Why We Should All Read Charles Chesnutt

Today, we take a closer look at the life and works of Charles Chesnutt. You can find out more about Chesnutt and other profound American writers in our virtual exhibit, American Voices.

Sepia photo of Charles Chesnutt facing left.
Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858–1932)

“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” –Charles Chesnutt

When it comes to issues of race, the time between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement is almost entirely defined by Jim Crow segregation. Writing from the heart of that largely forgotten period, Charles Chesnutt produced works of fiction that both engage deeply with the African American past, present, and future and connect that community to the nation it is an integral part of.

Chesnutt’s identity and life were defined by a series of boundary crossings. He was born in Cleveland in 1858 to two “free persons of color” who had left slavery in North Carolina. They later moved the family back to Fayetteville after the Civil War and emancipation. He gained valuable insight on what life was like in both cities and regions, drawing upon that insight in his writing. Chesnutt noted that he was seven-eighths white; his paternal grandfather was even a slaveholder. That heritage led Chesnutt to be so light-skinned that he could have passed as white if he chose. Although he self-identified as African American throughout his life, he detailed in his journal that he was indeed frequently mistaken to be white.

In his literary career, Chesnutt also straddled the boundaries between genres. He rose to prominence writing short stories that seemed to fall into the “plantation tradition”—the sub-genre of late 19th century local color fiction that told romanticized stories of the pre-war slave South—but Chesnutt’s collected local color fiction challenged and revised the plantation tradition. In The Conjure Woman (1899), ex-slave storyteller Uncle Julius offers a far darker vision of slavery and the South in his tales, if his Northern white auditors John (the stories’ narrator) and his wife Annie can hear it.

Chesnutt also wrote short stories set in the late 19th century after the conclusion of the war. Collected in The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line (1899), these stories examine and complicate histories of race and identity, segregation and community in the period that historians have called the lowest point of post-Civil War African American life. As exemplified by the title story “The Wife of His Youth,” first published in The Atlantic Monthly, Chesnutt’s realistic fictions push past simplified images of race and community to imagine the layers and meanings of these themes for both his African American protagonists and their nation at the turn of the 20th century.

In that new century Chesnutt shifted to longer forms, publishing a trio of realistic and political novels—The House Behind the Cedars (1900), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and The Colonel’s Dream (1905)—that consider the future of race in America as fully as any works published before Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Marrow, his best novel, originated with the misrepresented and forgotten 1898 Wilmington (NC) coup and massacre. From that starting point Chesnutt crafted a novel that encompasses the legacies of slavery and Reconstruction, the realities of segregation and lynching, and the divisions and interconnections of American communities, culminating in tragic yet still hopeful visions of the national future.

Although society has made great strides in inclusivity of people that have been historically marginalized from Chesnutt’s time, with Jim Crow laws being struck from legislation and even the election of the first African American president in 2008 and the first female African American vice president in 2020, there is still much work to be done. American society today is still defined by police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and campus protests. It is still defined by systemic racism and injustice. Chesnutt’s historical, cultural, and political themes, and the boundary-crossing fictions through which he examined them, could not be more relevant and vital today.

–Ben Railton

Charles Chesnutt’s work provides readers today with a view of antebellum and post-Civil War life for African Americans. To learn more about Chesnutt and other revolutionary American writers, visit our virtual exhibit, American Voices, today!

(Last Updated: April 23, 2021)

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