Jean Toomer, “Cane” (1923)

This week I will be reading the second volume of the Library of America’s collection of Harlem Renaissance novels.  I considered the works from the 1930s earlier.  The five novels in this collection are from the 1920s and begins with Jean Toomer’s brilliant novel Cane.

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Cane is not a difficult novel to read, but it is impressionistic, like much of high modernist writing.  Structurally, Cane mixes short vignettes drawn from subjective experiences of different people across black America, intermixed with poems.  At the end of the novel is the only lengthy piece, a play about a school teacher.  Many of these works were published before, and as an overall theme is either hard to find or broad, Cane can be read as short stories (and it is anthologized that way often enough).  If any work contested W. E. B. Du Bois’ belief that during a time of political struggle, fiction should take on the role of propaganda, it is Cane, which sought to present life as it was lived, even down to the scents.  What propaganda cannot do well is provide subjective experiences.  In contrast, Toomer floods Cane with those very subjective experiences.  Every small section of this novel provides the perspective of another person.  Men, women, mixed race, Southern, Northern, urban, rural, middle class, poor are all represented in the short vignettes that Toomer strings together elegantly.  While a work of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane is of the South.  It is either set there, or haunted by the memory of the South.  It reminds us that the Harlem Renaissance emerged from the dynamism that migration provides.  And as with any migrants, the writers of Harlem kept one foot in their old homes.  Toomer understood that he was engaged in a dialog with the the black literary establishment.  In the final section of Cane, about a teacher returning to Georgia we find the teacher getting the following explanation about why he must resign from his position.  “Professor Kabnis, to come straight to the point: the progress of the Negro race is jeopardized whenever the personal habits and examples set by its guides and mentors fall below the acknowledged and hard-won standard of its average member.  This institution . . . was founded, and has been maintained at a cost of great labor and untold sacrifice.  It purpose is to teach our youth to live better, cleaner, more noble lives.  To prove to the world that the Negro race can be just like any other race.” (107)  This language is not so far from that of Du Bois and other who believed that art should function to defend the image of the “New Negro.”  Toomer, of course, will have none of that.

toomerJean Toomer himself was biracial and grew up in a white community in Washington D.C.  He studied in various places, including the University of Wisconsin and the Massachusetts College of Agriculture before settling down in New York.  His first marriage was to a white woman, Margery Latimer, although this was short-lived due to Latimer’s death in child-birth.  Many of the stories in Cane reflect elements of his life, especially mixed race sexuality and its challenge to the color line.  Toomer stated as much when defending his first marriage.  “There is a new race in America.  I am a member of this new race.  It is neither white nor black nor in-between.  It is the American race.” (846)  Of course, such an effort to redefine race in American was a threat to the power structure, which sustained so much of its power by manipulating the color line for its own interests.  (See the scholarship on the role of race in union busting throughout American industrial history.)

Thinking about Cane from a libertarian perspective, I was often thinking about how the form of a novel can either liberate or limit a writer’s expression.  Certainly, an entire novel could have been written about “Karintha,” a young woman who is constantly desired by the older men around her.  Toomer is able to condense her story into a few pages but as a reader we do not feel at all betrayed by the apparent negligence.  Indeed, it is so packed with meaning that this short vignette feels like a meal.  In this way, the line between the poems and the stories is not large.

caneThere are two major transgressions documented by Toomer in Cane: interracial sex and mobility.  Both of these transgressions profoundly informed the Harlem Renaissance generation and both were significant challenges to the color line.   Interestingly, under slavery both of these ensured the power of the masters.  Interracial sex enforced the power of white masters over black women and mobility (the domestic slave trade) remained a threat, weapon, or means of making money for masters.  In the post-slavery world, mobility was a threat to land owners and employers who wanted an easily exploited and low paid labor supply in the South.  Interracial sex, once a tool of control, was now a threat to the color line, enforced by legal restrictions on interracial cooperation (and even interaction).  Toomer shows us through some of these stories that blacks as well as white worked to prevent these transgressions.  “Becky,” a white woman with two black sons is ostracized by both sides of the color line.  Yet, the world Toomer describes is still very open with many opportunities for those of will and the walls of power seem everywhere fragile.  While they are there, certainly.  Class is a strong theme, but we do not feel the heavy walls of the bosses bearing down the characters like in some of the more consciously class-based novels (or even compared to James Baldwin’s work, which was heavily invested in the struggle for racial equality).  Toomer’s characters are not revolutionaries. They are people, often at the margins, often seizing weak points in the system.  One of these weak points seems to be the dynamism of Harlem (or all those urban areas in the North).  “Seventh Street is a bastard of Prohibition and the War.  A crude-boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs and love, thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington.” (47)  Mobility grinds away at the walls of race.  This helps explain why Toomer’s stories are filled with wandering preachers, teachers moving from north to South, or students entering college in whitewashed Madison.  I am not certain if the mobile worker is truly more powerful, wise, or aware than anyone else, but in the American novel he is.

