Fighting for Education

    Charles W. Chesnutt was a writer whose focus was the color line and civil rights. He was of African ancestry, but his physical appearance would lead an unknowing observer to think him Caucasian. He could have crossed the color line, but he remained black by the Aone drop rule@ and pursued his efforts to educate the race issues following the Civil War during the turn of the century.

    By the later part of his career, 1902-1910, Chesnutt=s main focus was for civil rights of African Americans. He sought ways to voice his opinion through several essays and speeches to a wide variety of audiences. He addresses blacks, whites of the north and south, upper class, intellectuals, women, church groups and literary societies.

    Chesnutt, being a man must provide for his family by any means necessary. Upon giving a speech to an appointed group he requested compensation for his travel and time. Essays were written for magazines and various publications at a set price per-word profit. His books were written to gain reputation as a writer, educate the public on issues concerning blacks, the color line and social and political prejudices, and for profit.

    Chesnutt, being >black=, gained high respect as a writer, educator and civil rights advocate among all classes and races during his career. His essays and speeches are very different from his fiction, but both lack Chesnutt=s personal experience. How did his skin color, political, fictional and social position emerge through his writing? When giving speeches he merely addresses the crowd. He doesn=t say he is white to the whites, or black to the blacks, he appeals to all sects of humanity; Afor we are all one people; we are all men and women. Why worry about what we shall be called, or what we shall call ourselves? It is enough that we are men and citizens and Americans; I think it might be well if we never called ourselves, or encouraged others to call us anything else@(234, Mcelrath, ed.). Chesnutt is embracing mankind.

    Chesnutt is fighting for the equality of man and the suppression of the African American. Is Chesnutt fighting to represent the race problem for others, or for himself? Was he discriminated against, suffered the hand of oppression and rebuking, or is he standing up for the underdog. There are no accounts of personal experience in his essays to evaluate his personal battle during this stage of his career. His fictions cover a wide variety of social and political positions, such as the color lines, crossing over, submitting, misfortune, opportunity, folklore and birthrights. Where does Chesnutt the man fit into his writings; is he part of each character or just an observer? After reading his fiction, letters, essays and speeches it is hard to decipher his position.

    Chesnutt=s political position was for the advancement of the colored people; AI seek to find the causes and cure of race prejudices@ (214). He is speaking for the millions who have no voice, civil rights or representation in Congress or local government. The root of the prejudice is Athe race problem@ which is the title of a speech he gave to a white audience. The Europeans came to this continent to escape tyranny; they in turn condemned thousands, who became millions into slavery. AThis country was built on Liberty!@ (194).

    He attacks the southern man for misdirected actions. They should be concentrating on development in science and government, but instead efforts go to Athe promotion of schemes to prevent the rise of the Negro@ (196). This speech was directed at white women of position, who Chesnutt hoped would return home and relay these ideals to their husbands. Chesnutt closed this speech with a set of propositions to eradicate the root of the race problem:

Banish preconceived notions; do not believe half-truths.

Cultivate justice. Justice is the root of civilization; equality of all men before the law.

AExalt humanity above race.@ AColor is an accident.@ There is too much emphasis, obsession on race.

It is everyone=s responsibility. (200-201)

Chesnutt is fighting for the civil rights of the colored and the equality of man.

    APrejudice grew out of an accumulation of differences, anyone of which, alone, was sufficient to create a certain antagonism"(218). In Chesnutt=s speech ARace Prejudice@ he speaks of the superficial differences of the Negro slave brought from Africa and the dominant white man. They were different physically, through language, theology and culture. Man=s basic instinct is to hold contempt for anyone/thing that is different. AWhere lies the remedy? It lies in the removal of these antagonisms by the removal of the causes which gave rise to them@ (219). Negroes learned English, Christianity, and began to infuse >white blood= which changed the face of the black man. The Civil War took the slave away from the master, but the social differences still dominate forcing inequality and prejudices.

    Besides looking at each man for who he is and not what he is, Chesnutt=s underlined solution to equality is through education. In several of his speeches and essays education is the main focus. ATo close this gap so as to compete with the whites in social efficiency the colored people must be, relatively, as well educated@ (226). The colored should receive the same opportunities as the whites, especially through education. A well-educated colored man should receive the same opportunities and privileges as the well-educated white man. It is the ignorant white man who does not see beyond the color of skin and preconceived prejudices against the colored man that poses the greatest threat for the advancement of colored people and the equality of man. Chesnutt=s strong notion on education of the colored developed into the education of the white population about the colored people and the racial prejudices they face.

    Chesnutt was known for his fight for civil rights for the colored citizen of the United States. He was fighting for himself and his family because his blood was Atainted@ with African ancestry. He became successful as a writer of fiction and non-fiction and his public addresses. The only way into Chesnutt=s personal views was through his journals, but there were no accounts during his later career when he fought verbally for the equality and education of man. But his voice is still heard today.
 

This is the work of Theresa Smiles.
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