Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Chesnutt's Identity and the Color Line

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Chesnutt's Identity and the Color Line

Article excerpt

Crossing the color line by passing for white has long been a way for near-white African Americans to achieve social and economic well-being. This was particularly true during Reconstruction and at the turn of the century. To escape the many restrictions resulting from laws curtailing and eventually denying black people rights and freedom of movement, marly fair-skinned blacks engaged in a sort of racial migration by crossing the color line and identifying with whites. The Black Codes of 1865 and 1866, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (rescinded by the United States Supreme Court in 1883), and the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, which institutionalized segregation, practically re-enslaved African Americans. Additionally, at the turn of the century, African Americans in the South lost all political power including the right to vote as each southern state enacted some form of restriction on the ballot which led to disfranchisement. Life for blacks became even more miserable because of the destructive activities of the Ku Klux Klan, lynch mobs, and other hate groups. Confronted with these circumstances, some African Americans saw passing as an escape from a life of misery and degradation and as a viable route to success.

Crossing the color line, then, is an accepted reality in many American families and a common theme in American literature. The subject informs the "tragic mulatto" theme found in the fiction of late nineteenth-century authors such as William Wells Brown, Albion Tourgee, and George Washington Cable and early twentieth-century writers such as James Weldon Johnson and Nella Larsen. (1) In like manner, Charles W. Chesnutt, an African-American writer who published three novels and two collections of short fiction, was fascinated by the subject of passing; however, he never crossed the color line permanently himself, nor did he create characters who bemoaned the fate of their black blood. During his lifetime, Chesnutt published the novels The House Behind the Cedars, The Marrow of Tradition, and The Colonel's Dream and short fiction collections The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line. Why Chesnutt did not cross the color line and pass for white has been a subject of interest among Chesnutt scholars. While this essay does not promise definitive answers, it attempts to provide some reasons why Chesnutt did not yield to the temptation of racial migration, even though he successfully passed for white on more than one occasion: "Twice to-day, or oftener I have been taken for 'white.' At the pond this morning one fellow said 'he'd be damned' if there was any nigger blood in me. At Colemans [store] I passed. On the road, an old chap took me for a [white] student coming from school. I believe I'll leave here and pass anyhow, for I am as white as any of them" (Journals 78).

Although Chesnutt crossed the color line at the age of seventeen and pronounced that he would eventually pass for white, he did not follow through. Historian John Blassingame notes that "from 100 to 500 Negroes became 'white' every year from 1875 [the year of Chesnutt's experiment] to the 1890s" in Louisiana alone (201; see also Williamson 98). Not only did Chesnutt not pursue such racial migration, but three years after his experiment he solidified his loyalty to the African-American race by marrying Susan Perry, a brown-skinned woman who could not have passed for white even if she had wanted to. When Chesnutt left Fayetteville in 1883, he did not leave with the intention of passing for white. Rather, he left with the intention of finding a better life for himself and his family and of dedicating his service to civil rights:

    I will go to the North, where, although the prejudice sticks like a
   foul blot on the fair scutcheon of American liberty, yet a man may
   enjoy these privileges if he has the money to pay for them. I will
   live down the prejudice, I will crush it out.... If I can exalt my
   race, if I can gain the applause of the good, and approbation of
   God, the thoughts of the ignorant and prejudiced will not concern
   me. … 
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