The Contradiction of Chesnutt

    Charles W. Chesnutt may be considered one of the first civil rights activists of the 20th century. He used short stories and novels as a medium to give whites a different perception of Blacks. By using interesting characters, Chesnutt gave readers various points of view that they could possibly relate to, while also uplifting the Black race. Yet, Chesnutt was also a man of various contradictions. In his book of letters, To be an author: Charles Chesnutt, 1889-1905, Chesnutt is portrayed as being anti-oppression. This feeling is shown particularly in the letter sequence, referring to the book The AmericanNegro by William Hannibal Thomas. This book which was dedicated to the stereotyping of Blacks angers Chesnutt, and his letters show him acting on getting the books off shelves. Yet, Chesnutt’s actions are contradicted in his fiction The House Behind the Cedars. Ironically, the same stereotypes that Chesnutt dismisses in his letters are evident in his own writing. Most importantly, the female characters that he portrays are not shown in an entirely positive light. To be against oppression, one must be against all of its vices including sexism. Therefore, Chesnutt is no different from the whites in that he objectifies women to maintain his own superiority.

    In a series of letters dated from April 6, 1901 to June 8, 1904, Charles Chesnutt addresses various letters to publisher The Macmillan Co. about the book The American Negro. The author William Hannibal Thomas describes "proven" characteristics of Blacks. Thomas invents information and uses it as fact, which upsets many Blacks. Chesnutt is outraged by the book’s description of Black relationships, which are portrayed as being dysfunctional. Chesnutt then takes it upon himself to do research on the author to see how credible he is. He receives a letter stating his interest in Thomas and background information. "Dr. Booker T. Washington has forwarded me a copy of a letter from you in which you ask for information concerning one William Hannibal Thomas, the author of the libelous book called The American Negro" (letter from Western Theological Seminary, May 27, 1904). Chesnutt realized the disastrous effect of this book if it was to have mass circulation; therefore he pledged to combat its influence:
 

Whatever the outcome may be, I am only one of many

who are determined that Mr. William Hannibal Thomas

shall have nothing more out of this book than his royalties,

and that its dangerous influence shall be counteracted as far

as may be. (letter to the Macmillan Co., April 26, 1901)

With quotes such as "most Negro women marry young; when they do not, their spinsterhood is due either to physical disease, or sexual morbidity, or a desire for unrestrained sexual freedom" (letter to the Macmillan Co. April 20, 1901). Chesnutt recognizes the danger of the book to the Black race but not necessarily to women.

    Though Chesnutt recognized the harm of such a quote to the Black race, he incorporates a similar theme in his book The House Behind the Cedars. Molly Walden, the mother of John and Rena becomes the mistress of a white man (before her full adulthood) who takes care of her and her family:

A gentleman drove by one day, stopped at the well, smiled

upon the girl, and said kind words. He came again, more

than once, and soon, while scarcely more than a child in years,

Molly was living in her own house, hers by deed of gift, for

her protector was rich and liberal. Her mother nevermore knew want"

(Chesnutt, 105)

The reader is then lead to question why Chesnutt was upset about Thomas’ quote on Black women being spinsters, when he in fact has one of his few female characters portray a "kept woman". Yet, Chesnutt tries to diminish this negative aspect by showing that Molly goes to this extent to find a means for herself and her family to survive.

    The only other female character in The House Behind the Cedars is Rena who is depicted as a beautiful object, yet she shows no depth. She is described numerous times as having a voice that was "soft and sweet and clear- quite in harmony with her appearance" and "her hair was long and smooth and glossy, with a wave like the ripple of summer breeze upon the surface of still water" (Chesnutt, pages 6 and 14). Rena is also vain, she knows she is beautiful and loves compliments:

The girl was beaming with gratified vanity. What woman

would not find such praise sweet from almost any source,

and how much more so from this great man, who, from his

exalted station in the world, must surely know the things

whereof he spoke! She believed every word of it; she knew it

very well indeed, but wished to hear it repeated and itemized

and emphasized. (Chesnutt,14)

Despite being beautiful, Rena is known to not be the most intelligent. Her mother, Molly even recognizes this and says so to John. "Yes’, sighed the mother, "she’s got good sense. She ain’t as quick as you was, an’ don’t read as many books, but she’s keerful an’ painstakin’, an’ always tries to do what’s right" (Chesnutt, 18). Despite Thomas’ belief, Rena is not highly sexed, yet the reader sees others including her brother objectifying her as a sexual being.

    Rena’s brother John has an abnormal affinity towards her "his feeling for her was something more than brotherly love"(Chesnutt, 44) which plays into Thomas’ book. Another quote in The American Negro was about incest:

So great is their moral putridity that it is no uncommon thing for

stepfathers to have children by their step-daughters with the consent

of the wife and mother of the girl. Nor do other ties of interpose

moral barriers, for fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters,

oblivious of decent sexual restrictions, abandon themselves

without attempt at self-restraint, to sexual gratification, whenever

the desire and opportunity arises.

(letter to the MacMillan Co. April 20, 1901)

Despite John’s odd attraction to his sister Rena, he never acts on it and instead encourages Rena to "pass" with him. John doesn’t necessarily consider Rena’s feelings but is thinking about their family’s future:

As long as she has never known any better, she’ll

probably be as well satisfied as though she married

a rich man, and lived in a fine house, and kept a carriage

and servants, and moved with the best in the land. (Chesnutt, 18)

Rena is happy as a Black woman in Patesville, yet John wants her to pass for white and marry a white man. Therefore by whitewashing their future generations, John is using Rena as an object to have security for their progeny. Both Rena and her mother Molly are objectified as sexual beings by Chesnutt, though Chesnutt tries to prevent Thomas from doing the same in The American Negro.

    Chesnutt combats some of Thomas’ quotes "marital immoralities are not confined to the poor, the ignorant and degraded among the freed people, but are equally common among those who presume to be educated and refined" (Letter to the MacMillan Co, April 20, 1901). John who was married legally (under the pretense of being white) acquired property and a child. John is educated and has performed no immoralities except lying about his heritage. Yet, Chesnutt beautifies this lie saying that it was necessary for John to do so to uplift himself:

He had filled the place so acceptably, and employed

his leisure to such advantage, that at the close of the

war he found himself- he was modest enough to think, too,

in default of a better man- the husband of the orphan daughter

of the gentleman who had owned the plantation, and who had

lost his life upon the battlefield. Rich in his wife’s right, he had

been able to practice his profession upon a high plane, without

the worry of sordid cares, and with marked success for one of

his age (Chesnutt, 15).

In actuality, John has objectified his wife who is a white woman by marrying her to acquire success and wealth. By passing and using his wife, John has gained power at the expense of others (Rena and Molly). Yet Chesnutt portrays it as being OK for John to do so in order for him to succeed as a Black man.

    Interestingly enough, Chesnutt who obviously detests being objectified and seen as inferior does the same to an entire gender. At the time women were not seen as equal beings, yet it makes sense to fight for all the struggles rather than one. Chesnutt should have been able to see the injustices of women because he knows how it feels to have an injustice done to him. Though he is not as blatant as William Hannibal Thomas in The American Negro, Chesnutt is just as bad when it comes to objectifying women. It seems as if Chesnutt does as John did, objectify your own people (Black women in both cases) to achieve success.

Bibliography:

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

This page is the work of Nadezhda Galera

Read more about Chesnutt's fiction

Return to Chesnutt Literary Web Home Page

About the Chesnutt Literary Web