When it comes to issues of race, our collective memories of the century between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement focus almost entirely on 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 of which it was an integral part.
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, but who after the war and emancipation moved the family back to Fayetteville; Chesnutt would come to live in both cities and regions. His paternal grandfather was white (probably a slaveholder), as were other ancestors, and that heritage led Chesnutt to be so light-skinned that he could have passed as white if he chose; as he detailed in his journal, he was indeed frequently mistaken for white, but self-identified as African American throughout his life.
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, exemplified by Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus tales, that told romanticized stories of the antebellum slave South. Yet although the publisher Houghton Mifflin featured Brer Rabbit on the cover of The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales (1899), Chesnutt’s collected local color fiction challenged and revised the plantation tradition. His ex-slave storyteller Uncle Julius offers a far darker vision of slavery and the South in his conjure tales, if his Northern white auditors John (the stories’ narrator) and his wife Annie can hear it.
By the time The Conjure Woman came out, Chesnutt was writing short stories set in the late 19th century present. 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 “nadir” 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.
In the era of Barack Obama and the inspiring yet also divided and racist responses his presidency his evoked, in a period defined by police shootings, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and campus protests, Chesnutt’s historical, cultural, and political themes, and the boundary crossing fictions through which he examined them, could not be more relevant and vital.