Untragic Mulatto: Charles Chesnutt and the Discourse of Whiteness

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2011-01-15 04:27Z by Steven

Untragic Mulatto: Charles Chesnutt and the Discourse of Whiteness

American Literary History
Volume 8, Number 3 (Fall 1996)
pages 426-448
DOI: 10.1093/alh/8.3.426

Stephen P. Knadler

Among Charles Chesnutt’s earliest political essays is a little studied piece that he wrote for the New York Independent entitled “What Is a White Man?” (1889). At a time when he was, it has been argued, at best accommodating—at worst, pandering to—the taste of his genteel Northern readers for the exotic local colors of plantation fiction (Brodhead 204), Chesnutt was reinterpreting race as less a stigma against blacks, or an advantage for whites, than a cultural practice by which all are marked. The little-known Cleveland lawyer’s entrance into racial polemics was prompted by Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady’s series of speeches on the material progress of the New South. Although many Southerners viewed the economic development’ of the South with hope and apprehension, Grady had appeased their misgivings and sanctioned industrial advancement through a recurrent rhetorical appeal to “white supremacy.” In his speech “The South and Her Problems,” delivered at the Texas State Fair (1887), for example, Grady had recruited the implacable rise and expansion of the Anglo-Saxon spirit as a guarantee for a New South of industrialism and urban growth. This “transcending achievement” of the New South, Grady argued, could not be impeded, for the “supremacy of the white race must be maintained forever… This is the declaration of no new truth. It has abided forever in the marrow of our bones, and shall run forever with the blood that feeds Anglo-Saxon hearts” (53; emphasis added)…

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