Here is another book from one of my favorite African-American authors, Charles W. Chesnutt. His writing never fails to enrage me, and bring soul-felt pain that
people with the same color skin as I have could be so ignorant, arrogant, self-righteous, closed-minded and cruel as Southern whites in the period
following the Civil War.
Growing up here in rural Northeast Ohio, I can't ever remember hearing at home a derogatory word spoken against anyone because of their racial or ethnic heritage. I grew up under the impression that the color of a person's skin made about as much difference as the color of a person's hair. Zero.
My high school was no different. Nearly one hundred percent white, the solitary black student in the senior class when I was a freshman was not only very popular and a football star, but was elected senior homecoming king! I never had an inkling of racial prejudice until I moved to Cincinnati to work on my Master's degree. There, I felt like I was living down south. Within walking distance (just over the bridge) from Kentucky, the difference between, Cincinnati and Portage County Ohio was like night and day. Of course, that was thirty years ago, and I'm glad to say that I still feel very little racial issues here. Although in the cities, like Youngstown and Cleveland, it's a different story. Incidentally, Chesnutt was born in Cleveland. I am proud that he was an Ohioan.
And so when I read stories like this, I am bewildered by this ludicrous misconception by some people of white supremacy or superiority. If you also are sensitive to these issues as I am, you will find this book very disturbing. It is a historical novel set in the fictitious town of Wellington, North Carolina, but based on the real race riot that occurred in Wilmington, N. C. in 1898. Most of the story is about the events that lead up to the riot, which takes place at the end of the book.
The first people we meet are Major Carteret, whose wife is due to give birth soon. Olivia already past a healthy age for childbearing, the couple had given up hope, but the unexpected happened. While Dr. Price waits, he is let in on a few family secrets by Mammy Jane, who nursed Olivia as a baby, and has come now to nurse Olivia's baby. She tells of Olivia's mother's death, who was Mammy Jane's mistress.
Elizabeth Merkell had a sister, Polly who had been twice widowed, and who upon her sister's death, had immediately set eyes upon Sam Merkell. She offered to stay and care for Olivia, under the condition that the servant Julia be dismissed. Sam refused, and actually was glad that he had an excuse for getting rid of Polly. Polly took Olivia away and raised her. Julia stayed and had a baby with Sam, named Janet. What had been kept hidden was that Sam actually loved Julia and in fact married her—Janet was legitimate. At the time, it was lawful for a white to marry a black, but during the current setting of the story, it was not. No one knew they had been married, and though Sam provided for his wife and child, Polly threw her out when Sam died (and we later learn that she stole the will).
But Janet did well for herself and married William Miller, a gifted doctor who, despite being trained up north and in Europe where his skin color was irrelevant, he has chosen to come back to serve his hometown. Nevertheless, he is successful and well off. Olivia has, for twenty five years, refused to acknowledge her half-sister, and her resentment, along with Janet's longing to be accepted as family provides a thread which runs through the entire book.
Although Chesnutt is really quite easy to read—he writes in a straightforward and uncomplicated manner, there are a lot of characters to keep straight, who represent the great variety of factions living together not quite harmoniously in this small town. The "problem" is that two-thirds of the population is black, and the law has given them the right to vote and to represent themselves in political offices. Major Carteret, who owns the Morning Chronicle, believes that the negroes should be put in their place. He has no problem with them as servants, but of course, they are not capable of governing themselves, and certainly should never be permitted to govern the whites. He and General Belmont, a true gentleman, and Captain McBane begin meeting in Carteret's office to plan their solution to the "problem." Jerry, Mammy Jane's grandson is Carteret's errand boy at the office. The General treats him with respect, as a gentleman should. McBane, however, though wealthy, has risen from white trash. He is dirty and has a missing eye, lost in a confrontation while trying to hurt a black woman. He is a "nigger-hater." The Captain and Major tolerate him, feeling that he will benefit their cause, but neither wish to associate with him personally.
Jerry, like his Grandma, prefer to keep their subservient places, and resent the blacks that are educated and successful. And that goes for Sandy, too, the faithful servant to elderly Mr. Delamere, whom we meet for little Theodore's Christening party. In fairness, Chesnutt recognized that not all white people in the South had an attitude, and Delamere represents one of those who fully support independence, education, equality, and success for the blacks in the community. He loves Sandy like a son, and we learn just how much he loves him when a terrible crisis strikes toward the end of the story.
So, here we have the gamut of attitudes concerning the relationships between black and white people and their place in society, and the novel weaves together all their lives in an attempt to reach a consensus that honors all. It never does, of course. We still, tragically, have not.
Rather than give away more of the story line, I will supply you some brief quotes. The first one concerns Mammy Jane, who believes in the old superstitions and, though she never mentions it to the family, is concerned that the baby has been born with a mole under his left ear. She has gone to a conjure woman for a potion to protect the baby:
The conjure woman added to the contents of the bottle a bit of calamus root, and one of the cervical vertebrae from the skeleton of a black cat, with several other mysterious ingredients, the nature of which she did not disclose. Following instructions given her, Aunt Jane buried the bottle in Carteret's back yard, one night during the full moon, as a good-luck charm to ward off evil from the little grandson of her dear mistress, so long since dead and gone to heaven.
Incidentally, Chesnutt could be quite humorous when writing about the superstitions of the Southern Black population.
See Tales of Conjure and the Color Line.
Here is the first paragraph from Chapter VIII, The Campaign Drags, where Carteret, the General and Captain are still trying to figure out how to put the "negroes in their proper place."
The campaign for white supremacy was dragging. Carteret had set out, in the columns of the Morning Chronicle, all the reasons why this movement, inaugurated by the three men who had met, six months before, at the office of the Chronicle, should be supported by the white public. Negro citizenship was a grotesque farce—Sambo and Dinah raised from the kitchen to the cabinet were a spectacle to make the gods laugh. The laws by which it had been sought to put the negroes on a level with the whites must be swept away in theory, as they had failed in fact. If it were impossible, without a further education on public opinion, to secure the repeal of the fifteenth amendment, it was at least the solemn duty of the state to endeavor, through its own constitution, to escape from the domination of a weak and incompetent electorate and confine the negro to that inferior condition for which nature had evidently designed him.
As I said above, there is a great deal of painful material in this book. And here is a quote as the elderly Delamere dictates his last will and testament, discovering that his only grandson, Tom, is a lying cheat, scoundrel and possibly a murderer. He leaves his entire estate to people he loves and deems worthy. And they are all black.
He thereupon dictated a will, by the terms of which he left to his servant Sandy Campbell, three thousand dollars, as a mark of the testator's appreciation of services rendered and sufferings endured by Sandy on behalf of his master. After some minor dispositions, the whole remainder of the estate was devised to Dr. William Miller, in trust for the uses of his hospital and training school for nurses, on condition that the institution be incorporated and placed under the management of competent trustees, Tom Delamere was not mentioned in the will.
Mr. Delamere dies soon after, and his lawyer disposes of the will.
As with Chesnutt's other books, I cannot recommend this highly enough. I wish he had written more, but in his time, his writings were not particularly accepted. I am grateful that they have survived and are still in print.
n n n n n n n n n n n
All material on this site copyright © 2014 by Laughing Crow.
This site designed and written by Laughing Crow.