Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Janet, Polly, and Olivia: Constructs of Blackness and White Femininity in Charles Chesnutt's the Marrow of Tradition

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Janet, Polly, and Olivia: Constructs of Blackness and White Femininity in Charles Chesnutt's the Marrow of Tradition

Article excerpt

A century after the Wilmington, North Carolina, massacre of African Americans in 1898, Charles Chesnutt's superbly-crafted fictional account of the event, The Marrow of Tradition (1901), has finally began to receive the scholarly attention that is its due. Much of the focus has been on the nature of the novel's politics: while for its own time it was so radical as to permanently alienate even Chesnutt's champion, William Dean Howells,(1) in recent years critics have found fault with it for being both accommodationist and classist, while others have defended Chesnutt from these charges or tried to locate him somewhere in between a militant and an assimilationist stance. In particular, most discussions center on Josh Green--an uneducated, militant, yet heroic figure, seeking to avenge his father's murder at the hands of a white man--and the mulatto doctor William Miller as representatives, respectively, of a radical black grassroots response to racial injustice versus a pacifist professional stance. Scholars have argued variously that Green or, more often, Miller embodies Chesnutt's political ideals. While such debates have raised important issues, their androcentricism results in a myopia precluding critical engagement with the novel as a whole. Exceptions include recent analyses which find a less constricting and more fruitful focus in Janet Miller, Dr. Miller's wife, and half-sister of the white Olivia Carteret, as Chesnutt's alter ego or interpret her relationship with Olivia Carteret as the novel's primary trope for American racial politics.(2) My argument further dislocates the androcentric bias of Marrow criticism, not only in focusing on the novel's women characters but in suggesting that it tailors its message to a white female readership in particular.

I argue that in The Marrow of Tradition Chesnutt analyzes and exposes the societal constructions that alienate two marginalized groups from each other: African Americans and white women. Focusing on the politics behind lynching in the post-Reconstruction South, he shows it to be the violent manifestation of a long-standing "divide and conquer" strategy which has its roots in slavery, when it commonly revealed itself in patriarchally induced sexual competition between black and white women. Based on the Wilmington killings of defenseless African Americans on November 10, 1898--a massacre intended to disempower the rising black middle classes and, as it turned out, drive them out of Wilmington--The Marrow of Tradition manipulates certain historical details and employs a melodramatic plot centering on Janet Miller and two white women, Polly Ochiltree and Olivia Carteret, in order to show how intricately the so-called race riot was linked not only to the stereotype of the black rapist but also to the social construction of white femininity in the South--both constructs being motivated by the southern white male's political interest in pitting white women against African Americans.

It is a grim historical reality that in the post-Reconstruction South white men used white women as a pretext to lynch black men. The allegations of rape against black men turned the space of the white woman's body into an apparent battleground between white men and black men. However, it was also an extension of the lust for power which characterized the institution of slavery: for power over the bodies of black women, black men and white women. Minrose Gwin's Black and White Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood in American Literature (1985) shows how the constructs of both black and white femininity served to maintain the status quo: while the black woman's alleged oversexuality became the justification for her sexual exploitation, the ideal of "true womanhood" ensured that the sexuality of the white woman remained firmly in the white man's control. Meanwhile, power over the body of the black man, as of the black woman, manifested itself literally through bondage and physical abuse. …

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