Charles Waddell Chesnutt (June 20, 1858 – November 15, 1932) was an African-American author, essayist, political activist and lawyer, best known for his novels and short stories exploring complex issues of racial and social identity in the post-Civil War South. Many families of free people of color were formed in the colonial and early Federal period; some attained education and property; in addition there were many mixed-race slaves, who as freedmen after the war were part of the complex society of the South. Two of his books were adapted as silent films in 1926 and 1927 by the African-American director and producer Oscar Micheaux. Following the Civil Rights Movement during the 20th century, interest in the works of Chesnutt were revived. Several of his books were published in new editions, and he received formal recognition. A commemorative stamp was printed in 2008.
During the early 20th century in Cleveland, Chesnutt established what became a highly successful court reporting business, which provided his main income. He became active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, writing articles supporting education as well as legal challenges to discriminatory laws.
Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Andrew Chesnutt and Ann Maria (née Sampson) Chesnutt, both "free persons of color" from Fayetteville, North Carolina. His paternal grandfather was known to be a white slaveholder, and Chesnutt likely had other white ancestors. He identified as African American but noted that he was seven-eighths white. Given his majority-European ancestry, Chesnutt could "pass" as a white man, but he never chose to do so. In many southern states at the time of his birth, Chesnutt would have been considered legally white if he had chosen to identify so. By contrast, under the one drop rule later adopted into law by the 1920s in most of the South,[Notes 1] he would have been classified as legally black because of some known African ancestry.
After the end of the Civil War and resulting emancipation, in 1867 the Chesnutt family returned to Fayetteville; Charles was nine years old. His parents ran a grocery store, but it failed because of his father's poor business practices and the struggling economy of the postwar South. By the age of 14, Charles was a pupil-teacher at the Howard School, one of many founded for black students by the Freedmen's Bureau during the Reconstruction era.
Chesnutt continued to study and teach. He eventually was promoted to assistant principal of the normal school in Fayetteville, one of a number of historically black colleges established for the training of black teachers. The normal school developed into Fayetteville State University. Freedmen made education a priority during the nineteenth century. Reconstruction legislatures had created the first systems of public education in the states of the South, but they made them segregated as part of the price of passage. States hired black teachers for black students.
In 1878 at the age of 20, Chesnutt married Susan Perry. They moved to New York City. They had four daughters, one of whom, Helen Maria Chesnutt, became a noted classicist and published a biography of her father. He wanted to escape the prejudice and poverty of the South, as well as to pursue a literary career. After six months, the Chesnutts moved to Cleveland.
In 1887 in Cleveland, Chesnutt read the law and passed the bar exam. Chesnutt had learned stenography as a young man in North Carolina. He established what became a lucrative court reporting (legal stenography) business, which made him "financially prosperous".
Chesnutt also began writing stories, which were published by top-ranked national magazines. These included The Atlantic Monthly, which in August 1887 published his first short story, "The Goophered Grapevine." It was the first work by an African American to be published by The Atlantic. In 1890 he tried to interest Walter Hines Page of Houghton Mifflin in his novel, A Business Career, completed in 1890. Page said he needed to establish his reputation more before publishing a novel, but encouraged him. Dealing with white characters and their society, this novel was found among Chesnutt's manuscripts and eventually published in 2005.
His first book was a collection of short stories entitled The Conjure Woman, published in 1899. These stories featured black characters who spoke in Negro dialect, as was popular in much contemporary southern literature portraying the antebellum years in the South, as well as the postwar period.
That year he published another short story collection, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line (1899), which included the title story, as well as "The Passing of Grandison", and others. These overturned contemporary ideas about the behavior of slaves, and their seeking of freedom, as well as raising new issues about African-American culture. Atlantic editors strongly encouraged Chesnutt in his writing, and he had a 20-year relationship with the magazine.
Chesnutt's stories were more complex than those of many of his contemporaries. He wrote about characters dealing with difficult issues of mixed race, "passing", illegitimacy, racial identities, and social place throughout his career. As in "The Wife of His Youth", Chesnutt explored issues of color and class preference within the black community, including among longtime free people of color in northern towns.
The issues were especially pressing during the social volatility of Reconstruction and late 19th-century southern society. Whites in the South were trying to reestablish supremacy in social, economic and political spheres. With their regaining of political dominance through paramilitary violence and suppression of black voting in the late 19th century, white Democrats in the South passed laws imposing legal racial segregation and a variety of Jim Crow rules that imposed second-class status on blacks. From 1890 to 1910, southern states also passed new constitutions and laws that disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites from voting. At the same time, there was often distance and competition between families established as free before the war, especially if they were educated and property-owning, and the masses of illiterate freedmen making their way from slavery.
Chesnutt continued writing short stories. He also completed a biography of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had escaped from slavery before the war and become renowned as a speaker and abolitionist in the North.
