Black Literature and Culture:
Chesnutt and the Color Line
October 17, 2000
For Charles W. Chesnutt the color line was a troublesome issue. Chesnutt was born in 1859 and raised in Fayetteville, NC. His parents were considered "bright mulattos" because of their Caucasian ancestry. Though Chesnutt looked white, he was known in his community as a black person, and he chose not to "pass" for white. Laws around the turn of the century and popular culture (then and now) strove to strictly define people as either black or white despite the difficulties of this task. Through his personal journals and fictional writing, Chesnutt continually plays with the ambiguity of such definitions, and thus, points to the ridiculousness of trying to separate and make unequal people who are often indistinguishable. Yet at the same time, Chesnutt is acutely aware of the actual inequality between blacks and whites, and feels a moral pull towards this struggling race.
From the ages of sixteen to twenty-four Chesnutt kept a personal journal in which, several times, he discusses the difficulty of defining races. At age twenty-two he writes:
I occupy here a position similar to that of the Mahomet's Coffin. I am neither fish [,] flesh, nor fowl--neither "nigger", poor white, nor "buckrah." Too "stuck-up" for the colored folks, and of course not recognized by the whites. (pp. 157-8, The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt)
Chesnutt explains how he simply does not fit into either of the defined races. He is neither black nor white, but could "pass" for either if he tried. In another one of his journal entries, Chesnutt varies his racial alliance:
In most parts of the state they (crossed out) we have a fair proportion of jurors. The white people seem to be very well disposed towards us, …now that these people are in a fair way for improving their worldly condition, may it not be hoped that this unreasonable prejudice against them will finally disappear. (p. 107, The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt)
Chesnutt makes a conscious effort to cross out "they" and put "we," making it very clear he aligns himself with the blacks. Yet, in the rest of his sentences he writes "these people," "their," and "them," separating himself from the blacks. This fickle flipping from black to white suggests there is little intrinsic difference between the races. He is black; he is white; it does not matter. When it comes to the law and social customs, however, not being either white or black causes problems. Not knowing a person's race means not knowing how to treat her or him; whether he could vote freely or is to be discriminated against with Jim Crow laws, etc. By writing about his indefinablity and color line jumping, Chesnutt manifests how asinine it is to treat people so unequally when they are so much the same.
Chesnutt often uses this unnerving idea of not having a race, of not being defined, in his fictional writing. One of his stories from his color line series called "Cicely's Dream," involves a mysterious, badly injured man. Cicely finds the man and muses about him as a potential lover:
If the wounded man were of her own race, her dream would thus far have been realized, and having met the young man, the other joys might be expected to follow. If he should turn out to be a white man, then her dream was clearly on of the kind that go by contraries, and she could expect only sorrow and trouble and pain as the proper sequences of this fateful discovery. (pp173-174, Stories of the Color Line)
Though it is clear race is hugely important--Cicely's happiness with this man depends on it--this mysterious man remains raceless until the end of the story. There is no way to determine his race from his appearance or behavior. So how would you ever be able to tell? You couldn't--that is Chesnutt's point.
Chesnutt again plays with the color line with the siblings, Rena and John, in his novel The House Behind the Cedars. Throughout the first have of the book a family secret is mentioned, but the reader is never explicitly told the characters have some black ancestry. Though the reader can basically figure out the secret before it is disclosed, she is left wondering for at least the beginning of this tale. This forces the reader to judge the Rena and John for themselves, and not let knowledge of race define our attitudes. What is really interesting about the story are the paths the siblings choose to take. John early in life asserts "I am white." (p. 113) He moves away from his family, marries a white woman and her estate, and becomes a successful lawyer. John says he is white and so he is white. Though her brother tries to get to "pass" as white, she inevitably comes home to her mother and remains black. When engaged to a white man, she feels she cannot marry him without telling the truth--which, to her, is that she is black. Two people with the exact same "blood," yet, one see himself as white and the other see herself as black. Again, race is ambiguous. This points to the ridiculousness treating people who are equal, unequally.
Despite the absurdity of trying to define race, law and society has done it through appearances, and when that doesn't work, through known ancestry and reputation. Although intrinsically no distinguishable difference exists between the races, social customs create a stark difference between the life of a white and the life of a black with variation little in between. Chesnutt could have been either race, but he felt a distinct moral pull toward his black ancestry. Early in his journal he writes about an incident where he is taken for white:
He asked me what countryman was I, and when I told him I wanted a colored school he told me in Dutch, which was unintelligible to my guide, that the white people wouldn't respect me if I taught a colored school. Said that the colored people ought to have colored, and the whites, white teachers. He even offered me the white public school which I respectfully declined. (p. 61, The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt)
Chesnutt feels pulled toward the black people. Despite many opportunities to follow his white relatives, he chooses the rougher road. I suppose if one has any relation to a group of people who are suffering, it is hard to turn your back on your family. That Chesnutt feels "being true" to one's black heritage is the right thing to do is manifested in his fictional writing. In another story called a "The Wife of His Youth," A fair-skinned ex-slave advances in social standing and is a discriminating member of the prejudiced Blue Vein Society. Throughout the story, the reader receives negative vibes from the character, Mr. Ryder, particularly when we hear about his love for Mrs. Dixon:
She possessed many attractive qualities. She was much younger than he; in fact, he was old enough to be her father, though no one knew exactly how old he was. She was whiter than he, and better educated. She had moved in the best colored society of the country…(p. 105, Stories of the Color Line).
His love is founded on appearances and on the belief that white and educated is better. His stuck-up attitude is somewhat repulsive and makes the reader distrust and dislike Mr. Ryder mildly. A very black woman comes to visit Mr. Ryder, who has been searching for her husband for twenty-five years and says: "an' I knows he's be'n lookin' fer me. (p. 109)" We dislike Mr. Ryder even more when we find out this is his loyal wife, who he has abandoned. By abandoning her, he tried as much as he could, to escape from the black race. He has a moral crisis and decides to take back his wife and forget Mrs. Dixon. Through this story, and others, Chesnutt makes clear his belief that a person with black ancestry should not neglect that part of her/his suffering relatives.
As a man who looks and often seems to feel white, but is usually discriminated against because of black ancestry, Chesnutt is quite concerned with race. He is ambiguous about his own race and continually obscures the race of his characters to make obvious how meaningless the color line is. People are too similar and too equal to categorize differently. But this is what happens, and the consequences are very serious and sad. Because of this actual inequality between the races, Chesnutt feels, and makes apparent in his fiction, an individual who has any fellow feelings for black people, has a moral obligation not to neglect this suffering group.