Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Family Matters in the Fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Family Matters in the Fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt

Article excerpt

Writing fiction one hundred years ago, Charles W. Chesnutt believed that America's racial future was best embodied in himself, a mixed-race American. A light-skinned mulatto living on the color line, he argued that racial amalgamation, through passing and miscegenation, would slowly erode the rigid white-black dichotomy of America's caste system. Eventually, he foresaw, America would become one race, as his stories of light-skinned protagonists on the color line seemed to predict. Unfortunately for his literary reputation, this racial prescription for a New America was premature. By the time of his death in 1932, the Harlem Renaissance had celebrated a New Negro who was no light-skinned assimilationist, but one who, like Langston Hughes, stood on the racial mountaintop of a proud, culturally distinct, dark-skinned self.

It is now a century after Chesnutt's first book publications, and America is changing. Racial amalgamation, according to federal statistics, occurs at a more rapid pace than ever before. From 1970 to 1990, marriages between blacks and whites rose from two percent of all marriages to six percent. The number jumped to over twelve percent by 1993 ("With This Ring"). Nearly ten percent of black men marry white women ("Nor Black"). We now have about two million multi-racial children, this number having quadrupled from 1970. By the middle of the twenty-first century, whites will no longer comprise the population majority, and Hispanics will surpass black Americans in number. The "browning of America" also will include, by the year 2020, more than nineteen million Asians and Pacific Islanders (White 32). These demographics point to such a change in racial composition that we might now ask, Did Charles Chesnutt's stories of the color line prophetically hit the mark? In what respects does amalgamation advance, or fail to advance, racial progress? Most importantly for the literary historian, how did Chesnutt's most fundamental racial beliefs contribute to his most critically intelligent fiction?

Chesnutt's core racial beliefs were rooted in his heritage. As a member of both the white and black "races" he saw himself biologically as part of one whole human family. Against his era's virulent, two-fold stigmatizing of mulattoes as biologically unnatural and illegitimate, Chesnutt always perceived the commonality of the human family. The idea came to be, in his fiction, the benchmark by which he formulated social critique.

Throughout his career, the idea of human family was a consistent and continuously articulated assumption, often rendered in popular, democratic tropes such as the brotherhood of man. In his early speech "Self-Made Men," given at age twenty-three to a literary society, he portrayed Frederick Douglass and Horace Greeley as equally self-made men both made in God's image (Essays 33-40). In his published essay "What Is a White Man?", thirty-year-old Chesnutt argued that laws defining America's thousands of racially-mixed persons as Negro rendered white purity an arbitrary construct (68-73). In 1904, now a published author, he put in four simple words of a speech his central message: "Exalt humanity above race." He added, "We have carried the distinction between races so far that it has become wellnigh ludicrous" (200, 201). In a speech delivered in Boston the following year, "Race Prejudice: Its Causes and Cures," Chesnutt articulated most presciently our current view of race as a social construction rather than an essential and transcendent reality. "We scarcely need science," he stated, "to teach us a thing so obvious as the unity of mankind--the brotherhood of man." The whole idea of difference, he argued at great length, was "superficial" rather than "essential" (215). The theme persisted to his acceptance of the 1925 Spingarn Medal when he stated, "We are all one people" (514).

His most central statement of the issue was a serialized essay "The Future American," published in the Boston Evening Transcript in August 1900. …

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