of his first book--The Conjure Woman--it also meant working again in a genre about which Chesnutt felt ambivalent. In 1889, after publishing the first four conjure tales, he was already expressing his impatience with this form: "I think I have about used up the old Negro who serves as mouthpiece, and I shall drop him in future stories, as well as much of the dialect" ("To Be an Author" 44-45). Chesnutt's discomfort came, no doubt, from the support that the dialect story gave, in Richard Brodhead's succinct phrasing, to the "preferred fictions of racial life" operating in the postbellum United States (Cultures 210). (1) Most closely associated with the tremendously popular work of Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page, this genre depended on the representation of a seemingly "authentic" African American voice. Speaking a stylized literary form of black dialect, characters like Harris's Uncle Remus and Page's Sam were ex-slaves who ventriloquized a sense of nostalgic longing for the antebellum South. Chesnutt's conjure tales resisted these cultural implications, even as they worked within the same conventions. Nonetheless, Chesnutt was concerned with a growing tendency to limit representations of African American identities to this single image: he complained to George Washington Cable in 1890 that the "chief virtues" of all African American characters appearing in recent popular fiction was their "dog-like fidelity and devotion to their old masters" ("To Be an Author" 65). Indeed, the two elements of his conjure tales that Chesnutt seemed most eager to abandon--the "old Negro who serves as mouthpiece" and the "dialect" in which he speaks--were those perhaps most closely associated with this growing plantation mythology, which worked to fix notions of African American identity in the stereotypical figure of the ex-slave.

In the 10 years between the publication of "The Goophered Grapevine," Chesnutt's first conjure tale, and the composition of "The Dumb Witness," the development of segregation culture had even more firmly cemented the popular notions of black and white identities in the United States. Yet if Chesnutt returned, in the late 1890s, to the type of tale written by Harris and Page, he did so in a way that continued to resist the essentialization of racialized identities in which the stories of Harris and Page participated. Chesnutt was, as Henry B. Wonham has recently remarked, a "writer suspicious of race consciousness in any form" (830). Arguing that "race integrity" was "a modern invention of the white people to perpetuate the color line" ("Race Prejudice" 91), Chesnutt demonstrates a skepticism about categories of racial classification that makes him a precursor of contemporary thinkers, such as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who understand the concept of race as a "fiction," a "dangerous trope" (Introduction 4, 5). (2) The logic of segregation rests on the belief that the social world can be neatly divided into separate identities, and with the writing of "The Dumb Witness," we want to argue, Chesnutt finds a literary strategy for undermining this logic. Recognizing that what underpins segregation culture is a desire to construct clearly demarcated identities, the story, with its incessant interrogation of the witnessing of vision and the dumbness of speech, subverts the notion that identity can be fixed.

The Jim Crow segregation period was a crucial moment in the construction of modern US conceptions of racial "difference." The last decades of the nineteenth century saw an increased emphasis on stereotypical representations of African Americans in literature and popular culture and on (pseudo)scientific, biological theories of race. …