James Baldwin, “Going the Meet the Man” (1965)

The Library of America volume of James’ Baldwin’s fiction ends with his 1965 short story collection Going to Meet the Man.  A common theme in Baldwin’s work is the daily-lived experience of racism in 20th century America that goes beyond the legal discrimination of Jim Crow.  It is these experiences that were so central to the lives of Northern blacks like Baldwin, whose families escaped the more formal discrimination of the South. I hesitate to say it was worse as in Baldwin’s mind the urban racism he wanted to describe was no less debilitation, brutal, or (as in the case of police repression) institutionalized.

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All eight stories are fascinating and provide insights into American racism from different ages and points of view.  I was reminded of The Dubliners in the way Baldwin progressively orders these stories from young to old – starting with vibrancy, curiosity, and potential and ending with impotence.  Not all of his characters are black.  Notably, the lead figure in “Going to Meet the Man” is a white sheriff who is incapable of having sex with his wife without remembering an act of racial violence he witnessed.  In general, Baldwin is reminding us of how important society is in defining our individual potential – more of then not setting limits for us.  The trouble is that autonomy and escape from social institutions – even in urban areas (the place where such escape should be possible) – is simply not possible when your identity is imposed on you from the outside.

“The Rockpile” revisits the family of Go Tell It on the Mountain.  Here it is the father, Gabriel, who defines his son as an outsider.  When his natural son, Roy, in injured when fighting with other boys on a local rockpile, the stepson, John must carry the blame.  The central institution in “The Rockpile” is the family and to a lesser degree religion, since John’s mother so often resorts to religion to justify her husband’s actions or demand John obey his stepfather or suffer his ordeals (like a good Christian).

“The Outing” gives us the same character and setting.  This time they are engaged in a Christian outing on a boat.  It strikes us as a rather nice setting and it is nice to observe some of the more playful freedom of the boys, who are mostly interested in the outing as a chance to spend time with some of the neighborhood girls.  Religion, of course, saturates the air and we see the parents working hard to keep their children focused on the religious purpose of the outing.  This can work as a metaphor for Baldwin’s entire polemic against social institutions, that they try to confine our individual free expression.  The expectation of being saved is placed on the boys at the end.  The cost of the gathering of the community is their future commitment to its values.

“The Man Child” is about the violent brought out by class resentment.  We are presented with two friends, Jamie and Eric’s father.  Jamie is a drunk, unmarried (he “lost” his wife), and an economic failure.  Eric’s father has achieved everything his friend lacks, including having a son, Eric.  While the two men stated at the same point but diverged greatly.  In resentment, desperation, or loneliness Jamie kills Eric.  While the previous two tales suggest the oppressive power of social institutions like family and tradition, “The Man Child” reminds us how devastating it can be to not have those things.

