"Chesnutt's Rally for Education"


    While reading Charles Chesnutt's journals I came upon a statement that immediately struck me. The statement is in a letter that Chesnutt wrote to George Washington Cable on February 22, 1889. The line reads:

    I think that there is a good deal of latent talent, literary and otherwise, among the colored people of this country, which needs only a decent degree of encouragement and recognition to stimulate it to activity.
 

    Upon reading this sentence I immediately underlined it in my text. I took this statement to be Chesnutt's belief that with motivation, or more precisely, with motivation to be educated African Americans will be taking their first steps towards equality. This sentiment is expounded on in many of Chesnutt's essays, particularly in "The Future of the Negro." Throughout all of Chesnutt's early essays, and letters to Cable the overwhelming theme of the pieces seems to be Chesnutt's insistence on education. "The blessings of freedom and education are within our reach, and we may well rejoice in their possession" (The Future of the Negro, 28).

    Chesnutt believes that the first and most important step towards equality for African Americans begins with education. Although, he is aware that there is still a lot that must be done about white beliefs in this country, ultimately he believes that with education African Americans will not only make political and social advances, but that these advances will lead to a change in white public opinion. Chesnutt speaks about southern white hostility in his letters to Cable. In May of 1889 he states:

    I see from papers that the chapter of Southern outrages is not yet complete, but the work of intimidating voters and killing prominent Negroes on trumped-up charges (the true character of which is not discovered until after the killing) still goes merrily on (Letters, 40).

    Four months later in another letter to Cable Chesnutt says:

    Recent events do not show, however, that the southern whites have learned much; they certainly have not forgotten how to insult and oppress the negro, and they still possess their old-time facility with the shot-gun and the cowhide. I see no remedy for the disease but for the colored people to learn to defend themselves (Letters, 44).

    This is not Chesnutt promoting violence, he never in any of the letters condones or advocates violence in any way. Chesnutt believes the most effective defense against prejudice and injustice is education.

    In "The Future of the Negro" Chesnutt is emphatic about his insistence on education. "I have said that the people who have the education, the intelligence, the money, the will are bound to rule. Then in order for us to rule, or to be among the rulers, we must have intelligence, the education, the money and the will" (29). "The will" is also a key part in his equation, but education is where Chesnutt places most of his hope for the future. "I have spoken of the importance of education. It is first in order, if not first in importance. . . . We must not only be educated in books. We must be educated in character" (The Future of the Negro, 30). According to Chesnutt, education will lead the "negro" to an equal future. Education will lead to money, which leads to power, which leads to being a part of the "ruling" class.

    A key part of the education also lies in the "education of character." In a speech that Chesnutt gave in 1881 he outlines steps of etiquette for his listeners. Chesnutt whole-heartedly believes that being clean and proper goes a very long way. This is what he means when he speaks about being educated in character. Chesnutt wants the "negro" to dress as well as their means can afford them, to be meticulously clean, and to act like "proper" gentlemen and ladies. The presentation of oneself in this manner accompanied with formal education, according to Chesnutt, will make social equality more attainable. Chesnutt wants the "negro" to take pride in themselves and even more pride in being "Self-Made Men."

    Another key part of Chesnutt's belief in education is the fact that he believes the "negro" does not know how to "maintain" his/her rights. ". . . ignorance is the rock that we shall always split on, until we have the rock blasted away" (The Future of the Negro, 27). Education will not only give the "negro" intelligence, but it will teach the "negro" not only how to make money but how to "save and invest money." Education will take the "negro" "beyond this narrow earth."
 

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.

This Page is the work of Erin Fadden.

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