Academic journal article African American Review

Neither Fish, Flesh, nor Fowl: Race and Region in the Writings of Charles W. Chesnutt

Academic journal article African American Review

Neither Fish, Flesh, nor Fowl: Race and Region in the Writings of Charles W. Chesnutt

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court's decision in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case is notorious for having sewn racial segregation into the fabric of American society. One of the decision's less obvious results was that it gave official sanction to the "one-drop" rule. That is, the Plessy ruling held that individual states could decide whether and how to classify citizens by race, and states which were so inclined could assert that any person with one black ancestor counted as black and was therefore subject to second-class citizenship. At its root, the Plessy decision was concerned with racial "purity"; between the Emancipation and 1896 the legal hierarchy that had elevated masters over slaves during slavery had been obliterated, and the "composite" race and attendant worries about "invisible blackness" threatened the South's de facto caste system, which elevated whites over blacks. The supremacist Plessy holding put mixed-race citizens back "in their place." Though biracial identity had long been used by whites and blacks a like as the basis for local discriminations, Plessy defined for the nation a way of conceiving race that has persisted to this day.

Ironically, the Plessy legacy has, up to now, affected the ways in which we have read and interpreted African American literature. In spite of our awareness of its absurdity, the one-drop rule has saturated our readings of African American authors and has contributed a nagging a historical quality to the project. In other words, we have been reading turn-of-the-century African American texts as if "race" has always been defined as it was by the justices who defined whiteness as inherently different and separate from blackness when they ruled on Plessy. The Court's dichotomizing move might be explained by Abdul R. JanMohamed, who has argued that "colonialist fiction is generated predominantly by the ideological machinery of the manichean allegory" (JanMohamed 102), the impermeable dichotomy between blackness and whiteness which spawns the racial stereotypes that make possible ideologies like "separate but equal." Recent post-colonial theoretical formulations can help us consider what biracial identity meant t o the culture upon which the Plessy verdict was leveled; indeed, it is clear that we must re-examine racial classification as a problem to which turn-of-the-century authors, like Charles Chesnutt, were responding.

Virtually all of Chesnutt's works involve characters of mixed racial ancestry. While he was by no means the only author of his day to speculate on biracial existence, Chesnutt's ethnographic profiles of biracial communities invite us to consider the mixed-race character in an original light, as a new term in the discussion of African American literature. Previous interpretations of Chesnutt's work have largely misread the significance of his mixed-race characters, either by ignoring their existence--i.e., perceiving them as black--or by classifying Chesnutt's use of them as consistent with the "tragic mulatta" genre so popular in the late nineteenth century. Earlier readings of Chesnutt's most widely anthologized short story, "The Wife of His Youth," have been inclined to consider the Groveland Blue Veins--Chesnutt's term or the Cleveland mixed-race socialites--not as a third race but as a group of upwardly mobile blacks who choose at the end to accept their black cultural heritage. This is an understandable tactic, given the dramatic and pervasive effect the onedrop rule has had on American race thinking. But when one considers the history of mixed-race peoples in America, "The Wife of His Youth" can be read more importantly as an allegory for the changing relationship between blacks and mixed-race peoples and between the free born and the freedmen during and after Reconstruction. Chesnutt's mixed society functions as a metaphor for the rejection of a two-race culture; as such, it also indicts segregation's color-coded "placing."

Two readings in particular illustrate the ways in which the significance of mixed race has been overlooked in "The Wife of His Youth. …

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