In the Advancement of the Colored People

"The Color People will advance," wrote Chesnutt in his journal entry dated, April 79, and continued his ‘I have a Dream’ speech as follows:

They have obstacles to encounter, but they will overcome them; they have a work to accomplish, and they will achieve it!… I believe that the American People will recognize worth [,] ability or talent, wherever it shows itself, and that as the colored people, as a class, show themselves worthy of respect and recognition, the old prejudice will vanish, or wear away, and the Colored Man in America will be considered, not as a separate race, not as a stranger and a pariah, but as a friend and brother; that he may become a strong pillar in the Temple of American Liberty, and be "bone of one bone, flesh of one flesh" with the New American Nation! (Chesnutt, 108)

However, in order to make his vision a reality, Chesnutt dedicated his life to solving the Race Problem of the Nation. What is the Race Problem? In his letters, Chesnutt defines the Negro problem as "a continuing problem which assumes some new stage every now and then, and will probably continue to vex us as long as the Negro in this country exists in the public consciousness as something distinct from the ordinary citizen, and whose rights, privileges and opportunities are to be measured by some different standard from that applied to the rest of the community" (letter to Robert Anderson, September 18, 1904). Later, Chesnutt wrote speeches and essays expanding on the issues of the Negro Question: "how shall American public opinion be brought around to the point where it will grant to people of Negro descent, the rights and immunities which are secured to them by the Constitution of the United States?" which he briefly touched upon in his letters (letter to Robert Anderson, September 18, 1904). In fact, towards the end of his speech-giving and essay-writing career, Chesnutt proposed a solution to the long lasting problem of Black people’s place in this country.

The Race Problem was not a new one. "It began with the introduction of the first black slave into the British Colonies of North America," and ever since, the Negro slavery firmly empowered this nation that was founded on liberty, justice and equality to all its citizens ("The Race Problem," 196). In the South, "the devotion to the maintenance of slavery," was replaced by the white people’s "schemes to prevent the rise of the Negro" and it was the place where "race was made a fetish. The whole fabric of society was regulated by it" ("The Race Problem," 198, 201). While the North, "permitted slavery to grow until it threatened nation unity" it again procrastinated by allowing the legal degradation of a race to occur ("The Race Problem," 197). In general, the following prejudice ideas were drilled into the people: "white race was ordained to overrun and rule the whole earth; "churches and politicians preached, "the gospel of human degradation and justify it by the necessity of preserving the white race to the world;" and some denied it by claiming, "the Southern whites are the best friends of Negro" while others assured education would "remedy the existing evils" in due time ("The Race Problem," 198). As a result, people "hating one another merely because they are different and seeking one another’s blood" was clearly a barbaric attitude when attempting to preserve and protect the purity of one’s race ("The Race Problem," 199). Recognizing that the race problem is one, which is "easily susceptible of inadequate treatment," Chesnutt’s writings discussed and illustrated his solution to the extremely lasting controversial Race Problem that were written for the advancement of the Colored People in the Post-Civil War Society of America (199).

Chesnutt’s view on race was that it did not have "any logical or scientific ground, [and] as a fact it is extremely important [when speaking] of superior and inferior races, [that we] measure their relative capacity by their contributions to human learning or human progress," and if a group was found to be lagging behind because of different conditions "in the march of civilization, we call[ed] it an inferior race" ("Race Prejudice," 215). In fact, race struggle was the law of life; the struggle being the deep-seated prejudice against the black race. The black race comprised of the poorest, most illiterate, the lowest social class that was least advanced in the social organization and efficiency, and those not equally developed as white men’s minds. The fact that physical and mental equality of races existed was irrelevant against history that showed one race always forged ahead in the race of civilization and another always lagged behind, in the rear. ("Race Ideals and Examples," 334)

As a result, Chesnutt called for the necessity of fundamental and eternal ideals of conduct like virtue and the establishment of other race ideals. Specifically, falling back on the Christian cardinal virtues (Justice, Prudence, Temperance, Courage and Fortitude); the ten Commandments—Faith, Hope, and Charity (Altruism)—the elementary ideals of civilized society; and the noble traits of character, meekness and humility, which aimed to cultivate race pride and actually meant to instill race self-respect ("Race Ideals and Examples," 332). In addition to the Christian virtues, Chesnutt suggested to "make it an ideal to do the most worthy thing of which you are capable" since society was very conservative during their time (335). In addition, the demonstration of a race’s achievements (a two-fold nature) required the effort of the mass and of the individual, along with the demonstration of social efficiency and racial capacity of the people. As a mass, it was impossible to demonstrate anything in their present stance in society, but as individuals, it was possible to show the nation and the people the racial quality and racial equality via individual achievement (336). Bearing in mind that races were judged by their great men, "the field of individual, personal, intellectual effort that the greatest opportunity of the Negro for the immediate future lies" (337). Though the U.S. nation was improving as an ideal environment in being the powerful factor of development for the Negroes in America, the main purpose of the ideals was: through "the formation of right ideals for yourselves and their realization in your individual lives to their realization for your race" (337 & 345).

