Writing for the Advancement of Colored People

    Charles Chesnutt spent his entire writing career focusing on the advancement of colored people in America. In the early 20th Century he wrote and presented many speeches to a variety of national groups that promoted the equality of black Americans. In a letter to Hugh M. Browne written on June 2, 1905, Chesnutt declared his passion to participate in the fight to "overcome the prejudices against the colored people" (letter to Hugh M. Browne, June 2, 1905). While his early fiction focused on the identity crises of mulattos who struggled with their heritage, his later fiction and non-fiction works focused directly with the solutions to end racial prejudice.

    During the process of getting his last novel published, "The Colonel's Dream," Chesnutt had run into many problems with his publishing company, Doubleday, Page & Co. His letters to Doubleday document an ongoing struggle he had with promoting his book as well as getting the final copy produced error-free. After the book had been released, Charles Chesnutt did not achieve the criticism he had hoped for. In fact, the book went unnoticed. A disappointment for Chesnutt who in a letter to Mrs. W.B. Henderson wrote that the book was "written, as all my books have been, with a purpose--the hope that it might create sympathy for the colored people of the South in the very difficult position which they occupy" (letter to Mrs. W.B. Henderson, Nov. 11, 1905). The book was very important to him as it promoted a message he hoped that people of all colors, mainly black and white, would identify with. Because of its potential in improving the racial conditions in the South, Chesnutt pressured the Doubleday, Page & Co. about the advertising and promotion they were responsible for. The tone in many of his letters to the publishing company regarding his new book was written with disappointment and misunderstanding, possibly because Chesnutt felt defeated in his attempt to help the southern blacks in their pursuit of American freedom.

    Chesnutt doesn't just sympathize with the black community. Based on his speeches and letters, he clearly wanted to make a change in the racial world of his time. "The Colonel's Dream," a novel written about a man who moves to the North, becomes rich and returns to the South to "save" his community is evidence that Chesnutt wanted to help remove the antagonisms which caused the rise in racial tensions.

    In a speech he delivered to the Boston Literary and Historical Association on June 25, 1905, Chesnutt discusses the barriers between black and white Americans. His speech indicates that the only difference between a black man and a white man is clearly physical. In his speech, Chesnutt provides his audience with historical information. He states that when Americans went to Africa in search of African slaves they found uneducated, uncivilized, and non-Christian men coated with black skin. When white Americans put the Africans to work, in time the Africans learned to speak English, learned to write and read, learned to live in civilization and eventually started to believe in God. These differences, which once set them very apart, should unite them, but the color of the Africans' skin still antagonizes tension between them. As a result, Chesnutt, along with other black activist, decided to make it his mission to remove the antagonisms between the two races by writing about how similar they are. He brings to his audience's attention that the only reason racial prejudice still existed was because of the white man's fear of racial impurity. In his speech to the Cleveland Council of Sociology, November 1906, Chesnutt talks about this fear amongst the white man:

"'We cannot,' they declare, 'concede the Negroes political equality, because, if granted, it will lead to every other kind of equality. With political equality they would demand civil equality. With civil equality they would seek social equality. The purity of our race would be contaminated. Our civilization would be destroyed.'" ("Age of Problems," 241). In the late 19th Century and early 20th Century ignorance seemed predominantly related to this fear the whites had about losing their purity. Earlier in his speech Chesnutt talks about how the white man also feared losing the black man from the fields. He states, "...'that education unfits the negro for work.' This is in so far true as it makes many negroes unwilling to devote themselves to the ordinary plantation labor, encouraging them to look for work more congenial to their abilities and tastes, and sometimes even seducing them to live upon their wits without work." ("Age of Problems," 242). Charles Chesnutt discussed with his audience that Europeans came to America in search for freedom and fought for freedom. They wrote the Constitution of the United States for that freedom, and those who live within America should also be given that right to have that freedom the Europeans fought so hard for. His opinions are strong when he discusses how black Americans should be given the same rights as white Americans.

    Charles Chesnutt wanted his latest novel to improve the conditions between the blacks and whites in the South. He was passionate about helping the problem that existed and hoped that this problem would be easily identified in his published works. His last novel, "The Colonel's Dream," was the last novel he wrote, but unfortunately failed at his attempt to get it critically recognized amongst the public. There is no evidence that the publishing company, Doubleday, Page & Co., did not help promote the book because of their own biased opinions about the racial problems that existed at that time. It is evident, however, that they didn't promote the book as well as other books written at that time. As a result in their failure to help advertise the book, Chesnutt believed that he had failed in his attempt to help ameliorate the conditions in the South.
 
 

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

McElrath, Joseph, ed. Charles Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999

This page is the work of Carie Lund.
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