Part I: Charles Chesnutt In Context

Black Nationalist Discourse and the Mixed-Race Experience

After Chesnutt returned to his stenography business, his writing once again turned to politics, where, along with Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, he became an integral voice in Black Nationalist Discourse at the turn of the twentieth-century. Each man brought different perspectives to the advancement of African Americans and each man’s approach underscored arguments put forth by Wilson Jeremiah Moses in The Golden Age of Black Nationalism: 1850-1925, one of the first studies of Black Nationalism in the nineteenth-  and early twentieth-century.

As do other historians, Moses argues slavery as the primary cause of black nationalism, eroding the traditional cultures of those it enslaved within two generations. And because the particular system of American slavery created an experience whose effects were shared in common by virtually all English-speaking people of African descent, it created a racial unity unknown before the slave trade. At the same time, the idea of nationalism is not limited to any one group, and its practice and application are both so wide-ranging, it is necessary to understand how Moses positions black nationalism in America within the larger context of nationalism. As Moses explains, in late eighteen and early nineteen centuries, the goal of nationalism was motivated by two broad objectives: the aspiration of a subjected people to break away from foreign rule, or the desire to unite traditionally disunited people. While American black nationalism has historically participated to both of these patterns, it is also characterized by distinct differences. The ideological basis of nationalism is the idea that the subjected people are tied to a specific geographical region and united by language. On the other hand, black nationalism in America differs in that it its adherents are united neither by a common geography nor by a common language, but by the vague sense of racial unity imposed by the effects of slavery.As Moses points out, these effects were shared by both free and enslaved people of color: slaves were owned by individuals, while free people of color were owned by the community. As a result, in the nineteenth century, American black nationalism sought to override numerous differences by attempting to politically unify all of people, whether or not they were residents of African territories or descendants of those Africans who were dispersed by the slave trade.

In the early twentieth century,  Black Nationalism as a formal, political ideology incorporated tenants of Progressivism, a philosophy stemming from newly emerging social sciences that focused on education as the solution to problems of poverty, racism, and class warfare created by the rapid rise of industrialization. However, rhetoric surrounding  such classifications as assimilation, acculturation and amalgamation were so broadly defined that, depending on context and circumstance, the terminologies were often seen as interchangeable.  Any or all terminologies could be argued in each man’s approach even though each man’s approach engaged different definitions. For our purposes and in keeping with the tenants of the Cleveland Challenge, this discussion uses the Civil War to organize these approaches under the rubrics of education, suffrage, and the rights of the individual. Because Chesnutt’s contribution to the ideology is less known, a brief background of the development of black nationalism is needed in order to understand the movement as multilayered and multicultural, as well as appreciate the ways in which Chesnutt’s nascent approach is relevant today.

Colonization, Emigration, and Assimilation

Before the Civil War, the solution facing Black Nationalist leadership in the United States was colonization or assimilation. Simply put, the choices were leave or stay. Within the colonization movement were two groups: colonialization and emigration.  The American Colonization Society which advocated return to Africa under white administrators.  While the American Colonization Society advocated white leadership, it did have its share of black supporters, the most notable of whom is Alexander Crummell, who devoted twenty years to the colonization of Liberia. Emigration was the term used by advocates of colonization under black leadership as represented by the African Civilization Society.  The earliest emigrationist was Paul Cuffee, a mixed-race African and Native American who worked with the Sierra Leone Company as early as 1813.  Cuffee’s work was later resumed, albeit unsuccessfully, by author, doctor, and adventurer, Martin Delaney.  Assimilationists advocated remaining in the United State and claiming full citizenship as Americans. Although David Walker  is considered the first pro-assimilation black nationalist,  Frederick Douglass, who followed in Walker’s tradition, is probably the most recognized proponent of this group. Key issues to subscribed by both Walker and Douglass were the opposition of colonization, emigration, racial separatism, and laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

As Moses points out, the problem facing all facets of black nationalism—colonists, emigrationists, and assimilationists—was that those ideals and notions of government dominating the 19th-century were fundamentally Eurocentric and specifically Anglo Saxon. While Crummell, Delaney and Douglass differed on matters of colonization and emigration, what the three men had in common was their unshakable belief in Western academic tradition. Each man identified with notions of Western science, including European racial classification that categorized the yellow race with stability and fertility, the black race as languid and feminine, and the white race as noble and vigorous. Equally, all three men shared an unyielding faith in technology and industrial training as the only solution to racial problems, and all shared an unshakable conviction that no other form of Christianity except Protestantism could civilize Africa. All three believed that only under Protestantism could technology develop and that only when the black “masses” mastered industrial training could the African race become equal with whites. Equally important, all three were supporters of the patriarchy and patriarchal fundamentals for building civilizations, and all three believed that only with the acculturation of the masculine discipline that characterized the Saxon race could the black race succeed.