“Previous Conditions” is a more straightforward account of how race functions in America.  The narrator is a poor actor.  He sums up his dilemma: “I’m not tall and I’m not good looking and I can’t sing or dance and I’m not white; so even at the best of times I wasn’t in much demand.” (816)  The story explores a series of slights he faces, including being kicked out of his apartment (he sublet from a white friend) because he was black.   He was taught as a child not to accept being called “nigger” but in his adulthood it has become part of the transcript of his life.  Despite his isolation the story ends with a simple act of kindness (innocently purchasing a round of beers for some women sitting next to him).  We also get a window into the mistrust and indifference of the urban setting.  “Anonymous, islanded people surrounded  me, behind newspapers, behind make-up, fat, fleshy masks and flat eyes.  I watched the empty faces. (No one looked at me.)” (828)

“Sonny’s Blues” is a very powerful tale of a man who observes the fall of his younger brother into drugs after his decision to become a jazz musician.  After deciding to help his brother due to the death of his 2-year-old daughter we gain access to the narrator’s memories, particularly how he was charged with caring for his younger brother after the death of their father.  Sonny, the younger brother, is through all of this a more infantile character, relying on the care of others.  The narrator was scornful of Sonny’s choice to become a musician, even trying to believe that “musician” meant classical pianist.  When seeing the cleaned up Sonny perform at a bar, he learns how little he understood about Sonny’s powerful art, his renown, his talent, and how libertatory it was for him (even if that liberation was checked by drug use).  “It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament.  I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting.  Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.  Yet, there was no battle in his face now.  I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth.  He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy.” (863)  Music was a way to escape suffering and the burden of expectations (in this case also familial).

“This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” takes us back to the expat community in Paris (see Giovanni’s Room and Another Country for more examples of Baldwin’s interest in Americans in Paris as a setting for his work.  Its central theme is the relative freedom from discrimination that African-Americans felt when they moved to Europe.  This is an old theme.  Even Frederick Douglass wrote on this in reference to his travels in England.  The jazz musician Sindey Bichet moved to Paris to escape racism as well (I recall this in my mind, but do not quote me).  Let’s listen to a bit.

Anyway, Baldwin has some beautiful and lively descriptions of Paris here.  “So here are American boys, anything but beardless, scratching around for Hemingway; American girls, titillating themselves with Frenchmen and existentialism, while waiting for the American boys to shave off their beards; French painters, busily pursuing the revolution which ended thirty years ago; and the young, bored, perverted, American arrivistes who are buying their way into the art world via flattery and liquor, and the production of canvases as arid as their greedy little faces.  Here are boys, of all nations, one step above the pimp.”  (892)

“Come Out the Wilderness” explores an interracial couple.  Ruth is a black woman working in an office and Paul is a white man and painter.  Ruth feels anxious about their relationship, her memories of her ex-boyfriend and Paul’s flakiness about the relationship.  She is convinced of the worse about him.  “He wanted to go.  He was not going to another woman.  He simply wanted to go.”  (909) The core of the story is her musings about her relationships, which tended to be defined by power, ownership, obligation, and service — in other words slavery.  Above and beyond the obvious issue of the legacy of slavery among black women and reality of masters raping enslaved women, should this be a tool to critique relationships more broadly.  Indeed, Ruth’s musings on slavery came when she thinks about her black ex-boyfriend not her current one who is just aloof.  This was in some ways a critique of the most radical voices in the sexual revolution – that relationships tend to be colonial and should be rethought from the ground up.

“Going to Meet the Man” is the last tale in this collection and is set entirely in a bedroom.  The plot consists of a impotent man finally achieving sexual arousal.  What gives this impotent white sheriff an erection is his recollections of the brutal lynching of a black man, which he saw as a boy under the direction of his father who insisted he witness the torture and death of another human being.  The last scene is no less horrifying.  His arousal, awakened by these memories, is tainted with racially-motivated violence.  (I will let you read it yourself.)  Baldwin’s generation not only experienced incredible racially-motivated violence during the context of the Civil Rights Movement and struggles against police violence, but older people had lasting memories of the early 20th century, when violence became one of the key tools to enforce Jim Crow.  Although this is a horrifying window in the mind of a white racist, we take away from Going to Meet the Man the lesson that the Jim Crow-era of racism was something that was lived from  birth until old age, in every aspect of life from the bedroom to the playground to the house of worship to the pub.

