Charles Chesnutt confronted the perils of slavery and its reaches first through imaginative literature and then through political action. An artistic innovator, he combined fiction with social history in the hope of awakening white Americans and attaining social justice; he produced a distinctive genre of American literature. Disappointed in his purpose, however, he turned to other literary categories—biography, letters, essays, articles, speeches—and to politics. He became a foremost expository protagonist for African Americans and a formidable antagonist of racism in the United States.
Although he could have passed as a white person, Chesnutt determined to honor his black heritage and to throw his talents into the balance. His collections of short stories (The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories) established him as a superlative writer of short fiction. His novels (The House Behind the Cedars, The Marrow of Tradition, The Colonel’s Dream) drew themes from his own experience and that of his ancestors, as well as from the drama being played out in the long shadow of black slavery in the United States. The novels examine “passing” (blacks passing for white), race riots, and the lingering powers of the landed families of the antebellum era. Critics as eminent as William Dean Howells applauded Chesnutt’s work; but because the South was rushing toward white supremacy, his books never reached a substantial public.
Turning to expository writing and political action, Chesnutt addressed subjects of concern to African Americans and to white contemporaries. He wrote a life of Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist-orator-journalist born in slavery. Through many publications and speeches he confronted racial issues of American experience: laws affecting former slaves and reinstating limits on their opportunities; problems of lynching and race rioting; political alignments that reinstituted slave conditions; and African American civil rights, their abrogation, and the consequences to the nation of their denial. He corresponded with figures of influence in the white world.
Chesnutt conducted extensive dialogues with Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois, African American leaders who, in the wake of American slavery, set courses for interracial relations. In widely read articles, Chesnutt delineated a third racial posture: Washington believed that vocational education and the interlacing of black energy with white business would eventually achieve resolutions; DuBois believed that militant insistence on every right, especially education, would bring results. Chesnutt thought that the vote should be secured immediately regardless of education or previous servitude. He concluded that in the end, intermarriage of the races would prove the only answer to the cruelties attendant on slavery.
See also: Literature; Passing.
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