What seems to distinguish [white] colonization from [black] emigration was how the notion of Western political values would be transported. The distinction was that the goal of emigration was to infuse, rather than impose, Western ideals with existing cultures, thereby becoming part of the indigenous culture of the land to be inhabited.  Assimilation, on the other hand, required that black Americans stay in the United States but also advocated the acculturation of Victorian culture and values. Each approach sought the same goal—the associative presence of African Americans as part of a global collective. However, the start of the Civil War, arguments for colonization ended and both Douglass and Delaney worked for the creation of black troops to fight for the Union army. In the years immediately following the Civil War, the focus of Black Nationalism turned to claiming full citizenship as Americans and discourse centered on the acculturation of Anglo-American values as a means of implementing those claims.

Racial Separatism: Education and Suffrage

By the turn of the 20th-century,  key issues had changed. The focus of Black Nationalist discourse in the first decade was racial separatism and laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Racial separatism involved two fronts–education and suffrage, both sources of which were sources of disagreement between DuBois, Washington, and Chesnutt.  Washington believed that DuBois’ idea of social equality through higher education was “extremist folly” and stressed vocational education as the solution. DuBois, on the other hand, proclaimed Washington’s acceptance of industrial training to be heresy and a waste of black man hood. Chesnutt disagreed with both. He disagreed with DuBois that change would come from militant protest and higher education, and disagreed with Washington that change could only be the result of Christian principles and vocational training. Rather, Chesnutt believed that suffrage was fundamental to everyone’s liberty. For Chesnutt, the right to vote was even more important than education. Moreover, while Chesnutt believed that both types of education were needed, he did not believe that either vocational education or higher education had anything directly to do with the civil and political rights of African Americans. It was Chesnutt’s opinion  that opportunities for education in America were lacking for both blacks and whites. In “The Disenfranchisement of the Negro,” an essay on race relations written in 1903, he wrote:

The need of education of all kinds for both races is woefully apparent. But men and nations have been free without being learned and there have been educated slaves. Liberty has been known to languish where culture had reached a very high development. Nations do not first become rich and learned and then free, but the lesson of history has been that they first become free and then rich and learned. (Chesnutt, Stories, p. 884)

When considering Chesnutt’s position on education, it must be remembered that Chesnutt’s experience of education differed greatly from both DuBois and Washington. Like Washington and DuBois, Chesnutt was well-versed in the history of Western civilization and the tenants of classical education. Also like Washington and DuBois, Chesnutt had mastered the requirements for admission into institutions of higher learning.  However, unlike Washington or DuBois, Chesnutt never never attended college or university. Nor was his intellectual ability the product of formal instruction through Anglo-centric institutions. Rather, Chesnutt’s knowledge of the humanities was entirely self-taught, studied from an Afrocentric perspective, and interpreted through a worldview that did not rely on western logic for understanding.  Chesnutt’s philosophy of education was the result of his own personal experiences. Nor were his views the product of knowledge gained later in life. As early as  1878 he wrote in his journal that each person is an individual born for some different purpose, a belief that enabled him to recognize the needs for education at every level. In this regard, he was unshaken in his support ofWashington and vocational training.

In the matter of suffrage, however, it was Washington with whom Chesnutt was most at odds. Washington believed that winning the friendship of the white South was worth the suspension of voting rights for people of color in the South. Chesnutt believed such measures would lead to complete disenfranchisement and a permanent status of racial inferiority for blacks in the South. Washington believed that an economic foundation would provide blacks in the South with “something deeper…than the mere act of voting.”  Chesnutt believed that every individual black man, whether weak or strong, North or South, educated or uneducated was entitled to the same rights before the law as every individual white man in the same circumstance.  Washington’s position was unacceptable to Chesnutt and Chesnutt’s position was unacceptable to Washington. Nor did either ever concede the point to the other. In a series of correspondence between the two men written between 1903 and 1905, Chesnutt wrote:

In this matter of suffrage...I differ from you most decidedly. I see nothing to justify what you term `the protection of the ballot in many of the States, for a while at least either by an educational test, property test, or by both combined.’ It is the equivalent to agreeing that the white people in the Southern States may so arrange the election laws as to deprive the Negro of any representation; it means that you are willing in your own county to throw yourself upon the mercy of the whites, rather than to claim your voice and your vote under a free franchise. (Chesnutt, Pioneer, 194)