Lafcadio Hearn, “Midsummer Trip to the Tropics” (1890)

Lafcadio Hearn published his Two Years in the French West Indies, of which “Midsummer Trip to the Tropics” is an extended prologue.  It was in print before it became part of the larger world on the two years of his life Hearn spent in Martinique.  To properly historicize this text we need to understand that Hearn was a vocal anti-racist (in word and in deed) at a time when race relations were near their worst.  While the United States was moving toward racial segregation, disfranchisement, and the codification of Jim Crow, Hearn married a black woman, wrote essays against racial discrimination, and describe favorably the former slave societies in the Indies.  Martinique would become one of the loves of his life.  When he left, after a smallpox outbreak on the island, he wrote “It seemed like tearing my heart out to leave Martinique.”  He went these, seemingly to abandon the United States, its systematical racial oppression, and the professional of journalism, tainted, in his words with “pettiness, cowardice, selfishness.”  (I cannot help sympathize as someone leaving academia with similar resentments shaping my judgment.)  “Midsummer Trip to the Tropics” documents his 1887 cruise.

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While I have not revisited it yet (and I truly fear putting my foot in my mouth here), I recall Innocents Abroad as being a profoundly American type of travelogue.  In that text Mark Twain toured the Mediterranean as an American, armed with American wit and sensibilities.  It is a busy book.  It is a tourist account.  Twain and his traveling companions saw what they were supposed to see.  Travel was a series of checked boxes (pyramids, the Levant, Paris).  Hearn’s account in contrast strikes me as profoundly un-American (for the Gilded Age anyway) in its sentiments and attitudes.  His account ends with an anti-racist stand, challenging the prevailing theories on segregation, nationalism, and scientific racism.  Hearn mourns for a moment the end of racial diversity, but he sees it as an inevitable conclusion to centuries of racial violence and animosity.  Hearn would spend the next two years of his life challenging the trend that would to the end of whites (and then mixed race people) in the islands.  “And the true black element, more numerically powerful, more fertile, more cunning, better adapted to pyrogenic climate and tropical environment, would surely win. [We see here, of course, that Hearn is not fully immune from scientific racism of the day.] All these mixed races, all these beautiful fruit-colored populations, seemed doomed to extinction: the future tendency must be to universal blackness.” (246)  It does without saying that this a goal of Jim Crow in the United States.  Hearn himself was fired for breaking anti-miscegenation laws.  Rather than seeing racial separation a key to preserving the integrity of racial categories, Hearn suggests that it is a recipe for disaster and would lead to “a struggle for supremacy.”  Earlier in the travelogue he wrote: “You are among a people of half-breeds, — the finest mixed race of the West Indies” when speaking of the human urban landscape of St. Pierre.  A few pages later is describes with wonder: “There is one rare race-type, totally unlike the rest: the skin has a perfect gold-tone, an exquisite metallic yellow; the eyes are long, and have long silky lashes; — the hair is a mass of think, rich, glossy curls that show blue lights in the sun.  What mingling of races produced this beautiful type? — there is some strange blood in the blending, — not of coolie, nor of African, nor of Chinese, although there are Chinese types here of indubitable beauty.” (188) When Hearn discusses the scenery, natural landscape, and architecture of the islands he is similarly celebrating the plurality of influences: the dress, the sugar plantation, the cross on top of houses of worship.   Even the sea is speaking to him in the language of miscegenation.  “Only, instead of a blue line at the horizon, you have a green line; instead of flashings of blue, you have flashings of green, — and in all the tints, in all the combinations of which green is capable: deep green, light green, yellow-green, black-green.” (195)

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Hearn expresses horror at what can best be called “modernization” on the islands.  Much like Chita the story begins with the unfolding of nature.  Modernization on the island must engage in a continual struggle with nature.  “You see no human face; but you see all around you the labor of man being gnawed and devoured by nature, — broken bridges, sliding steps, fallen arches, strangled foundations with empty basins; — and everywhere the pungent odor of decay.” (204)  As with Hearn’s views on race, this pessimisms about development and his tendency to give the reigns of power to nature runs against the grain of the predominate ideology of post-Civil War America.  At a time when the United States capitalist class waged a brutal war against the mountains, plains, rivers, and resources of the North American continent, Hearn looks at development in the Caribbean with the eyes of a 20th century conservationist.  “Under the present negro-radical regime orders have been given for the wanton destruction of trees older than the colony itself; — and marvels that could not be replaced in a hundred generations were cut down and converted into charcoal for the use of public institutions.” (204)

Finally, Hearn cannot help but pay attention to and appreciate the growing population of new immigrants to the islands, particularly the so-called “coolies” from India.  Hearn seems to realize that the position of these new immigrants into the already complex racial mixture of Martinque or Trinidad.