Encouraged by Atlantic editors, Chestnutt moved to the larger novel form. He wanted to express his stronger sense of activism. The magazine's press published his first novel, The House behind the Cedars (1900).
His Marrow of Tradition (1901) was based on the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, when whites took over the city: attacking and killing many blacks, and ousting the elected biracial government. This was the only coup d'état in United States history. Eric Sundquist, in his book To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Culture (1993), described the novel as "probably the most astute political-historical novel of its day", both in recounting the massacre and reflecting the complicated social times in which Chesnutt wrote it. Chesnutt wrote several novels, not all published during his lifetime. He also toured on the national lecture circuit, primarily in northern states.
Because his novels posed a more direct challenge to current sociopolitical conditions, they were not as popular among readers as his stories, which had portrayed antebellum society. But, among the era's literary writers, Chesnutt was well respected. For instance, in 1905, Chesnutt was invited to Mark Twain's 70th-birthday party in New York City. Although Chesnutt's stories met with critical acclaim, poor sales of his novels doomed his hopes of a self-supporting literary career. His last novel was published in 1905.
In 1906, his play Mrs. Darcy's Daughter was produced, but it was also a commercial failure. Between 1906 and his death in 1932, Chesnutt wrote and published little, except for a few short stories and essays.
Starting in 1901, Chesnutt turned more energies to his court reporting business and, increasingly, to social and political activism. Beginning in 1910, he served on the General Committee of the newly founded National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Working with W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, he became one of the early 20th century's most prominent activists and commentators.
Chesnutt contributed some short stories and essays to the NAACP's official magazine, The Crisis, founded in 1910. He did not receive compensation for these pieces. He wrote a strong essay protesting the southern states' successful actions to disfranchise blacks at the turn of the 20th century. To his dismay, their new constitutions and laws survived several appeals to the United States Supreme Court, which held that the conditions imposed (by new electoral registration requirements, poll taxes, literacy tests and similar conditions) applied to all residents and were therefore constitutional. (While this was literally true, in practice these rules were applied by white registrars to discriminate against blacks, resulting in a steep drop in the number of black voters across the South.) Although a couple of rulings went against the states, they devised new means to keep blacks from voting.
In 1917, Chesnutt protested showings in Ohio of the controversial film Birth of a Nation, which the NAACP officially protested at venues across the nation. In Ohio he gained prohibitions against the film. Set during Reconstruction, the film glorified the Ku Klux Klan, which had taken violent action against freedmen. The Klan was revived following this film, reaching a peak in membership nationally in 1925, as chapters were founded in the urban Midwest and West as well as the South.
One of Chesnutt's most important works was The Conjure Woman (1899), a collection of stories set in postbellum North Carolina. The lead character Uncle Julius, a freed slave, entertains a white couple from the North, who have moved to the farm, with fantastical tales of antebellum plantation life. Julius' tales feature such supernatural elements as haunting, transfiguration, and conjuring, which were typical of Southern African-American folk tales. But Uncle Julius is also telling the stories in ways crafted to achieve his own goals and care for his circle. While Julius's tales recall the Uncle Remus tales published by Joel Chandler Harris, they differ in that Uncle Julius' tales offer oblique or coded commentary on the psychological and social effects of slavery and racial inequality. While controversy exists over whether Chesnutt's Uncle Julius stories reaffirmed stereotypical views of African Americans, most critics contend that their allegorical critiques of racial injustice took them to a different level. Seven of the Uncle Julius tales were collected in The Conjure Woman. Chesnutt wrote a total of fourteen Uncle Julius tales, the remainder of which were later collected in The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales, published posthumously in 1993.
In 1899 Chesnutt published his The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line, a collection of short stories in the realist vein. He explored many themes that also were used by 20th-century black writers: especially
"the prevalence of color prejudice" among blacks, "the dangers of 'passing', the bitterness of mulatto offspring..., the pitfalls of urban life and intermarriage in the North, and the maladministration of justice in the small towns of the South."
Both collections were highly praised by the influential novelist, critic and editor William Dean Howells in a review published in 1900 in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled "Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt's Stories". While acknowledging Chesnutt as a black writer, he says the stories are not to be first considered for their "racial interest" but it is as "works of art, that they make their appeal, and we must allows the force of this quite independently of the other interest." He described Chesnutt as
notable for the passionless handling of a phase of our common life which is tense with potential tragedy; for the attitude almost ironical, in which the artist observes the play of contesting emotions in the drama under his eyes; and for his apparently reluctant, apparently helpless consent to let the spectator know his real feeling in the matter.
