Charles W. Chesnutt, First Black Fiction Novelist
Charles W. Chesnutt 1858 - 1932
A Child of Humbled Mixed Beginnings
Disclaimer: please be advised before reading this piece. Some may find the use of particular words offensive. This language is used to describe the era and racial mores of the time, and also reflects the author's mindset when written.
On June 20,1858, Anne Maria Sampson gave birth to her and Andrew Jackson Chesnutt's oldest child Charles Wadell Chesnutt in Cleveland, Ohio. Both were freed blacks from North Carolina. The family left North Carolina due to increasing due to political unrest and slavery issues. At the end of the Civil War the family moved back to Fayetteville, North Carolina, and had grown to a family of five.
The father, Andrew Jackson Chesnutt, was the product of a prosperous slaveholder and farmer, Waddell Cade, and his mulatto mistress/housekeeper Ann Chesnutt. Ms. Chesnutt was a descendant of a free mulatto Fayetteville family. Because of this heritage Charles Chesnutt sported features that barely distinguished him from whites. Due to the racial mores of the era his social status was lower than those of white American, because of the amount of black blood that flowed through his veins.
Charles, at the age of eight, began working in the grocery store operated by his father in Fayetteville. He attended the Freedmans's Bureau School, during this time his mother passed away and Charles had to start working to help with the family's survival. Charles took a position as a pupil teacher, unfortunately this deprived him of a formal education. This set back did not deter the young Charles W. Chesnutt who self educated himself while performing his duties as a teacher at various black schools.
Mr. Chesnutt lived a nomadic life as a teacher in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Charlotte and North Carolina. In 1877 he returned to Fayetteville, and became an assistant principal. Here he met is colleague, soul-mate and future wife, Susan Perry, daughter of a prosperous barber.
While coming of age as a father and family man Charles noted that he had two important life decisions to make; find a place for he and his family to settle down, and decide on a career. Because of his physical outward appearance, success in impoverished and deeply racially prejudice South were slim to none. This entry in his personal journal reflects his feelings on where he fit in society;
"I occupy here a position similar to that of Mahomet's Coffin. I am neither fish, flesh, nor fowl-neither "nigger," white, nor "buckrah." Too "stuck-up" for the colored folks, and, of course, not recognized by the whites."
New York City, would be the state of choice to settle in with his family, believing the the North would hold a less volatile racial environment for the Chesnutts. Also he felt this move to New York would assist him to realize his literary dreams. Since possessing a very vibrant and thorough knowledge of pre and post slavery life in the South, he felt confident that this would be the place to begin his writing career.
After six months Charles and his now family of five moved back to his birth city of Cleveland in 1884. Once there he secured employment as a stenographer for Nickel Plate Railroad Company and also began studying law. All spare time was dedicated to writing. Uncle Peter's House was his first published short story and appeared in the Cleveland News and Herald in 1855.
Charles W. Chesnutt Published at Last!
After the "Uncle Peter's House" publication Mr. Chesnutt went on to become the first African American author to be published in the Atlantic Monthly, a major literary journal of the time.
The first story to appear in the journal was "The Goophered Grapevine", in which a character named, Uncle Julius was a bridge between the past and present times of slavery. Not only was this a short story, but a mini series that included tales of black hoodoo practices and beliefs and revealed slave culture with African elements to white readers.
With the success of "The Goophered Grapevine" the Houghton Mifflin publishing company showed an interest in Chesnutt's work. In March of 1899, his first public book was the "The Conjure Woman" was published. In this book Charles wrote of the eternal struggle between ill-natured, cruel slaveholders and witty clever slaves. Using characters "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny," "Mars Jeem's Nightmare," and Hot-Foot Hannibal" to manipulate the masters to their advantage.
More Published Works of Charles W. Chesnutt
After the success of this first book Charles went on to publish a second collection of stories; "The Wife of His Youth and other Stories of the Color line" all nine stories united with one common theme and based on racial social issue - miscegenation in America. The reviews were harsher on this publication because critics felt Chesnutt was obsessing about segregation. The reviews of this last book caused a financial hardship for Chesnutt and his family, but did not dissuade the author from continuing to pursue his life dream of becoming a full time writer.
In 1900 Chesnutt's first novel "The House Behind the Cedars" was published the author stated that the plot was simple " a story of a colored girl who passes for white", this brought up a new host of problems for the budding author - racial identity. Many felt that the introduction of bi-racial characters advocated the right of mixed races to be accepted on equal terms with whites.
1907 "The Marrow of Tradition" was published, but turned out to be a disastrous failure, through no fault of the author. The book was based on the Wilmington, North Carolina race riot of 1898. Critics noted that workmanship or weakness of Chesnutt's writing was not the reason for the failing, but the subject matter was a thorn in the side of Northern readers.
Afterward Chesnutt was forced to re-open his court reporting business that he closed in 1899 because his latest vehicle was not so enthusiastically received as those before them. This did not deter him from writing in his "spare time" again he went on to write; Baxter's Procrustes, The Colonel's Dream, a play in four acts "Mrs. Darcy's Daughter", but failed to find a producer.
Several of Chesnutt's novels were published posthumously in 2002;
- Stories, Novels and Essays
- The Conjure Woman
- The wife of his Youth & Other Stories of the Color Line
- The House Behind The Cedars
- The Marrow of Tradition
- Uncollected Stories, Selected Essays
Charles W. Chesnutt - Activist
After failing to secure publishing and production for his last literary attempts Chesnutt became absorbed in social and political issues. This time was devoted to writing speeches and articles in defense of his race. Chesnutt. along with other black activist of the time, Booker T. Washington and W.W. B. Du Bois, tread through racism advocating reform of racial conditions of the South and better treatment of the Southern black population.
Charles W. Chesnutt became a member of a host of sororities, clubs, organizations and the Chamber of Commerce of Cleveland, the City Club and the Rowfant Club, which were the top organizations of that era.
Chesnutt also served on the General Committee of the NAACP, and was awarded the Spingarn Medal for his "pioneer work as a literary artist depicting the life and struggle of Americans of Negro descent, and for his long and useful carrier as scholar, worker, freeman of one of American's greatest cities". While serving with the NAACP, in 1917, Chesnutt protested and successfully shutdown showings in Ohio of the racist controversial film Birth of a Nation, which was being protested by the group across the nation.
On November 15, 1932, Charles Wadell Chesnutt, passed away leaving behind a beautiful legacy of African-American literature. Mr. Chesnutt was not seeking racial tolerance, but "one people molded by the same culture". In a speech he had prepared was a statement that would echo throughout the decades, and would become a peoples outcry 58 years later when spoken by another brave activist...Martin Luther King;
"God is no respecter of persons and that of one blood hath he made all the nations of the earth."
This story is only the tip of the iceberg regarding the importance of Black History month. We must remember the past or we'll be doomed to repeat it. Blacks know virtually nothing of their ancestor's beginnings prior to our arrival in this land, but we should honor and respect those who came before us here in America.
Our forefathers stared down the face of racism and major adversity, fighting against injustice at every turn, showing our fellow man what the human spirit can accomplish to right a wrong.
I am eternally proud of my forefathers who cleared a path for blacks in this country to stand strong and stay strong.
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