Washington responded that pursuing the individual right to vote came at the cost of group welfare where the first consideration should be earning one’s daily bread and saving one’s money. In Washington’s opinion, if the ballot were really a matter of first consideration, a man would vote every day in the year instead of spending every day of every year laying an economic foundation for himself and his family. Chesnutt’s response was that no one should have to choose between eating and voting and that African Americans should have the right to do both and could do both better than either alone. Chesnutt was equally resolute about women’s suffrage. Here, he had an ally in DuBois, who saw a woman’s right to vote as support for higher education. In 1915 Chesnutt contributed to a
special issue of Crisis dedicated to women’s suffrage, arguing that the rights of women should not be left in the hands of men, another point on which he differed with Washington.

Racial Separatism: Assimilation and Interracial Marriage

The attitude toward interracial marriage was a core difference between Chesnutt and his contemporaries. Like David Walker and Frederick Douglass, Chesnutt believed it was the right of any individual to marry as one pleased. While both Washington and DuBois were active in their response to racial separatism, Chesnutt’s was a lone voice in its advocacy.  Moreover, in the context of Black Nationalist discourse at the turn of the century,  his views were considered radical. Not only was Chesnutt supportive, he believed it was impossible for races to exist side by side without inter-marriage, an observation validated in American history with the arrival of the African indentured servants in 1619. Although neither Chesnutt nor anyone in his immediate family married outside their race, it was Chesnutt’s belief that any issue involving inter-marriage involved the civil rights of millions of American citizens of mixed-race descent whose individual rights were fixed by the Constitution of the United States. In an unpublished address he noted that “experience has demonstrated that the races will mix, and if they are to continue to mix I believe it ought to be in a lawful way” (Keller, 241).  Chesnutt was familiar with the history of race mixing in the United States and he was keenly aware of the rhetorical manipulation of anti-race mixing discourse, especially that used by social science. Speaking against a proposed anti-interracial marriage bill, he called attention to one such strategy :

We have had preached to us of late a new doctrine—that of Race Integrity. We must so glory in our color that we must zealously guard it as a priceless heritage. Frankly, I take no stock in this attitude. It seems to me a modern invention of the white people to perpetuate the color line. It is they who preach it, and it is their racial integrity which they wish to preserve.  (Keller, 237)

Chesnutt’s views on interracial marriage were interpreted as advocacy for radical assimilation, a theory that, like colorism, mistakenly collapsed issues of visibility with the acceptance of racial superiority. However, just as Chesnutt’s personal experiences shaped differences in his views on education, the same consideration must be argued for his approach to interracial marriage. In this case, if viewed in terms of the ways that Cleveland shaped those experiences–particularly the early experiences–, it can be argued that Chesnutt’s  concept of assimilation was the antithesis of notions assumed by his contemporaries, black and white.

Chesnutt’s concept of assimilation had less to do with black acculturation of white values than white acceptance of black equality, and, at its center, required a change in thoughts and attitudes toward blacks. Chesnutt’s version of assimilation saw the civil liberties of underprivileged populations, black and white, as bound together. Nor, as in the case of  his attitude toward education, was Chesnutt’s idea of assimilation the product of his later years. A journal entry in 1879 begins, “I think I must write a book” and continues:

If I do write, I shall write for a purpose….The object of my writings would be not so much for the elevation of the colored people as for the elevation of the whites,--for I consider the unjust spirit of caste which is so insidious as to pervade a whole nation, and so powerful as to subject a whole race and all connected with it to scorn and social ostracism—I consider this a barrier to the moral progress of the American people… (Chesnutt, Journals, p. 140)

Chesnutt’s goal for assimilation was to create a neutral ground for social advancement, one based on services and community needs rather than motives of social or economic advancement. In 1914, when asked to define assimilation, he responded that it was “the absolute and impartial” application of the same standards “in every walk and relation of life, without regard to race or color,” even it results in the fusion of races. (Keller, 240).

As we argue here, an examination of Chesnutt’s contribution to Black Nationalist discourse through the lens of the Cleveland Challenge reveals the existence of an African American  multiculturalism stemming from the mixed-race experience. While Chesnutt is not the first African American writer to raise questions about the value of racial identity, with The Quarry, he is the first African American author to present a multifaceted racial identity as other than a negative experience, the first ask readers to consider if racial designation is the same as racial identity.  For this reason, we believe that Chesnutt’s views in the first two decades of the twentieth-century are both relevant and timely to the first two decades of the twenty-first century and it is through this lens the Cleveland Challenge proposes The Quarry be taught.


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Charles Chesnutt in the Classroom by Adrienne Johnson Gosselin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.