Chesnutt Speaks Louder Volumes

    After reading the selection entitled, "An Inside View of the Negro Question," I had an entirely different perspective on Charles Chesnutt as an individual, and more specifically, a Black man. In this essay Chesnutt posed the reader with the question ‘Is the Negro contented and prospering?’ The question is such a profound one that it immediately struck me as judicious, but an especially straightforwardly posed question for Charles Chesnutt. It is no secret that Charles Chesnutt communicates his themes and objectives particularly subtle in his writings. This couldn’t be more true when Chesnutt is addressing racial relations between Blacks and whites. However, this essay seemed to take on a form very independent from any of the previously read writings of Chesnutt. This newfound audacity could be attributed to the fact that Chesnutt is not writing a fictitious story, but rather an explicable reflection of post-reconstruction race relations. Another consideration may be that this essay was written without the need for entertainment or sales, which was a central goal of Chesnutt’s in most of his publications. However, this writing shares no other motive than that of expressed scholarly thought on a dire and personal social issue, as well as social and political enlightenment for whites on behalf of the Black voice. Furthermore, the appeal of this particular essay stems from its universality, in the sense that that same question is one that is posed today.

    Chesnutt’s active voice in the essay addressing the question ‘Is the Negro contented and prospering?’ is very passionate but composed. This essay is the first writing of Charles Chesnutt’s where he seemed to take a position on race. Chesnutt expresses a strong opposition to the argument that Blacks are content and prospering. He even goes so far as to say that those who believe that the Negro is content and prospering are the same ones, "…who maintained the essential righteousness of slavery, and assured the world that the Negro was contented and happy in bondage, and could not exist…except in a state of servitude" (Chesnutt, 57). This argument is an important one, because it does not ignore or disguise the recent historical past of slavery, which was only thirty years out of existence at the time that this essay was written. In fact, it addresses the opposing argument by putting its supporters in conjunction with the commonly shared view of slave supporters. This way, it makes the oppression of the Negro by the whites during slavery, relative to the oppression of the free Blacks by the politics of a white society.

    Chesnutt expresses adamant disagreement with the notion that Blacks have arrived at a state of contentment or prosperity post slavery, but Chesnutt’s argument grows more passionate as he continues on with advocacy for Black equality. Chesnutt oddly never claims any direct relation to the Negro, but he does assume the role as an emissary for the Negro race. After explaining that the Negro needs equality, equal share in public benefits, and the opportunity to vote and participate in public functions, he softens the demand of the argument by explaining to white audiences that this plea for equality does not mean that the Negro desires admission or acceptance into private white society. Chesnutt further explains that the "Negro believes in the righteousness of his cause" (Chesnutt, 60). This was a clever aspect of the argument because it did not make the Negro seem piteous, but deserving and worthy. It also diminished any notion that Blacks want to infiltrate white communities as "antagonists" but rather desired fair and equal opportunities as human beings.

    Surprisingly, the letters did not exhibit the same confidence as Chesnutt’s essay. The letters almost seemed like humble pleas. Chesnutt had a very apologetic tone in each of them, and he continued to pardon or explain himself. The only letter that was perceived as dramatically different was the second letter to Albron W. Torgee written on 9/3/1895. This was a definite turning point in the letters that were evaluated. Chesnutt’s declarations come across as confident and assertive concerning his claims involving race in the content and representation of a magazine entitled Basis.

    In short, I was not only surprised but also thoroughly impressed with Charles Chesnutt’s dominant stance on the issue of racial equality for Blacks post slavery in his essay "An Inside View of the Negro Question." For the first time, in dramatic contrast to his literature, Chesnutt seemed to have a position on race. His essay could seemingly double for a racial equality speech because of the passion and assertiveness with which it was written. Unlike in his letters, he never once apologized or offered a justification for his view or writings. Instead he was unapologetically expressive and fearlessly took on the role as a voice for the voiceless Blacks at that time, which I had not witnessed Chesnutt doing ever before.

This page is the work of Skyller Walkes.