The phrase "Separate but equal" is a term that Charles Chesnutt explores in great detail in novel The Marrow of Tradition. Although this novel takes place many years after slavery had officially been abolished, the devastating effects of the past continued to haunt the lives of "negros" residing in the South. This novel illustrates to its readers, that although chains no longer bound "negros", many other forms restricted them. Chesnutt's novel illustrates that many years after slavery "equality" still did not exist in the South. The Marrow of Tradition uses both white and black characters that are very much alike to show how the rules of being "separate but equal" applied to the "negros" in the South. This essay will examine what it meant to be considered "separate but equal" Through the eyes of Charles Chesnutt as it is explained in the novel The Marrow of Tradition.
The theme of being "separate but equal" is strongly enforced by the use of "twins" that is identical, yet very different. The idea of "twins" can be seen in the characters of Janet and Olivia. Although these two women shared the same fathers, they have different mothers, one black and one white. What is important to note about the relationship between the two women is the fact that although they were not born twins, there appearance was identical. Aside from the fact that Janet's mother was black, there was very little that distinguished her appearance from that of a white woman. The quote explains: "A handsome young woman, who might be anywhere between twenty-five and thirty, and whose complexion, in the twilight, was not distinguishable from that of a white person" (520). Aside form their physical appearance; Janet and Olivia shared many other similarities. Both women were the mothers of a small child, both boys. Another similarities were that both of their husbands were prominent role models in the community.
The above paragraph shows the many similarities that the "twins" Janet and Olivia shared. Both of these women could be considered equal in all forms, if Janet's mother had been of another race. The fact that Janet was black "separated" them. Olivia shunned her sister because of the black blood that ran through her veins, despite Janet's desire to be recognized by her sister. The quote explains Janet's desire to be accepted by her sister: "All her life long she had yearned for a kind word, a nod, a smile, the least thing that imagination might have twisted into a recon ignition of the tie between the them" (521). The theme of being "separate but equal" could also be seen thought the deceased father of these women. Although their father was legally married to both of their mothers, he left the bulk of his estate to his white daughter. The quote explains: "It was a will, by which, in one item her father devised to his daughter Janet, the child of the woman known as Julia Brown, the sum of ten thousand dollars, and a certain plantation or tract of land a short distance from the town of Wellington. The rest and residue of his estate, after deducting all legal charges and expenses was bequeathed to his beloved daughter, Olivia Merkell" (685). This quote is key because it further illustrates how these woman were considered "separate but equal." The first indication that these women were not considered equal through the eyes of their father is the way in which he refers to each child. To his black daughter he simply refers to her as "Janet, the child of the woman known as Julia Brown" (685). When Mr. Merkell refers to Olivia, his white child, he refers to her as "his beloved daughter" (686). The words that Mr. Merkell chooses when referring to his children, clearly demonstrates that he preferred one child to the other. His preference to his daughter Olivia could also be seen in the fact that he does not split his estate equally. The fact that he does include Janet in his will proves that he does think of her as an individual, or almost as an equal. But the fact that he does not divide his estate equally shows that Janet was separate, and excluded from being Olivia's equal.
Chesnutt also shows how "negros"were considered "separate but equal" by using the example of two doctors, one white and one black. Both Dr. Miller and Dr. Burns were prominent doctors in their community, but because Dr. Miller was "negro" he was not allowed to the same benefits as Dr. Burns. The fact that Dr. Miller was allowed to study to become a doctor shows that by law he was to be considered "equal", but the poor treatment that he received proves something very different. An example of this poor treatment can be seen as Dr. Miller rides on a train with his white colleague. Miller must abide by the rules, which forbid him from sitting with his white counterpart. The quote explains: "The car conspicuously labeled at either end with large cards, similar to those in the other car, except that they bore the word "colored" in black letters upon a white background. The author of this piece of legislation had contrived, with an ingenuity worthy of a letter cause, that not merely should the passengers be separated by the color line, but that the reason for the division should be kept constantly in mind" (513). The laws that governed the world of Dr. Miller were a constant reminder that, no matter how much success he received from being a doctor, he would never be considered equal to that of a white man.
Dr. Miller also experiences other forms of prejudice throughout the novel. When Dr. Burns asks for the assistance of Dr. Miller on a white child, Miller gladly accepts his invitation. Dr. Burns speaks of Dr. Miller's accomplishments: "So much the better. I shall want you to assist me. I read in the Medical Gazette, the other day, an account of a very interesting operation of yours. I felt proud to number you among my pupils. It was a remarkable case-a rare case. I must certainly have you with me in this one" (509). The fact that Dr. Burns would ask a "negro" doctor for assistance shows that not all whites shared the same negative view of "negros." To Dr.Burns, Miller was considered an equal. But the end result of Dr. Burns offers, proves that Miller was indeed "separate." Despite the fact that Dr. Miller was an accomplished doctor, and skilled to assist Burns, he is not allowed to operate on the white child, because of the color of his skin. The quote explains: "I do not know, sir," returned Carteret, with an effort at self-control, "what the customs of Vienna may be; but in the South we do not call negro doctors to attend white patients. I could not permit a negro to enter my house upon such an errand"(525). The fact that Miller is a skilled doctor, but is limited to whom he may choose as a patient, proves that "separate but equal" was a prejudice that was distributed to all "negros" in the South, no matter what status they held.
The end of this novel concludes Chesnuts theory of being "separate but equal." Chesnutt makes a powerful suggestion using the lives of a white child and a negro child to show how white power remained forever dominant in the South. That of a stray bullet took the life of the black child, while the life of the white child depends on the aid of the black doctor. The fact that the black child dies through no fault of his own, could stand as a metaphor for the fact that blacks had absolutely no control over there destinies. Because the life of the white child depends on the aid of Miller, a "negro" doctor shows that blacks were only considered equal, when there was nothing else to compare them with. Earlier in the novel, when Miller was compared to other doctors in the town, the "taint" of his black blood placed him in an inferior position. Now that there was no one else to compare him with, he suddenly rises to a position of "equality." The fact that Chesnutt allows the white child to live can be seen as a metaphor for how the whites in this ficticious town continued to dominate.
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