Chesnutt's Placement of Self as Reflected in
His Journals, Letters and Essays
Although Chesnutt's editors and publishers as well as his contemporary critics may feel compelled to place him in the broad category of African American authors, his journals, letters and essays suggest that Chesnutt would not categorize himself as a black author, but rather as an author first and as a man of mixed ethnic origins second. Chesnutt's main interest lies in the racial barriers placed between the intelligent, talented, motivated, ambitious man and success. As just such a man, Chesnutt is determined to challenge any obstacles to his own professional success, especially those involving his racial makeup. In his journals, letters and essays, Chesnutt separates himself from what he considers "the genuine Negro" ("The Future American," 69), and, in fact, often expresses an overall disdain for the poor, uneducated black individual. He champions issues of concern to individuals like himself, the well-educated, middle-class, and ambitious; however, it is clear that his literary success remains his first priority. Readers of Chesnutt's work may accuse him of not offering any concrete solutions to the plight of the black individual in the United States, but Chesnutt is not looking for an overall answer to the question of American race relations and, hence, proposes none. He desires to improve his own situation and, in doing so, to pave the path towards success for others through his literature and through his example. As part of a dualistic society in which the individual is placed in one of two opposing racial categories, Chesnutt resists the labeling forces of society and chooses his own self-image, goals and issues, not the default of the racial group into which others might place him.
Clearly, in his writing, Chesnutt does not identify with "the Negro." He may occasionally, when it suits his purposes, call himself "colored," but he obviously sees a distinction between being "colored" and being a "negro." In his essay discussing the definition of "white," What is a White Man, Chesnutt writes that such a debate "would, of course, be of little interest to the genuine Negro" ("What Is a White Man," 69). Chesnutt's interest in the topic of the definition of "whiteness" is implicit in his considering it worthy of exposition; accordingly, he would not consider himself a "genuine Negro." More likely, Chesnutt would place himself within a separate group which he describes as "a population who are certainly not Negroes in any ethnological sense, and whose children are not nearer Negroes than themselves" ("What Is a White Man," 68). Chesnutt seems to resist his categorization by others as black and appears to have an image of himself apart from that group of truly black people. In What is a White Man, he questions the "manifest absurdity of classifying men fifteen-sixteenths white as black men" ("What Is a White Man," 69). Chesnutt himself is only one-sixteenth black and quite clearly disputes the practice of labeling individuals like himself as black. In another essay, The Future American: A Complete Race-Amalgamation Likely to Occur, Chesnutt again wonders at the arbitrary line between black and white: "It is only a social fiction, indeed, which makes of a person seven-eighths white a Negro; he is really much more a white man" ("The Future American," 134). Chesnutt lives in a society in which an individual must be either black or white, and he resists the idea that he is one or the other.
This resistance is reflected in his work in which he never uses the word "we" or "us" to describe the black race. An example of Chesnutt's non-participating language can be found in a letter written to his publisher, Walter Hines Page, in December 1898: "The lines seem to be drawn pretty tight for the colored race just at present, and it ought to be a source of great satisfaction to them that there is certainly one high forum from which they can speak for themselves" (letter to Walter Hines Page, Dec. 27,1898). Here, Chesnutt corresponds with a man who knows of his ethnic composition, and he deliberately separates himself from "the colored race" by referring to them as "they" and "them" instead of as "we" and "us". Obviously, Chesnutt does not want to hide his ethnicity; he could easily do so if he chose, as he is extremely light-skinned. Rather, he wishes to challenge the tendency of others to classify him, as he knows they will. He will decide where to place himself within society according to his own personally derived self-image. Even as a young man living in the South writing in his journal Chesnutt does not appear to align himself with African Americans. As a seventeen-year-old teacher looking for a school he describes the people in one particular unfamiliar region as "the blackest colored people...that I ever saw" and as "not quite as black as the 'ace of spades' " (journal entry, Jan. 25, 1877). Later in his journal he uses the word "nigger" in a derogatory manner, although he does cross it out and replace it with the word "wenches" (journal entry, Aug. 20, 1875), an action that indicates that he feels unentitled to use that word with the impunity enjoyed by black people. Additionally, Chesnutt's journal includes a little snippet of dialogue between one "colored party" and another. The first "colored party" describes an animal with a "tail on his head," and the "other colored party" replies, "Lor' niggah, don' you know. Da's de elephum, he ain't got no tail on his head; dat's his snout" (journal entry, Sept. 8, 1880). This language does not suggest an individual who considers African Americans to be his "people". From an early age, Chesnutt imagined himself outside the box into which society forced him, yet he also felt compelled to acknowledge his African heritage.