I am hoping that Hearn will provide a less impressionistic account of some of these issues in his “Martinique Sketches” the second part (and the majority) of Two Years in the French West Indies.  For now, I want to suggest that Hearn might be a very un-American tourist in the sense that he is seeing in the West Indies shadows of the issues plaguing America, but his observations take him in the opposite direction than the U.S. was heading in the 1880s and 1890s.

Robert A. Heinlein, “Double Star”: Franchise Politics and the Virtues of Empire

I am starting a new volume of The Library of America this week and shifting away from the non-fiction writings that dominated my discussions of Henry Adams and William James.  Rather than explore the 2,400 pages of Adams’ history of the early American republic, I decided to set Adams aside for now and take up the second volume of the collections’ sampling of 1950s science fiction.  This volume begins with Robert A. Heinlein’s Double Star.  I started the blog with science fiction writers of the same generation as Heinlein and we see right away that his life compares with these others (go to the first four posts of this blog for my comments on these works).  Like the others, Heinlein made his name in pulp magazines, lived through the second World War (Heinlein served in the Naval Yards), and lived through the emergence of science fiction as a major genre of American writing.  He also saw its entrance into American television.  One of his famous novels played no small role in the sexual revolution.  Stranger in a Strange Land questioned the rationality of monogamy by looking at it through the eyes of a Martian stranger.  One result of this work was the establishment of (perhaps) the first organization of the sexual revolution promoting ethical non-monogamy, the Church of the All Worlds.  The model of this pagan group existed in the novel first.  His politics are all over the map and change throughout his life and his works.  Throughout everything is a strong believe in individualism and personal autonomy, which led him to embrace some aspects of Ayn Rand’s philosophy but also free love and the ideas of Margaret Mead.  When and if, The Library of America publishes a larger collection of his work, I will say more about Heinlein, I am sure.

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Double Star tells the story of a actor with the appropriate name Lorenzo Smyth who is hired to mimic a politician who has been kidnapped.  The politician his is mimicking is John Joseph Bonforte.  Bonforte leads the Expansionist political party within a constitutional imperial monarchy.  While the name seems to suggest an expanding Earth empire, Bonforte and the Expansionist Party actually supports the broader imperial coalition with Martians as civic equals of humans.  In this way, the Expansionist Party looks a bit like the politics of the Roman Empire, which eventually granted citizenship to all free males in the empire and remains one of the more interesting examples of a mult-ethnic empire.  The Ottomans seem to have established a similar model that incorporated Christians, Shia Muslims, Arabs, and Jews into the Empire on relative equal footing, something that nation-states have failed to do, as evidenced by the rise of ethnic cleansing in the age of nationalism.  Anyway, their main political opponents are the humanists (which Lorenzo Smyth is sympathetic too).  They oppose Martian incorporation into the empire.  The Martians look, speak, and act differently and are too clearly “the Other” for any true equality.  As with much science-fiction of the 1950s, the influence of Jim Crow and its challengers would have been clear to any reader.  I will bracket these racial allegories because they are mostly boring, and speak instead of the possible virtues of empire.

