"I have said that
the people who have the education, the intelligence, the money, the will,
are bound to rule. Then in order for us to rule, or to be among the rulers,
we must have intelligence, the education, the money and the will."
The above words written by Charles Chesnutt reflect Chesnutt's personal formula for the guaranteed success of the "negro" race as a whole. In the essays, journals and letters written by Chesnutt, he focuses on three major themes that he believed would help the "negro" to be considered equal with there white counterparts. The two themes that Chesnutt focuses greatly upon are; education, and money. Chesnutt believed that both of these things combined would help the "negro" achieve success. Chesnutt believed that education was the most important element in achieving this success, and that without education, the negro would remain ignorant to the ways of the world, remaining forever on white society for survival. The two things that Chesnutt believed would bring success to the "negro," are the very things that brought his own personal success. This essay will examine Chesnutt's "formula" and explore how this "formula" allowed Chesnutt to defy the odds to become a well-rounded "negro" scholar.
The major issue that Chesnutt believed separated whites from blacks, especially in the South was education. When Charles Chesnutt elaborates on his theory of education, he makes it clear that his idea of education goes far beyond the boundaries of a book. Chesnutt advocates the need for the "negro" to seek education on all fronts. Chesnutt states: "We must not only be educated in character" (The Future of the Negro, 29). It is this lack of education that allowed the chains of slavery to engulf the negro race. The lack of education believed to be found in the "negro" race was to be blamed on hundreds of years of slavery, were even the simplest tasks were not taught. In the essay "The Future of the Negro" Chesnutt gives a vivid example of how basic education that was not enforced made the "negro" seem inferior to whites. Chesnutt explains: "Now the colored man is not always dirty nor the white man always clean. But it is frequently the case. Now why is it that the colored man is content with his rags and dirt? It is because he has never been taught that self-respect requires him to be clean. He would be very angry if any one should call him a dirty fellow and no gentleman. But that would be true. The colored man must be educated in character" (The Future of the Negro, 30) In this passage the key word to focus on is the word "taught." For it is the very lack of this word that allowed the "negro" to remain blissfully ignorant through hundreds of years of bondage. Because the "negro" was rarely taught anything aside from physical labor, common knowledge was not at all common to the "negro" which appeared externally as ignorance.
It is this lack of education that allowed the chains of slavery to engulf the "negro" race as a whole. Chesnutt believed that if the "negro" had been educated or even literate the horrors of slavery would not have flourished as long as it did. "The Future of the Negro" addresses the "negro" citizens and further enforces how ignorance or lack of education remained the largest obstacle for the "negro" to get over. Chesnutt's theory is that had the slave been permitted to educate himself, slavery would have been abolished long before it was. He also believed that the whites that enforced slavery knew that if education were enforced among slaves would mean loosing power. Chesnutt explains: "Fellow citizens ignorance is the rock we shall always split on, until we have blasted the rock away. Did not the white people know it? Did they know that the spelling-book would free the slave? Did they know "Tis better to be much oppressed/ Than to but know't a little "Ay! They knew it, and the spelling-book was padlocked and chained to keep it away from the slave; and the slave was muzzled to keep him away from the spelling book" (The Future of the Negro, 27).
Since the key element in Chesnutt's "formula" for success was education, it is important to examine how education helped to shape his personal success. In Chesnutt's personal journals and collection of letters the reader is able to observe the devotion he had to his personal education. In Chesnutt's a letter written by himself to his mentor George Washington Cable, Chesnutt makes it clear that not only was he educated, but that he was an accomplished linguist as well. An excerpt from this letter states: " I have a students knowledge of German and French, can speak the former, and could translate either into grammatical English, and I trust into better English than many of the translations which are dumped upon the market" (To Be an Author). Chesnutt highly enforced the importance of education in many of his essays. The fact that he took his personal education as serious as he encouraged other "Negro's" to do proves that he believed that education was in fact the missing link to the success of the "negro." To further enforce this fact, Chesnutt became a teacher at a Southern black school. Chesnutt's journal explains: " I began to teach Monday, 26th of July. I am getting along very well no, and have 44 scholars, several from town. There are a few somewhat hard cases, but I manage to manage them" (The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt, 45) Not only did Chesnutt practice book smarts, he also studied things such as etiquette and character building, things that he mentioned in his essay "The Future of the Negro." In Chesnutt's personal journal he states that he is reading "a very good book." The book that he is referring to focused on things believed to build better character in a man, topics such as; "The Daily Bath", "The Feet", "Change of Linen", "The Nails" and "Spitting" The practices Chesnutt studies are the same ideas that Chesnutt urges his fellow "negro" citizens to learn in his essay. Because Chesnutt studies the very things that he enforces in his essays, illustrate his dedication to building the "negro" race.
In many of the essays written by Charles Chesnutt he discusses the problem that lack of knowledge has brought to the "negro"; however, Chesnutt also discusses the benefit that education will bring to the "negro". Chesnutt's "formula" for success of the negro encourages "Negro's" to work hard to get money. Chesnutt boldly states: "We must get money; and how are we to get it? Fellow- citizens, I see but one way-work for it" (The Future of the Negro Race, 31). Again relying on Chesnutt's theory of education he believes that education would give "Negro's" the sufficient knowledge that they needed to make this money. "And education will teach us how to make money. It will teach us how to save and invest money" (The Future of the Negro, 27). Chesnutt enforced the idea of money because; lack of money made the "negro" depended on whites for survival. If the "negro" were depended on the oppressor to survive, the hand of whites would again dictate his own success. Chesnutt explains the plight of the "negro": "And, again, the negro needs the white people. The colored people are poor, and dependent upon their labor for subsistence" (The Negro Question, 62).
Again Chesnutt practiced what he preached by furthering his education and attempting to secure s much money as he could as a court a court stenographer. It is clear that Chestnutt was very serious to him. It is something that he took great joy in; however, when Chestnutt was placed in the position of choosing between earning a guaranteed salary of "1500" opposed to a risky unknown amount as a writer his knowledge persuaded him to choose the profession that was to his personal benefit. In Chesnutt's personal letters, many times the reader is able to see how he choose money over a full time writing career. Because Chesnutt was a highly educated man, it allowed him not to make mistakes pertaining to money. This is why Chesnutt urged his "negro" audience to become educated and to work hard for earnings. Chesnutt's money smarts are illustrated in a letter written to friend, who has asked him to invest: "This leaves only the financial part of your proposition for consideration. As to my investing 2,500.00, this is out of the question. I have been earning money in excess of my expenditures for only the past five years. With my savings I have purchased a comfortable home, which is worth some four or five thousand dollars. And my surplus since paying for that, I have invested in other ways-in land and in securities of other kinds, never keeping more then a few hundred dollars in the bank to meet current expenses" (To Be an Author, 79). This excerpt shows how wisely Chesnutt handled his personal money affairs
Chesnutt's "formula" for the success of the "negro" people was a group of basic principals that he applied to his own everyday life. The things that Chesnutt emphasis in much of his work, were the things that he believed would improve the existence of the "Negro's." Although some of what Chesnutt states may have not been considered true, many of his theories prove true today. Education is in fact the key to all success, no matter what color or religion that you happen to be. One thing that has definently proved true, is Chesnutt's prediction for the millennium. Chessnutt believed that perhaps at the millennium the African American race would be considered equal. Chesnutt believed that "When the Millennium comes we may hope for this, but not sooner." While racial prejudice still sadly exists, African Americans have come a long way since the days of Charles Chesnutt.
This page is the work of Dana Williams
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