Despite his unwillingness to deny that part of himself that was black, Chesnutt's first loyalties were to himself and to his career. He wanted success above all things, and if writing about racial issues brought about the desired success, he would write on that subject; if it did not, then he would write about something else. From an early age, Chesnutt exhibited an enormous amount of motivation and ambition. The following passage from his journals illustrates the frenetic pace of autodidacticism Chesnutt imposes on himself: "I shall read Latin, French, and German; with history, biography, and shorthand thrown in for lighter hours; composition, and music, shall not be forgotten; domestic economy, practically applied to housekeeping will fill up another portion of my time..." (journal entry, Jun. 25, 1880). The wide variety of subjects suggests an individual who learns, not to satisfy an avid interest in a subject about which he is passionate, but as a means to a practical end. In Chesnutt's case, that end is fame and fortune. His choice of profession also originated from his desire for success:
It is the dream of my life-to be an author! It is not so much the monstrari digito, though that has something to do with my aspirations. It is not altogether the money. It is a mixture of motives. I want fame; I want money; I want to raise my children in a different rank of life from that I sprang from. In my present vocation, I would never accumulate a competency, with all the economy and prudence, and parsimony in the world. In law or medicine, I would be compelled to wait half a life-time to accomplish anything. But literature pays-the successful (journal entry, Mar. 26, 1881).
There does not appear to be much "mixture of motives" in this passage. Chesnutt expresses no high moral or social motives for his career as an author; he wants money and recognition, and writing seems to be the shortest road to take.
In his choice of subject, Chesnutt also exhibits a pecuniary tendency. Taking the classic advice offered to writers by William Dean Howells, Chesnutt writes what he knows; however, he is well aware that the subject of African Americans is at the center of public interest: "...the colored man...will never cease to be the object of popular interest and sympathy in the north, as long as he is the object of oppression and prejudice at the South" (journal entry, Jul. 13, 1880). If there were no audience for novels and articles on the subject of American race relations, Chesnutt might have chosen to write on some other theme; for, in many of his letters, he seems less than concerned about the impact of his social message. In a September 1900 letter to his publisher, Harold D. Robins, Chesnutt writes that he hopes his novel, The House Behind the Cedars, generates some interest, but that he "hardly care[s] in what quarter." In the same letter, in response to Robins' suggests that they advertise Cedars as a book about passing, Chesnutt writes that he had not intended the novel to be political: "I rather hope it will sell in spite of its subject, or rather, because of its dramatic value apart from the race problem involved. I was trying to write, primarily, an interesting and artistic story, rather than a contribution to polemical discussion" (letter to Harry D. Robins, Sept. 27, 1900). In response to a request for a Labor Day story from an editor at the magazine, The Youth's Companion, Chesnutt writes, "Would you like a story about colored people? That is my specialty, though I have written outside of it" (letter to The Youth's Companion, Apr. 17, 1899). These letters show Chesnutt to be an author who is not exclusively motivated by the race problem. Chesnutt, like any professional author, wants to make money. He may write about controversial issues involving race, but his subject is not necessarily all.
Chesnutt may very well have idealistic motivations for writing on the subject of race, but his success as a writer takes precedence over any social change he may attempt to enact through his texts. His concern for literary success over social message is illustrated most clearly in his December 1901 letter to Houghton, Mifflin & Co. regarding the disappointing sales of The Marrow of Tradition, in which he says that he writes not only for money, but with "ethical purposes" as well and in which he laments that if his books do not sell, he can hardly have any ethical impact at all. In the following paragraph he wonders if he should drop the subject of race altogether:
I am beginning to suspect that the public as a rule does not care for books in which the principal characters are colored people... I find a number of my friends advise me to break away from this theme for a while and write something which is entirely disassociated from it...I am beginning to think somewhat the same way. If a novel which is generally acknowledged to be interesting, dramatic, well constructed, well written...cannot sell 5,000 copies within three months after its publication, there is something radically wrong somewhere, and I do not know where it is unless it be in the subject (letter to Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Dec. 30, 1901).
While Chesnutt feels "the subject" to have ethical value, his contemplation of discarding the topic of race relations in his writing indicates that he is a writer who writes about race issues, not an individual committed to an ideal who writes only to disseminate his world view.
