"Black and White Parallel Lives"

    In the fictional work of Charles Chesnutt, there is often a strange parallel drawn between the white and black characters. The reader is confronted with the issue that no matter what kinds of segregation practices are established, there are striking similarities between the black and white characters. In The Marrow of Tradition, we are presented with two prominent men in the community, Major Careret and Dr. Miller. One man is white and the other black, but they share a lot of common ground. Both believe that they are contributing to the uplifting of their people, be it in the advancement of white supremacy or education of the black community.  The differences, however, lie in the content of their principles and the consistency of their behavior. For example, Carteret is apt to change his opinion of blacks when the future of his family is in jeopardy. Much like the character of Chesnutt himself, one cannot easily classify either Dr. Miller or Carteret into a neat category.  In his creation of parallel characters, Chesnutt urges the reader to discount the barriers between the black and white communities.  He lets us know that we are not that different, and that the boundaries between the white and black race exist because of fear, jealousy, and superiority/inferiority complexes.

    Dr. Miller is introduced as an intelligent black man able to function in white society. Also, he has a vested interest in the progression of his fellow people. "He had been strongly tempted to leave the South, and seek a home for his family and a career for himself in the freer North, where race antagonism was less keen, or at least less oppressive, or in Europe, where he had never found his color work to his disadvantage. But his people had needed him, and he had wished to help them and sought by means of this institution [hospital] to contribute to their uplifting." (Chesnutt, 508) A real sense of loyalty is elicited by Millerís thoughts. He is sacrificing the possibility for a better life elsewhere to stay in his community and make a difference in the lives of others. Miller demonstrates character and he is the walking example of what an educated black man can become. At the same time Miller does and does not pose a threat to the white society of Wellington; he knows his place as a provider of medical service to the black community. What is threatening about this man, however, is that in advocating for the advancement of colored people, increased education and opportunity could raise them to the intellectual and social level of the white people. This brings to light such issues as black people in government and law professions, giving them power in the form of knowledge. Also, in the possibility of blacks in political power, they would gain some power over the quality of their lives and the lives of others, namely white people. No matter how subtle, Dr. Miller has taken a stand against the superiority/inferiority dichotomy of the black and white contingencies of Wellington.

    Major Carteret represents the white counterpart to Dr. Miller. He also believes in the advancement of his people, but in doing so he attempts to suppress anyone not identified as one of his own. "Taking for his theme the unfitness of the negro to participate in government,-an unfitness due to his limited education, his lack of experience, his criminal tendencies, and more especially to his hopeless mental and physical inferiority to the white race,-the major had demonstrated that the ballot in the hands of the negro was a menace to the commonwealth." (Chesnutt, 491) Insofar as the colored manís inferiority, Carteret mentions such concepts as limited education and lack of experience. Now juxtaposing that statement with Dr. Millerís statement positions the two men in direct opposition. According to Dr. Miller, the advancement of the colored race is possible through these means that so threaten the majorís way of life. Carteretís advocation for the uplifting of the white race, however, lacks the inclusion of greater education and wider occupational opportunities. His view is narrow, arrogant, and unsupported of evidence outside of his personal opinion. In his ravings, however, the major truly believes himself to be doing right by his people.

    Despite their lofty intentions, naivete plagues the characters of Major Carteret and Dr. Miller. For example, Miller attempts to convince himself that racial tension is an ephemeral phenomena. "He wanted to believe that the race antagonism which hampered his progress and that of his people was a mere temporary thing; the outcome of former conditions, and bound to disappear in time." (Chesnutt, 521) He continues his thought in urging the acceptance of the colored man once he has demonstrated his knowledge and intellect. Miller is a living illustration of this logic, but he manages to forget the presence of men like Major Carteret. Full realization of the plight of his people is not evident. Also, the utter contradictory nature of Millerís statement emphasizes his extreme idealistic naivete. Slavery was not a temporary institution, and racial antagonism flowed freely among the white and the black. Not only does the colored race have to compensate for a few hundred years devoid of education and occupational training outside of the cotton field, but they have to contend with people such as Carteret and his contingency. They are white people threatened by the competition and knowledge that they may not be the superior race after all. Great ideas are posited through the character of Dr. Miller, but the post-Reconstruction South is not ready to accept such abstract concepts as racial equality.

    Equivocal and contradictory language are displayed on both sides of the color line. It must be emphasized that Carteret is steadfast in his principles, but believes himself to be a reasonable and peacable man. Once he opens his mouth, however, it is difficult to agree with this characterization. In one instance he has the following to say, "If we are to tolerate this race of weaklings among us, until they are eliminated by the stress of competition, it must be upon terms which we lay down." (Chesnutt, 538-539) In this statement Carteret supports the subsequent elimination of the colored race through under the control of the white race. In another passage, however, Carteret praises the negro, albeit in a patronizing manner. "The negro is all right in place and very useful to the community. Nevertheless, we are better off without slavery, for we can get more out of the free negro, and with less responsibility. I really do not see how we could get along without the negroes." (Chesnutt, 540) It seems as though Carteret can tolerate the colored race as long as they do not pose any kind of threat to his lifestyle. It does come across, however, that he believes himself to be a benefactor to the blacks, such as giving Jerry, his servant, employment. No matter what noble principles this man projects, he becomes involved with lynching an innocent man and creating an angry mob of white people. He cannot predict how violent the whites will become, but all of these actions are grounded in a conscience driven by cherished principles. If one asked Carteret if he thought his actions were just, he most likely would not waver; much like Miller he is naïve to the brutality of the white people and the potential of the colored people.

    At the close of the novel, these characters come face to face in a matter of life and death. Due to the unstable health of his child, Major Carteret desperately attempts to enlist the help of any doctor during the race riot. When he finds himself on Dr. Millerís doorstep, the colored man had the following scathing words for him, "We are along in the house. My duty calls me here, by the side of my dead child and my suffering wife! I cannot go with you. There is a just God in heaven!-as you have sown, so may you reap!" (Chesnutt, 739) At this pivotal point in the novel, both characters meet and are profoundly affected by each other. Dr. Miller uses his encounter with Carteret to voice deep-seated disgust with the actions of Carteret and his  contingency. Although Miller is able to function in white society, family is more important than obligation of the black race to the white race. The same can be said of the major; as his principles are abandoned when his family is in question. races. Both men demonstrate conviction, but at least for Dr. Miller, he is too late. His own child lay dead as a result of racial hatred, and Carteret is able to respect Millerís decision. Had it not been for this racial superiority/inferiority dichotomy, the majorís childís life would not hang in the balance. We are not told exactly what happens to baby Dodie, but we do know that because of his skin tone he had a much better chance at life than Millerís son.

    Near the close of the novel, a character by the name of Mr. Delamere cogently summarizes the tensions of the text. When defending his servant Sandy on the charge of murder he says, "How, sir? A white family raised him. Like all the negroes, he has been clay in the hands of the white people. They are what we have made them, or permitted them to become." (Chesnutt, 645) This parallel between white and black is emphasized as if to say that the whites merely brought these problems upon themselves through segregation. Chesnutt forces the reader to consider the question that if the white race molded the black race, then how different could they actually be?

This page is the work of Michelle Salvaggio.

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