The Essential Step in Voicing the Issues of the Color Line
Charles Chesnutt pursued his writing, "primarily as [an] attempt at literary art." Hoping that possibly, "by depicting life as it is in certain aspects that no one has ever before attempted to adequately describe, [would] throw a little light upon the great problem on which the [conjure] stories are strung, "as indicated in the title - the Color Line" (Letters 127). He discussed his concern for his people and his innate need for progression in his journal, which helped him to achieve self-improvement through education and experimentation, in which he would then use to help the progression of the colored people through literary acknowledgment of the color line issues.
The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt functioned as a personal diary for himself, as a way of reflecting upon his self as a colored individual of mixed race. His journals stand as evidence of the steps he took toward improving himself to be accepted as part of the literary world. He began with a "Handbook on Home for Home Improvement," which comprised "How to write," "How to Behave," "How to talk" and "How to do Business" (Journals 40). Welcomed in the company of Cicero Harris, it would be assumed from the beginning of his journals that Chesnutt had acquired some education and would have indeed portrayed proper behavior, that is to say he was not an ignorant colored man. He was never associated with one who did not have good communication skills, however he wanted his skills to be equal to or superior to those of a white man. His need to acquire these behaviors as the manual directed was a reflection of the "white is right" scenario. When Chesnutt accomplished the tasks, he in turn accomplished behaving like a real or "white" man would.
His journals mark the beginning stages of his literary experience and traces his beginning progression from experimentalist to "successful author" (Letters 112). Chesnutt recognized the power of education and was determined to encourage and assist African Americans in developing the desire for knowledge. He realized early on that he could not help his people get to a place, he himself had not been. In light of this, he took the necessary steps of exploring and learning German and becoming a writer by experimenting with writing poems and stories. The literary works in Chesnutt's journals is the prior work to that which he had "restrained [himself] from writing" until he had "something worth saying," and was "able to say it clearly and temperately, and until and opportune time should have come for saying it" (Letters 102,103).
Part three of "Chesnuttís Letters" were written between February 1897 and September 1899, which were prior to and possibly in conjunction with his essay "Liberty and the Franchise," which was written in 1899. During this time, his letters were written with the primary purpose of acquiring support to publicize his literary works. Chesnutt's technique in accomplishing this goal is most evident in his letters to Walter Hines Page, where he is respectful, straightforward and modest with his words.
In his letter, Chesnutt welcomed and appreciated suggestions from Hines as he indicated when he stated he was "willing to adopt [his] suggestion to publish "The Wife of his Youth" and "The March of Progress" under a common heading" (99). Chesnutt suggests the titles "Forward and Back," or "The Warp and the Woof," but left the decision to Hines. His actions enable Hines to have control over an important aspect of Chesnuttís work and symbolize the high regard Chesnutt has for Hinesís literary authority. Acknowledging this is vital for Chesnutt to gain allies in publicizing the issues of the color line.
Although, Chesnutt uses flattery, he also is very honest and direct in claiming his intentions by writing letters of advise and support, while also offering his friendship to Hines. On December 7, 1897, Chesnutt addressed Hines to inform him of his intent to write a novel, which was of the time he realized he had "something worth saying" (102). In this same letter, Chesnutt openly declared his wishes to "secure [Hinesís] interest and friendship as well as in the furtherance of [his] literary aims (103). Directly after stating this he acknowledges the expectancy of his actions and ends with complimenting Hinesís reviews in the Atlantic.
Chesnutt developed a respectable business rapport with Hines, which eventually lead to him being able to open up more specifically about his concerns about the subject he wrote and the reaction of his readers. Through this relationship, Chesnutt confides in Hines that "Mars Jeemsís Nightmare" can not be called "De Noo Nigger" as he would have liked because it is okay for the character of Julius, but "might leave him under suspicion of bad taste" (105). Where Julius presents himself as the representative of the Negro community as a higher authority and often refers to his peers as "ignant niggers" as if to please the white northerners. This is acceptable in the literary text coming from Julius, while Chesnutt would have been ridiculed for promoting such behavior in a Negro as to name his collection "De Noo Nigger."
