The Daily Bath, the Nails, the Negro, and the Self:
Humanity In Chesnutt’s Personal Writings

     An author’s understanding of his own self as an author, his ability to employ
technique and follow literary form, plays an important role in how he crafts a story.
After reading Chesnutt’s journals, letters, essays, and speeches it seems a less natural
move to refer to any whole notion of a Charles Chesnutt, author.  For, a self never
emerges clearly from Chesnutt’s writings.  Rather these writings disguise the notion of
authorship, and in doing so confuse Chesnutt’s position as author.  What emerges most
clearly from Chesnutt’s personal writings is a distinct, regulating notion of humanity.  It
is around the signpost of humanity that Chesnutt positions himself in relation to both his
commentary on southern race relations, in particular the "progress" of African
Americans, and to his own sense of his self.  Understanding how Chesnutt positions
himself in letters to Booker T. Washington, in journal entries which mention a fleeting
romantic interest in the same breadth with key historical events, and in essays that
address the paradigmatic self-expression of American democracy, the vote, is crucial to
a serious discussion centering on Chesnutt.
     In his essays of social and political commentary Chesnutt never speaks from the
point of view of a black American.  In "Liberty and the Franchise" Chesnutt introduces
the rhetoric of humanity in order to argue against what he sees as a regression in
Northern attitudes towards racial equality:

Some thirty-odd years after a great civil war was fought in this country, the only
constructive result of which... was the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of
the colored people...  Of late years, however, the zeal of the Northern people for
humanity as embodied in the colored people of the South has apparently
cooled.(McElrath, Essays 101).

Chesnutt’s historical framework sets up a relationship of African-American reliance on
Northern humanitarianism.  His choice, conscious or not, to focus on the concessions of
a white American political system, rather than, for example, the slave culture or the
culture of struggle during the period of chattel slavery opens a question about how
Chesnutt legitimates the foundation of his argument.  Although Chesnutt appears to be
speaking on behalf of an entire race he is more directly speaking to an idea of
"humanity as embodied in the colored people".  Further on in the essay Chesnutt
seems to adopt the mental framework that he has set up for the Northerner in
assessing the position of African-Americans.

A people, like a horse in a race, should be judged by its handicap.  That the colored
race in this country has made wonderful progress, creditable alike to itself and to
humanity , no unprejudiced person would deny.(McElrath, Essays 103)

Here again Chesnutt is neither white man nor black, Northerner or Southerner.   Rather
than refer to the fact of his own blackness, Chesnutt invokes the names of previous
humanitarians from the North, "Garrison, Phillips, Sumner, Lincoln, Seward,
Greeley..."(McElrath, Essays 102), to legitimate his own position.  And, for Chesnutt,
Afro-American history begins with an event that has taken place hundreds of years
after the arrival of the first Africans to this side of the Atlantic.
 Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee machine was "the organized center of
communications within the national African-American community"(McElrath 168;notes).
Washington’s philosophy of industrial education for African Americans was designed to
deliver a well-trained work force to the nation’s businesses.  But, according to Chesnutt,
alongside this program for economic deliverance was a forum of intellectual
engagement for Black elites.  In "A Visit to Tuskegee" he writes:

[Tuskegee] has furnished them a center of thought, of interest, of communication, of
light: a place where they can come once a year, meet in friendly intercourse, and
exchange views and experiences...(McElrath, Essays 151).

The point here is that for Chesnutt the elements of humanity, communication, interest,
light, fleshed out further in his journal, replace in importance the political and economic
realities of Tuskegee-- that it endorsed segregation wholeheartedly and sought to
accommodate the emerging industrialists at every turn.  Writing to his daughter:

I have sent Mr. Washington a copy of [The Marrow of Tradition] and I shall hope for the
Tuskegee influence in promoting the publicity of the book-- unless the southerners
should look into it so severely as to make it prudent for them to remain discreetly
silent.(McElrath 164)

Chesnutt’s model for success as an author is based on the notion of political patronage
put forward by Washington.  And, Chesnutt’s emphasis on prudence and discretion
point towards the idea of humanity developed in his journal.
A literary journal is an immediate expression of self-ownership which, for Chesnutt,
stands alongside a carefully cultivated view of himself as a human being, more
importantly as a man, and as an immediate example of humanity).  The notion of self
ownership is crucial to a discussion of Chesnutt’s personal writings and political and
social commentary because the issue that most seems to concern Chesnutt is African
American enfranchisement.  In the American system of democracy, it can be said that
the vote is the single most important form of self-expression.  In arguing for the right to
vote for African-Americans, Chesnutt’s arguments are based on a concept of the self
that comes out of his idea of humanity, rather than out of his a racial or class identity.
In "Liberty and the Franchise" Chesnutt seemed to alienate himself from the matter of
race by tying his arguments together around an idea of humanity.  In Chesnutt’s third
Journal, his self-positioning, in terms of his race and his own selfhood is further fleshed
out.  In a moment of reflection on studies left unaccomplished Chesnutt writes:

...such is poor human nature.  If all the men who have a high ideal could reach it,
the world would be full of scholars and saints.  I have the greatest desire to become
good-- to become a man in the highest sense of the word.  I recognize the fact that my
profession requires it of me; but with all my efforts I can only partially, very imperfectly
succeed.

In addressing the problems facing African-Americans Chesnutt needs to refer to
"colored people" indirectly, through humanity.  For Chesnutt, the African American vote
is equivalent to the formation of a new idea of selfhood for the race as a whole.  In
order to become Americans, freed slaves must be granted a self, through the vote.  The
selection from Chesnutt’s journal indicates a more intimate relationship with the idea of
humanity.  Here, becoming entrenched in Chesnutt’s own humanity is apolitical.
Despite the rhetoric of democracy so apparent in Chesnutt’s political and social
commentary, the journal neglects Chesnutt’s own position as a voting member.  Is
Chesnutt blind to the fact of his own political self-hood, his democratic privilege?
 For Chesnutt, the journal is the keeper of an apolitical, human self.  The journal
"listens patiently as long as I care to talk, never contradicts my statements, and keeps
my secrets religiously...  like my valet(if I had one) [it] will know all my
weaknesses..."(Brodhead 157).  The subject of the journal is of course Chesnutt’s self,
his "I".  But there is a difference between the sense of self that Chesnutt tries to convey
and the sense of self that a reader of the journal finds.  He writes:

I mean to be as egotistical as I please in my Journal... I have my share of self-
consciousness-- that morbid sensibility and extreme susceptibility which is called by
that name-- but I cannot unmake myself.  I can keep it down but the leopard cannot
change his spots, or the Ethiopian his skin.(Brodhead 158)

For Chesnutt, the self is the authorial self.  And, in his case a self infused with a specific
concept of humanity.
 
 

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 David Frank

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