In addition to his race ideals, Chesnutt also addressed the issue of race prejudice in his writings, particularly in his essays and speeches. He begins by providing the causes of such hatred that was not "free from the influence of ancestral tradition and current opinion" ("Race Problem," 198). Historically, differences in skin color went back to one’s ancestral heritage or country of origin, where a spectrum of factors existed –from differences in climate, to the influence of different religions and forms of government—all have reacted upon the mental and physical character of people ("Race Prejudice," 216). Nevertheless, prejudice "grew out of an accumulation of differences, anyone of which, alone, was sufficient to create a certain antagonism" ("Race Prejudice," 218). Furthermore, the combinations of antagonisms that prejudice deliberately designed to stimulate for political purposeful gains, and the reason why progress has failed to decrease is because of the people not overcoming the dead weight of preconceived opinions. In simple terms, it was progress versus the conservatism of the society and its nation.

However, according to Chesnutt, if the element of racial prejudice were eternally eradicated from our national life, there would be an end to the race problem instantaneously ("Race Prejudice," 216). He continued to point out that the remedy lied "in the removal of antagonisms by the removal of these causes which gave rise to" race prejudices and "the steadfast exclusion of all theory of race discrimination" ("Race Prejudice," 219 & "A Solution for the Race Problem," 391). He proposes several possible solutions starting with the obliterating the color line and race differences through "Emancipation, Education, identical justice, perfect equality in the Law Courts and of the Constitution…[to] take away the sting of race difference, and if there is race inferiority, it is not burdened by its artificial handicap" ("A Solution for the Race Problem," 392). All such and materialized progress has been made: by ignoring the obvious; by refusing to accept as conclusive the differences and the disabilities; by believing in the identities, the flashes of response and promise; and by willing that there should be light where there seemed to be no light and "the vast transplantation of slavery, the intercourse of white and black, have, in fact, brought advance in humanity to the colored people" ("A Solution for the Race Problem," 392). Also, to further advance towards health in a mixed community can only be looked by adherence to the attitude, by the personal recognition and consciousness of equality (392). Not to mention, the fact that it would be a sin to advocate the antithesis, (i.e. its inequality), and by ignoring the misconception that the color line is equivalent to a rational line, the more the "race virus attenuated" (392). Most of all, Chesnutt argued that it was not possible to justify a generalization that there is any political or human function for which colored persons are by their African blood, disqualified (392).

Chesnutt further illustrated the possible future for the American colored people through the example of Jamaica’s simplest "for Englishmen" tactic –via English administration and by English reticence("A Solution for the Race Problem," 393). Meaning, the English trained the Black men to police other Black men; organized a sound civil service by educating the Negroes and avoided any potential trouble by not telling "another man you are his superior, [but showing] superiority by good deeds and by few boasts…" (393). He also briefly mentioned the Brazilian’s "absorbing of the Negroes" racial cure technique. Studying those two successful methods, Chesnutt’s solution for the American color difficulties was "by resolutely turning the back to the color-line and race differentiation theory" (393). Thus, Chesnutt’s goal advocated: when the mix of three constituent races of the population, the white, Indian, and Negro, with the resultant of a race at least so homogeneous that it will obliterate the ‘race feeling, friction and animosity’ currently dominating this country (395). After re-evaluating other methods of resolving the Race Problem, Chesnutt found his previous ideas of education and increased wealth for the advancement of the Black population contradicted his goal by introducing a new type of race friction.

In summary, the problem in the United States boiled down to the "presence of the Negro" and the complaint was that the Black people failed to "get equal opportunity to get as much as the others." Therefore, Chesnutt’s proposed his ultimate –the simplest and easiest—solution: giving Negroes Equal Rights. However, the Negroes needed to do their part, too, in order to ensure equal rights and equal opportunities to all men by the use of the intellectual, political, industrial, and spiritual powers latent in the people. By doing so, the colored people, consequently, render it impossible for the white people ‘to deny them equal rights and opportunities any longer’ ("A Solution for the Race Problem," 400). The only way they will accomplish this is by making use of every educational, industrial, and professional opportunity and by the cultivation of a sound morality. Once freedom and opportunity are safely secured, equality of capacity and of achievement will closely follow in due time (400). In short, the lighter race ultimately still maintains their race superiority, purity, and prestige while simultaneously granting perfect civil and social equality to the darker race (398).


Letters are quoted from: Joseph McElrath, ed. To be an author: The letters of Charles Chesnutt, 1889-1905. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Essays are quoted from: Joseph McElrath, ed. Charles Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Journal entries are quoted from: Richard H. Brodhead. The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.

This page is the work of Rashmi Chidanand.

Read more about Chesnutt's Essays, Letters, and Journals.
Return to Chesnutt Library Web Home Page.
About the Chesnutt Literary Web.