The maturation of Charles Waddell Chestnutt as not only a literary writer, but as a speaker for the advancement of colored people can be dismantled into three issues. These three issues are: (1) criticism; (2) analysis; and (3) sympathy for the minority Negro plight reflected in essays, journals and letters. Chestnutt not only wrote or spoke to the Negro population but also wrote, responded and spoke at various meetings to people of different backgrounds, religions and political preferences.
Chestnutt was able to ascend to that ranking above the Negroes but underneath the Whites as a free "mulatto" man. This unwritten knowledge in social standings allowed Chestnutt to sometimes "pass" unsuspected and probably permitted him certain privileges that were not allowed by "darkeys", the derogatory name issued to dark Negroes. The fact that Chestnutt was a "mulatto" can only lead one to believe his sincere interests in writing about the "color line" problem during the Postbellum South. However, Chestnutt was still in the hold of racism and met many obstacles teaching, learning, obtaining employment and acceptance of his books.
We find that Chestnutt began to keep a journal between the years of 1874 and 1883 imitating the journal of Cicero R. Harris, who was a kind of mentor to Chestnutt during his teaching days. Keeping a journal was important to Chestnutt to closely monitor his progression in his experience of life as a mulatto, and an inspiring writer. In his earlier years, Chestnutt often criticized the Negroes for their "lack of ambition", illiteracy, overly religious and their superstitious hocus pocus.
On June 7th 1875, Chestnutt writes in his journal about the conversation he had with Mr. Davidson regarding the salary of professionals. Chestnutt answers:
"Now, I'll tell you. You say you are all renters, and get cheated out of your labor, why don't you send your children to school, and qualify them to look out for themselves, to own property, to figure and think about what they are doing, so that they may do better than you?"
"We can't do it," was all I could get out of them.
I learn from Mr. Davidson and from what I have seen
myself, that they are a very trifling shiftless set of people up there,
and their children are following in their footsteps."(pg. 61)(1)
Chestnutt does not take the time to realize why the parents would not comprehend due in part to lack of education, the fact that they were set in their ways, many with a slave mentality of accepting the fact of inferiority and would never learn to change based on ignorance. Quick conversations amongst the townspeople can not erase what years of persecution and fear created. On that same journal entry, Chestnutt writes about the overly religious old woman in the yard that argued with him about "faulting the country people" and "cleaning his shoes on Sunday" after Chestnutt stated he was too tired to clean them Saturday night:
"I told her that I had been living with a preacher, as true a Christian there is and that he cleaned his boots on Sunday. The old lady did not exonerate me on this ground, but she hoped the Lord would forgive me." (pg.62)(2)
This passage is significant to the opinion of Chestnutt that more value is given to silly superstition than education.
Later on in a journal entry dated July 3rd, 1875 Chestnutt writes, "it is not good to be too religious or too modest and virtuous. Too much religion is fanaticism…"(3) By writing this entry, Chestnutt is revealing his belief that the Bible should be interpreted individually and not by the literal sense that when God rested on the Sabbath, we should rest also. Chestnutt believed by interpreting and analyzing literature on an individual basis would develop an inquisitive intelligent thought process that would assist in the progression of minorities. Thinking would enable them to focus on gaining equality and rights. Chestnutt failed to see that through religion, the hope for something better than the unfair life on Earth enabled the Negroes to seek positive rewards for the negative life on Earth and was the only thing to look forward to. It appears as if education, not religion was the main focus of progression to equality in America and this quote of "religious fanaticism" clearly proves that Chestnutt adhered to his educational values.
Chestnutt progresses to analyze the state of the Negro further in his letters. Chestnutt addresses a letter to Walter Hines Page on June 29, 1904 regarding his view of promoting the South in his short stories. Chestnutt writes:
"As a matter of personal taste I shrink from the sordid and brutal, often unconsciously brutal side of Southern life… if I could follow even afar off the Russian novelists of the past generation, who made so clear the condition of a debased peasantry in their own land, I might write a good book." (pg.213)(4)
Chestnutt realizes as he grows older and wiser that the South was a horrible festering sore that bred prejudice and racism regardless of his "mulatto" social standing. That one drop of black blood tainted him and to Whites regardless of what he aspired to be, he would always be a "nigger." Writing of others in his predicament and attempting to address the "color issue" in his books let Chestnutt release his unconscious being into words. Chestnutt would hopefully by his words tell the truth about the adverse conditions of "Jim Crow" Southern life. Whiteness in House Behind the Cedars proved whiteness as opportunity, social acceptance and perhaps happiness in the case of Rena and John, who "passed" into white society to obtain a better life.
Chestnutt advanced this understanding of the Negro after first progressing through ignorant criticism to careful analysis on to sympathetic spokesperson. The best illustration of his sympathetic demeanor was when responding to Robert Anderson in a letter written September 18, 1904. Anderson asked for a definition of "the Negro problem." Chestnutt responded:
"I should say that it is a continuing problem which assumes some new stage every now and then, and will probably continue to vex us as long as the Negro in this country exists in the public consciousness as something distinct from the ordinary citizen, and whose rights, privileges and opportunities are to be measured by some different standard from that applied to the rest of the community." (pp. 216-217)(5)
Chestnutt is now establishing a bold, resilient take on heartfelt sympathy not only for "those" people as he termed them before, but includes himself as a Negro, in the same predicament as them. Chestnutt as a man now realizes that with all of his education, manners, and continuous course of action, he is still not equal as a White. Chestnutt tells Page:
"I know you are a publisher and in business to make money, but I like to think that you are fundamentally in sympathy with my views on most Southern subjects…" (pg.213)(6)
Chestnutt lectures and gives speeches on "the Negro Issue" to anyone who would hear it. Chestnutt focused on the fact that coloreds should insist upon two things: (1)rights and (2)duties and responsibilities. He spoke on this topic to the Bethel Literary and Historical Association in Washington D.C. on October 6, 1908. The speech he gave to the Cleveland Council of Sociology dealt with the disenfranchisement of the Negro race and no representation in Congress. In yet one of many speeches, Chestnutt discusses the issue of "The Courts and the Negro," (7)which was given in 1908. The speech focused on the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision and how blacks needed representation in the courts.
Chestnutt came a long way in understanding the many issues that faced Negroes during that time of the Postbellum South. As Chestnutt matured and gained knowledge we clearly see that through criticizing, analysis and sympathy through understanding, he also grew as a person instead of just a writer.
1. 1 Brodhead, Richard ed. The Journals of Charles W. Chestnutt Duke University Press 1993
4. 2 McElrath, Joseph, ed. To Be an Author: The Letters of Charles Chestnutt, 1889-1905.
7. 3 McElrath, Joseph, ed. Charles Chestnutt: Essays and Speeches
This page is the work of DeAnn L. Witter
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