Chesnutt's Reconstruction of Race and Dialect
CHESNUTT IS A FASCINATING FIGURE WITH WHOM to begin a reconsideration of racialized voice, to begin thinking through race as a way of reading American culture and constructing authorial ethos. In the first place, his literary career nearly spans the historical period surveyed in this book, although he was more active from the 1880s through the early 1900s and produced fewer writings during and after the Harlem Renaissance. His better-known writings began appearing in 1887, when the Atlantic Monthly published “The Goophered Grapevine, ” the first serial installment of Chesnutt's conjure tales. These better-known writings end with The Colonel's Dream in 1905.
In the second place, Chesnutt was recognized by many, W. E. B. Du Bois among them, as the father of the Harlem literary movement. Most engaging are the ways in which Chesnutt's life and writings question America's race binary. Indeed, revisiting Chesnutt's thinking could significantly inform current biracial or multiracial student writers' existential and social struggles with constructing their authorial identities along the axis of black and white. Similarly, teachers of writing could begin formulating composition theory and pedagogy, based on a critical reading of Chesnutt, which is more sensitive to the needs of our racially mixed students.
To all appearances white, Chesnutt accepted the title of “Negro writer.” In a brief article for the Crisis, shortly after Chesnutt's death, Du Bois wrote,