He admits in another letter that he expects "The March of Progress" "might appeal to a wider circle of readers" (110). Through this relationship, Hines had advocated for Chesnutt's works to be published in the Atlantic, which was his link to acquiring more support and leading to additional publications and commissions.
Chesnutt shows some foreshadowing of his essay "Liberty and the Franchise" in his letter to Hines on March 22 of 1999. In this letter he raises the issues of the government and its "oppressive, discriminating, and degrading legislation" and how this state would be the acceptable "order of the day for some time to come" (121). This revelation was triggered in Chesnutt as a result of reading a few derogatory comments made by "self-respecting colored people," originally from North Carolina. It was declared that these kind of colored people would never Ago back to live," but designated it their "duty to do anything [they could] for those poor Negroes who cannot help themselves" (120).
This was totally against Chesnutt! At this point in his literary progression, he had been published and was in the process of writing The HouseBehindtheCedars. Through his own experience, Chesnutt learned and advocated for coloreds to "send [their] children to school and qualify them to look out for themselves, to own property, to figure and think about what they are doing, so that they may do better than" their parents (Journals 62). This is the inspiration of the teacher Charles W. Chesnutt, which triggers the essays in response to the political happenings of the time.
Chesnutt establishes the importance of the church and school in the progression of the colored people in his journals and elaborates on the issue in "Liberty and the Franchise." Chesnutt raises the issue of having a leader in the progression, as it is "essential to any true progress," with emphasis on the fact that the leaders should come from the colored race (Essays 104). Chesnutt does not deem the race issue a sole problem for the colored race, but "the whole nation" (Essays 105). While this essay is for the human population in general, it targets the irony of the black soldier fighting behind a white leader or beside a white soldier, while he will do neither in the same situation with a black soldier (Essays 105).
Chesnutt continues to address issues of the time in his speech "Literature in Its Relation to Life" (Essays 109). In this speech he admitted that his initial purpose in writing was "to relieve [his] mind of the Race problems" (109). Because the issue had been "discussed [there] from every point of view, by experts of every shade of opinion," he addressed the Bethel Literary and Historical Association in reference to the abolitionists, including blacks that promoted having the slaves returned to Africa.
Through the abolishment of slavery, the coloreds where protected under the Constitution. The idea of sending "them back to barbarism" for rights they had in America was clearly counterproductive for the people. Chesnutt was speaking for and promoting togetherness in America for the coloreds as well as the white people. People of the country and the country had gone through too much to walk away from the progress that was made. He was speaking to those of "every shade" to continue the progress.
Chesnutt's essays and speeches collectively address the rights of the American Negro to be equal and identify the corruption it will cause America if these goals are not achieved. In both his essays and speeches, Chesnutt aimed to give America a wake up call, to bring all of America's attention to the discrimination that continued to exist even after slavery was abolished.
The connection between the three works is evident. It proves that before one makes a contribution to change the views of the world, he must deal with himself first. Prior to Chesnutt publicizing his stories in which dealt with the race issue, he internalized the effects of the color line in his life directly first. He wrote in his journal and made a decision to acquire the self improvement he knew he was capable o;, to acquire the skill, tact, and knowledge that was overtly available to the white man.
After he acquired a good knowledge of education and religion, he shared it and promoted it through his literary allusions and direct reference to religion, as well as his life as a teacher and author. Chesnutt's work on self improvement enable him to be able to approach and enter the literary world, where he began to directly address issues that internally effected him as well as the rest of the country; the issues of the color line.
Once, Chesnutt transitioned from the realms of his internal world to
the literary world, he broadened the literary audience knowledge of the
color line. His stories and novels did not address the wide audience that
his essays and speeches would. They opened a new audience, the political
audience, which receives national and international attention. The journal,
letters, essays, and speeches are indeed a representation of "Literature
and its Relation to Life." It is a relation to Charles Chesnutt's life
and how through his own self-improvement, he became a literary and spoken
voice in the contribution of identifying the race relation problems and
supporting the progression of colored people in America.
This page is the work of Sheree Gray
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