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It is not my view that empire is an ideal system.  Nation-states, however, are grounded on principles of difference.  Wilson dreamed of each “nation” enjoying self-determination, certainly not each individual.  Who would have the job of determining which people are a nation?  It often fell to the educated elite, who define the language, folklore, and history of a people and pushed it onto the people via a system of forced public education.  People who fell out of this definition would be excluded from the rights of citizenship and best.  At worst, they would need to be excised.  This is the history of the nation state.  Were empires better?  In many ways not.  They were not by definition participatory, but they were by definition ethnically diverse.  They did not typically force a singular identity on all of the people.  In many cases, as long as you kicked up taxes and remained peaceful, empires tended to leave you alone.  Not so the nation-state.  In Double Star, Bonforte (his ideas given voice by a clever actor) sees empire and expansion in this way.  “My opponent would have you believe that the motto of the so-called Humanity Party, ‘Government of human beings, by human beings, and for human beings,’ is no more than an updating of the immortal words of Lincoln.  But while the voice is the voice of Abraham, the hand is the hand of the Ku Klux Klan.  The true meaning of that innocent-seeming motto is ‘Government of all races everywhere, by human beings alone, for the profit of a privileged few.   But my opponent protests, we have a God-given mandate to spread enlightenment through the states, dispensing our own brand of Civilization to the savages.  This is the Uncle Remus school of sociology–the good dahkies singin’ spirituals and Ole Massa lubbin’ every one of dem!  It is a beautiful picture but the frame is too small; it fails to show the whip, teh slave block–and the counting house!” (97)  Bonforte presents two models of empire.  One based on the domination of one people over another, bringing oppression under the model of civilization, the other on diversity and shared solidarity.  In a sense, it is the same conflict with have toady over globalization.  Is globalization the simple bringing of Western modernity to the far corners of the world and the exploitation of the world’s poor for the benefits of a few rich nations, or does it present the possibility of transnational solidarity.  Both can be labelled empire.

At the end of the novel, Bonforte dies and Smyth is in the position of having to take on his role as Bonforte for life.  In a sense, he becomes Bonforte in everything but DNA.  I am reminded of Adams’ critique in Democracy.  Everyone, he seems to suggest, is acting.  But each politicians acting has the goal of enriching themselves.  Here, we find that given the institutions of political parties, each politician is potentially interchangeable.  Smyth was a skilled actor but essentially anyone could have been Bonforte, simply by learning his speeches, philosophy, and values.  This is franchise politics.  In American politics today, when a candidate for office goes off messages, it can be a crisis for the Party.  Politicians are hired to sell a product, the message of the party.  The face, behind the message (as long as there are no sex tapes or other dirty secrets) is essentially irrelevant.

What begins implausible (an actor taking over for a politician) ends up being for us very familiar and a painful reminder of how shallow our democracy is.  We do elect actors and salespeople to speak for us.  That they may promote values that we share make the deception no less odious.

Charlest Chesnutt, “The House Behind the Cedars” and “The Marrow of Tradition”

“As a matter of fact, substantially all of my writings, with the exception of The Conjure Woman, have dealt with the problems of people of mixed blood, which, while in the main the same as those of the true Negro, are in some instances and in some respects much more complex and difficult of treatment, in fiction as in life.” (910-911)  The Library of American collection of Charles Chesnutt’s writings ends with his essay “Post-Bellum-Pre-Harlem”, which considered the black literary scene in American in the later 19th century and is semi-autobiographical (Chesnutt being one of the first generation of black writers after the war – and the first to seriously explore the short story).  I through this quote up, in part to justify my comparatively terse treatment of Chesnutt’s work.  In truth, I am behind on my schedule, but I am not sure I would have much more to stay if I spread this out over two posts.  So, here I will consider Chesnutt’s two major novels The House Behind the Cedars and The Marrow of Tradition.  They look at the dilemma of the color line the personal level (House Behind the Cedars) and the institutional (The Marrow of Tradition).

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The first novel tells the story of a young biracial woman, who goes with his brother to a new city in order to “pass” as whites.  While there, her brother, a promising lawyer, moves into the various circles of society.  Eventually, the young woman, Rena, meets a white man who courts her.  They fall in love and set to marry.  This engagement, if not the feelings the suitor has for Rena, falls apart when Rena’s secret is exposed.  Complicating Rena’s life are the pressures of her family and community that hope she will marry a locally influential “widower” (he was indeed abusive).  Her cousin and best friend, Frank, secretly loves her as well.  In a rather too sentimental ending, Rena collapses from the pressures of her disastrous love life and soon dies, ending the novel.  The novel does do a nice job of discussing the difficulty of passing – in respect to one’s hometown and culture.  Locally, Rena’s family had marriage plans for her.  In order to pass as white she would have had to abandon forever the society of her birth.  Her failure to turn her back on tradition (understandable to be sure) is what exposes her secret.  Chesnutt reminds us that the color line is as much a product of education as of color.  Other biracial characters cannot “pass” due to their education.  When Rena’s white suitor breaks off the engagement, he tells Rena’s brother that he “shall never be able to think of you as other than a white man,” largely due to his education and success (369).  This makes the color line ridiculous and suggests there was a deeper line of culture that intersected at certain points the line of tradition.