In fact, Chesnutt's world view seems quite specific to himself. The subjects about which he appears most passionate are those that apply to his particular position, i.e., franchise and miscegenation. He exhibits little concern for the poor, uneducated "Negro." In an early journal entry, Chesnutt comments on the unenlightened state of his students: "Today I am to begin my school. Schools are certainly needed here. The people are deplorably ignorant" (journal entry, Jul. 12, 1875). Chesnutt then continues to make fun of a man's erroneous recitation of the Lord's Prayer. Chesnutt never expresses a desire to uplift these ignorant souls. He never analyzes the reasons for the "deplorable ignorance," neither does he dedicate himself to helping them overcome that ignorance. Chesnutt provides Booker T. Washington, an educator concerned more with the immediate problems of poverty for the vast majority of the black population than with the advancement of a talented, educated, ambitious, motivated minority, with only half-hearted support. In, A Plea for the American Negro, his somewhat lukewarm review of one of Washington's books, Chesnutt disagrees with Washington's regimented idea of progress: "He [Washingon] insists somewhat rigidly, on the rational order of development, and is pained by such spectacles as a rosewood piano in a log school house, and a Negro lad studying French grammar in a one-room cabin...The world is wide, and the ambitious Negro lad might move to some part of it where his knowledge of French or music would prove a very useful acquirement" ("A Plea for the American Negro," 119). Chesnutt somewhat resembles that "negro lad" who assiduously studies French. Chesnutt is concerned with issues that apply to individuals as unblinkingly ambitious as himself and has little use for Washington's agenda, which places the practical needs of the poor above the intellectual needs of the talented.
Despite his apparent dismissal of the problems endured by the poverty-stricken, Chesnutt does appear committed to the maintenance of the black franchise. On almost all other subjects, he speaks indirectly and passively, but the language he use to write about the right of African American citizens to vote is always extremely pointed and, at times, even passionate. In his response to a speech advocating meeting the suffrage standards of "anti-Negro" legislation rather than fighting it, made by Dr. Elijah Winchester Donald, a supporter of Booker T. Washington's, Chesnutt upholds the Constitutional Amendments giving African Americans the right to vote in an unusually strong, direct and personal voice: "To my mind it [the enfranchisement of the freedmen] was one of the finest acts of statesmanship ever recorded. It was the righting of a great wrong..." ("The Negro's Franchise," 162). Chesnutt rarely involves himself personally with his texts. Not only does Chesnutt use the pronoun "I" throughout this essay, he also uses the phrase "in my mind," which implies a level of personal involvement not often found in his writing. In the passage above, as well as in the following passage from a different essay on the same subject, Chesnutt employs a language of unquestionable right and wrong: "That the men of the past were right [in extending the right to vote to include African Americans] and the results have proved it, is the firm belief of the writer. That public opinion is being guided in the wrong direction, and deliberately so, the writer is also fully persuaded" ("Liberty and Franchise," 102). Chesnutt's adamance is illustrated by his strong language. The men are not wise; they are "right." The direction of public opinion is not erroneous; it is "wrong." The exclusion of blacks from the vote is not unjust; it is "wrong." Chesnutt seems far more concerned with this issue than with the suffering of impoverished African Americans, perhaps because the issue of voting rights affects him personally. If Southern states are allowed to legislate away the right of an African American male to vote, Chesnutt and people like him may lose that right in certain regions of the country. The denial of one man in Georgia the right to vote has an impact on Chesnutt's right to vote, whereas the poverty of one man in Georgia has no effect on Chesnutt's right to the highest standard of living he can afford.
It would be unfair to condemn Chesnutt for choosing to champion those
causes that affect him personally over those that do not. The point here
is to illustrate that Chesnutt, regardless of the label pasted on him by
his contemporaries and by current academic critics, was his own man. Is
a man one-sixteenths black required to devote his life to the benefit of
all black people? For that matter, is a man one hundred percent black expected
to do so? Every individual should decide for himself what is, for whatever
reason, important to him and commit his life to that as he sees fit. One
hundred years after the publication of Chesnutt's first book, critics have
placed Chesnutt's work into the category of African American Literature.
Readers, therefore, have an expectation based on that label. But readers
should remember that Chesnutt spent his life struggling against the need
others felt to confine him into a nice neat box and wonder whether he would
have placed himself into the box labeled African American Literature. They
should look beyond the label and allow Chesnutt his own voice independent
of any categorical expectations.
Letters are quoted from: Joseph McElrath, ed. To be an author: The letters
of Charles Chesnutt, 1889-1905. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
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 Carey Ann Kotake.
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