Charles W. Chestnutt displays varying forms of characteristics to symbolize the metaphorical issues of racial composition that represented the story line of The Marrow of Tradition. The tone of specific round characters in the novel presents the reader with questions of what Chestnutt's literary and personal message entails. In this paper I will focus on the characteristics of two main catalysts in the racial divide, General Belmont and Captain McBane by physical description and by action. These two men have the same goal in mind: to claim the country for the whites and to keep the negroes oppressed. Even though they share the same agenda, the book proves that one comes across with blatant disregard for negroes regardless of the loyalty of the negro to his boss; the other subtly agrees but in a less hostile form. The racial division the two men agree on can correlate with the blatant and subtle tones of racism towards minorities even today. This tone is indicative of the subject of "separate but equal" and that it does not only exist in terms of court cases but also applies in the mindset of those that oppose this decree.
General Belmont and Captain McBane first appears in the story The Marrow of Tradition with a trip to the newspaper office of the Morning Chronicle. There they meet with the negro servant of Major Carteret, Jerry who also is the grandson of Mamie, the devoted family nurse.
The purpose of this meeting was to inform Major Carteret that:
"the unfitness of the negro to participate on government,-an unfitness due to his limited education, his lack of experience, his criminal endencies, and more especially to his hopeless mental and physical inferiority to the white race,-the major had demonstrated, it seemed to him clearly enough, that the ballot in the hands of the negro was a menace to the commonwealth."(The Marrow of Tradition, 491)
We, the reader, do not know if this statement is the voice of Major Carteret or one spoken by an omniscient narrator. We do know that this paragraph establishes the mindset of the purpose of General Belmont and Captain McBane and the reason they came to visit Major Carteret in the southern town of Wellington. The description of Captain McBane:
"His broad shoulders, burly form, square jaw and heavy chin betokened strength, energy, and unscrupulousness…his face was clean shaven, with here and there a speck of dried blood due to a carelessly or unskillfully handled razor. A single deep-set gray eye was shadowed by a beetling brow, over which a crop of course black hair, slightly streaked with gray, fell almost low enough to mingle with his black, bushy eyebrows." (The Marrow of Tradition, 492)
This description of the blood on his face almost connotes an image of a blood-thirsty animal or monster that is ravenous and hungry for prey. The loss of one eye suggests the strength of the single gray one and could symbolize that there is strength in only one race; that mixing the races would cause it to be weak. The darkened uncouth features of McBane hints at evilness and even Major Carteret, "greeted this person with an unconscious but quite perceptible diminution of the warmth with which he had welcomed the other."(The Marrow of Tradition, 492)
General Belmont is described as:
"a man of good family, a lawyer by profession, and took an active part in state and local politics. Aristocratic by birth and instinct, and a former owner of slaves, his conception of the obligations and rights of his caste was nevertheless somewhat lower than that of the narrower but more sincere Carteret…his ancestors had believed in and died for the divine right of kings. General Belmont was not without a gentleman's distaste for meanness, but he permitted no fine scruples to stand in the way of success."
As we can see, Chestnutt did not dote on the physical characteristics of General Belmont like with Captain McBane, but lets the reader know that the issue of the racial divide was something that he was supposed to be a superior party to due to his aristocratic standing. Chestnutt intends to show the reader that this method could be achieved without violence by stating that Belmont was not mean, but an amiable, well-respected person. Even this being the case, the two men were in one accord with their plan of making sure the negroes did not have a voice to right any past or present social and political conditions that could threaten the status of their white counterparts.
The proof of the "separate but equal" tactics of Captain McBane and General Belmont on their impending quest of white superiority reveals itself throughout the text. Jerry also makes note of his dislike for Captain McBane on this first meeting but never mentions General Belmont with even one sinister remark. Captain McBane also throws money at Jerry when he orders Jerry to fetch drinks for them and calls him "boy", "darkey" and other derogatory terms. There is no mention of General McBane ever being directly rude to Jerry or any other minorities in the way of his objective.
Later in the novel in the chapter entitled, "The Neccessity of an Example" the story takes a climatic pitch when Sandy, Mr. Delameres' faithful Negro butler is falsely accused of robbery and murder, really committed by Tom Delamere. Chestnutt again shows the opposing personalities of General Belmont and Captain McBane in the heated conversation of what to do with the murderer. General Belmont simply states, "He'll swing for it,"(The Marrow of Tradition, 621) but never shows any great tendency to viciously state what his particular view is but subtly insists that this is what will happen according to the multitude of whites that demand justice for the killing of one of their own. By the General observing what is unfurling before them-the impending riot and cries of outrage of the whites, he is read as someone who is in the midst of the turmoil but does not seem to take a strong, active approach or make a judgment of his own accord. Captain McBane on the other adamantly states his opinion asserts his opinion stating:
"I say burn the nigger….Burm the nigger…we seem to have the right nigger, but whether we have or not, burn a nigger. It is an assault upon the white race, in the person of old Mrs. Ochiltree, committed by a black race, in the person of some nigger. It would justify the white people in burning any nigger. The example would be all the more powerful if we got the wrong one."(The Marrow of Tradition, 622)
This statement by Captain McBane certainly proves to the reading audience that he firmly states his opinion about the races and how the negro population as a whole should collectively be punished for the sins of a defendant without rights or fair representation of counsel. McBane wants what he calls "justice" due to racial hatred and not the legality of law.
The conflicting attitudes of Captain McBane can thus
be termed as blatant racism, which can otherwise be intermingled with a
clear, concise disregard for the respect and equality of the lives or liberties
of the negro race. General Belmont's quiet reserve still fell along the
same path as McBane, but is pronounced more as a subtle, subdued and indirect
manner for the same end--to keep the white supremacy forever.
This page is the work of DeAnn L. Witter.
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