I found The Marrow of Tradition, a bit more thematically interesting mostly because it deals with the institutions of racial oppression.  It seems to me, that any struggle for liberty must take on institutionalized power.  No matter of personal growth is adequate.  (Even Rena’s suitor evolved in his views on the color line, but this did little to avert tragedy.  The marriage was institutionally impossible.)   The Marrow of Tradition is set in the context of the efforts to institutionalize white supremacy in disfranchisement laws.  It is set in Wellington (based on Wilmington North Carolina). To aid this efforts to institutionalize racism, one of the novel’s major characters Major Carteret uses his newspaper to ferment racial hatred.   His own family has close ties to the local black community, through the history of slavery, employment, and his wife’s father who remarried a black woman and gave birth to some biracial children.  These connections complicate the plot in interesting ways.  We are constantly reminded that there are not two separate communities in Wellington, but rather one integrated society rife with internal contradictions.  However, Carteret’s racism is on display throughout the novel.  When his son requires surgery for a throat obstruction, he calls in a Pennsylvania doctor, who brings with him a young black doctor, Miller, who is returning to his hometown anyway.  Carteret does not allow the black doctor to perform the surgery.  Miller’s wife, Janet, is actually Mrs. Carteret’s half-sister through their father.  Later in the novel, an older white woman Polly Ochitree is killed by Tom Delamere, over gambling debts.  He successfully frames Sandy, a long-time black servant of the Delamere family.  A lynching of Sandy is narrowly averted by the intervention of the patriarch of the Delamere family, who seems to be a man of integrity, even as his family profited from racial oppression.  His defense of Sandy is rooted in white privileged and a belief that “his servants” raised by his family could never commit a crime as vile as murder.

A lynching adverted, the novel continues with the efforts of Carteret to implement white supremacy by using the media to stir up racial hostilities.  These efforts reach their climax in a race riot that leaves several blacks dead, including Miller’s child. As the novel ends, Carteret’s child is again stricken ill and requires surgery.  Miller first refuses to treat him.  Only with Mrs. Carteret convinced her half-sister, does Dr. Miller treat the child.

Chesnutt describes the theme of the novel as the power of tradition.  He believed that only by confronting tradition could the problem of the color line be resolved.  “Tradition made the white people masters, rulers, who absorbed all the power, the wealth, the honors of the community and jealously guarded this monopoly, with white they claimed to be divinely endowed, by denying to those who were not of their cast the opportunity to acquire any of these desirable things.  Tradition, on the other hand, made the Negro a slave, an underling, existing by favor and not by right, his place the lowest in the social scale, to which, by the same divine warrant, he was hopelessly confined.  The old order has passed away, by these opinions, deeply implanted in the consciousness of two races, still persist, and The Marrow of Tradition seeks to show the efforts of the people of a later generation to adjust themselves in this traditional atmosphere to the altered conditions of a new era.” (872)  Yet, when reading the novel, I am struck by how difficult racial supremacy was to maintain.  Given this tradition, Carteret still had to apply violence, the media, economic oppression, legal injustices, and even a lynch mob to implement his vision of racial supremacy.  This is not to say that tradition is not powerful, but it alone cannot maintain chains.

Image from the Wilmington Race Riot

Image from the Wilmington Race Riot

Charles W. Chesnutt, “The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories”