The House Behind the Cedars (1900) was Chesnutt's first novel, his attempt to improve on what he believed were inadequate depictions of the complexity of race and the South's social relations. He wanted to express a more realistic portrait of his region and community drawn from personal experience. He was also concerned with the silence around issues of miscegenation and passing, and hoped to provoke political discussion by his novel. The issues are expressed chiefly through the trials of Rena Walden, a young, fair, mixed-race woman who joins her brother in another town, where he is already passing for white and established as a lawyer. She and a white upper-class friend of his fall in love and become engaged. When her fiancee learns of her black ancestry, he breaks their engagement, but tries to get her to agree to be his mistress. She leaves to teach in a black school, but is assaulted there by a lower-class mulatto. She tries to return to her mother but dies on the way, although helped by a longtime black friend.
The Marrow of Tradition (1901), set fictionally against events like the Wilmington Race Riot, marked a turning point for Chesnutt. He combined leading characters who were prominent whites in town, together with a black doctor who had returned from the North, exploring the difficulties for the latter in a small, prejudiced Southern town. Among the characters were half-sisters, one white and one black, daughters of the same white father, who encounter each other during these events. With this and other early 20th-century works, Chesnutt began to address political issues more directly and confronted sensitive topics such as racial "passing", lynching, and miscegenation, which made many readers uncomfortable.
Many reviewers condemned the novel's overt politics. Some of Chesnutt's supporters, such as William Dean Howells, regretted its "bitter, bitter" tone. He found it powerful but with more "justice than mercy" in it. Middle-class white readers, who had been the core audience for Chesnutt's earlier works, found the novel's content shocking and some found it offensive. It sold poorly.
His last novel, The Colonel's Dream (1905), was described as "a tragic story of an idealist's attempt to revive a depressed North Carolina town through a socioeconomic program much akin to the New South creed of Henry W. Grady and Booker T. Washington." It featured a white aristocrat who returns to his town during Reconstruction, when it is controlled by a lower-class white and is stagnating economically. Colonel Champion builds a new cotton mill, to try to establish business. He runs into conflicts because of racial discrimination and leaves the town in defeat. The book received little critical notice and sold hardly any copies. Chesnutt gave up thinking he could support his family by his writing. He built up his court reporting business, lectured in the North, and became an activist with the NAACP.
Overall, Chesnutt's writing style is formal and subtle, demonstrating little emotive power. A typical sentence from his fiction is a passage from The House Behind the Cedars: "When the first great shock of his discovery wore off, the fact of Rena's origin lost to Tryon some of its initial repugnance--indeed, the repugnance was not to the woman at all, as their past relations were evidence, but merely to the thought of her as a wife." - Chapter XX, "Digging up roots".
The Harlem Renaissance eclipsed much of Chesnutt's remaining literary reputation. New writers regarded him as old-fashioned and pandering to racial stereotypes. They relegated Chesnutt to minor status.
Starting in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement brought renewed attention to African-American life and artists, a long process of critical discussion and re-evaluation has revived Chesnutt's reputation. In particular, critics have focused on the writer's complex narrative technique, subtlety, and use of irony. Several commentators have noted that Chesnutt broke new ground in American literature with his innovative explorations of racial identity, use of African-American speech and folklore, and the way in which he exposed the skewed logic of Jim Crow strictures. Chesnutt's longer works laid the foundation for the modern African-American novel.
Today Chesnutt is recognized as a major innovator in the tradition of Afro American fiction, an important contributor to the deromanticizing trend in post-Civil War southern literature and a singular voice among turn-of-the-century realists who treated the color line in American life.
Chesnutt's views on race relations put him between Du Bois' talented tenth and Booker Washington's separate but equal positions. In a speech delivered in 1905 to the Boston Historical and Literary Association and later published as an essay, titled "Race Prejudice; Its Causes and Its Cure," Chesnutt imagined a "stone by stone" dismantling of race antagonism as the black middle class grew and prospered. Filled with numbers and statistics, Chesnutt's speech/essay chronicled black achievements and black poverty. He called for full civil and political rights for all African Americans.
He had little tolerance for the new ideology of race pride. He envisioned instead a nation of "one people molded by the same culture." He concluded his remarks with the following statement, made 58 years before Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech:
Looking down the vista of time I see an epoch in our nation's history, not in my time or yours, but in the not distant future, when there shall be in the United States but one people, moulded by the same culture, swayed by the same patriotic ideals, holding their citizenship in such high esteem that for another to share it is of itself to entitle him to fraternal regard; when men will be esteemed and honored for their character and talents. When hand in hand and heart with heart all the people of this nation will join to preserve to all and to each of them for all future time that ideal of human liberty which the fathers of the republic set out in the Declaration of Independence, which declared that 'all men are created equal', the ideal for which [William Lloyd] Garrison and [Wendell] Phillips and [Sen. Charles] Sumner lived and worked; the ideal for which [Abraham] Lincoln died, the ideal embodied in the words of the Book [Bible] which the slave mother learned by stealth to read, with slow-moving finger and faltering speech, and which I fear that some of us have forgotten to read at all-the Book which declares that "God is no respecter of persons, and that of one blood hath he made all the nations of the earth."-- "Race Prejudice; Its Causes and Its Cure" (1905)