Chesnutt’s Genuine Blacks and Future Americans

Chesnutt’s Genuine Blacks and Future Americans

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Volume 15, Number 3, Discovery: Research and Interpretation (Autumn, 1988)
pages 109-119

SallyAnn H. Ferguson, Professor of English
University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Scholarship on novelist and short story writer Charles W. Chesnutt stagnates in recent years because his critics have failed to address substantively the controversial issues raised by his essays. Indeed, many scholars either minimize or ignore the fact that these writings complement his fiction and, more importantly, that they often reveal unflattering aspects of Chesnutt the social reformer and artist. In a much-quoted journal entry of 16 March 1880, Chesnutt himself explicitly links his literary art with social reform, saying he would write for a “high, holy purpose,” “not so much [for] the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites/’ Using the most sophisticated artistic skills at his command, he ultimately hopes to expose the latter to a variety of positive and non-stereotypic images of the “colored people” and thereby mitigate white racism. As he remarks in a 29 May 1880 entry, “it is the province of literature to open the way for him [the colored person] to get it [equality]—to accustom the public mind to the idea; and while amusing them [whites], to lead people out, imperceptibly, unconsciously, step by step, to the desired state of feeling.” Throughout his entire literary career, Chesnutt never strays far from these basic reasons for writing, in fiction and nonfiction alike.

It is in his essays, however, that Chesnutt most clearly reveals the limited nature of his social and literary goals. Armed with such familiar journal passages as those cited above, scholars have incorrectly presumed that this writer seeks to use literature primarily as a means for alleviating white color prejudice against all black people in this country. But, while the critics romantically hail him as a black artist championing the cause of his people, Chesnutt, as his essays show, is essentially a social and literary accommodationist who pointedly and repeatedly confines his reformist impulses to the “colored people”—a term that he almost always applies either to color-line blacks or those of mixed races. This self-imposed limitation probably stems from the fact that he wrote during a time of intense color hatred in America,…

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