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Charles Chesnutt’s 1899 The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line challenged the hard boundaries of race and class that shaped post-war America.  He also shows that the longer we look at the absurdity of the “color line,” the more quickly it looks both ridiculous and brutal.  This progressive realization of the brutality of race is suggested in the structure of the stories.  The first story (“The Wife of His Youth”) is a rather nice tale of a slave who ran away, received an education, and after the war reached an elite station – even gaining membership in the “Blue Veins,” a society of elite blacks, many of whom were biracial.  To escape slavery, this man had to leave his wife.  During a party, this man recognizes his former wife – a very dark-skinned woman – and tells their story for the audience of elitist, skin-tone-conscious blacks.  The final story in the collection, “The Web of Circumstance,” examines the same color line, reflected now in unequal applications of the legal system, by showing how a man’s life is destroyed by an unfair prosecution.  In the end he is indiscriminately shot by his former boss, seeing him now only as “a desperate-looking negro, clad in filthy rags, and carrying in his hand a murderous bludgeon.” (266)  And while the main character is strangely fated via the web of circumstances, we cannot escape the formal and informal applications of power at every step of the way (the courts, prisons, racial privileged, and property law) that explain his outcome.  I am reminded of David Simon’s use of the concept of fate in The Wire, where post-industrial institutions control our lives and define out path.   Chesnutt is not shy about his argument, which he presents in the final page. “Some times, we are told, when the cycle of years has rolled around, there is to be another golden age, when all men will dwell together in love and harmony, and when peace and righteousness shall prevail for a thousand years.  God speed the day, and let not the shining threat of hope become so enmeshed in the web of circumstance that we lose sight of it; but give us here and there, and now and then, some little foretaste of this golden age, that we may the more patiently and hopefully await its coming!” (266) We can, perhaps, forgive Chesnutt’s passivity at the end.  In the face of such domineering structures of power, what was possible?  We now know, it took sustained struggle.

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The rest of the stories hover between this brutality and pessimism and the more sentimental, but they all remind us how blurry the color line was, even under slavery and in the harsh legal separation of Jim Crow.  Sometimes this blurring is caused by history, as in “The Sheriff’s Children,” about a sheriff who struggles to keep a black man safe from a Klan-like mob while he await’s trial.  We learn at the end that the prisoner is his own son.  As a slave owner, he impregnated one of his slaves and then sold her and her child to a speculator.  Othertime it is blurred by the prejudices of biracial and middle class blacks.  In “A Matter of Principle,” a rich member of the Blue Vein Society, Cicero Clayton, was excited by the prospect of a marriage between his daughter and a Congressman.  When Clayton goes to meet the suitor at the train station he mistook him for a someone else and rejected the meeting because he was too dark.  “If the Congressman had turned out to be brown, even dark brown, with fairly good hair, thought he might not have desired him as a son-in-law, yet he could have welcomed him as a guest.  But even this softening of the blow was denied him, for the man in the waiting-room was palpably, aggressively black, with pronounced African features and woolly hair, without apparently a single drop of redeeming white blood.” (160-161)  This honest internal monologue is contrasted with Clayton’s public proclamations, calling for the “Brotherhood of Man.”  In “Uncle Wellington’s Wives,” a mulatto man leaves his wife (since his slave marriage was not legitimated after the war), goes north to pass as white.  He marries a white woman, but eventually returns to his original wife and community finding a greater degree of acceptance there.  Nevertheless, passing for Uncle Wellington was easy.  Chesnutt often reminds us how flexible the line was.

I am conflicted about this.  On the one hand it is important to remember how we can take on new identities and take actions that blur the lines that divide us.  In these stories it is almost always unsatisfying.  This freedom often comes at great cost.  For Uncle Wellington it meant the disruption of his community and family and the betrayal of his wife.  More importantly, “passing’ was only possible for some.  If it is our physical characteristics, our bank account, our job, or gender that define our identity, crossing the line is more difficult and requires more destruction in its wake.  Thus, without the destruction of race as a category, these acts can only be solitary, individual revolutions.

One story in this collection does suggest a bit more agency and is set in the days of slavery.  “The Passing of Grandison” tells the story of a slaveowner’s son who tries to free one of his father’s slaves by taking him to the North and then Canada, giving him plenty of chances to run away.  He seems to remain loyal, throughout, much to the frustration of the young man.  Finally, Grandison, the slave, is left behind in Canada.  He returns to the plantation.  What seems at first glance to be evidence of irrational loyalty to a slave master turns out to be an elaborate ruse, when Grandison leaves for Canada a few weeks later with his entire family.  His true loyalty was to his family, who he did not want to leave behind.

These fascinating and satisfying tales provide both the tragedy of racism and Jim Crow but also reveal the potential for transgression in the wake of institutionalized slavery.