Teaching The Quarry in the 21st Century

Teaching The Quarry in the 21st Century


Charles Chesnutt is a man with a particular relationship to time. His lifespan crosses two centuries and covers two distinct eras. He has been described as a man not only ahead of his time but a man of and for his time. Examined through the lens of the Cleveland Challenge, it can also be said that Chesnutt is a man ahead of his time. This is best demonstrated in The Quarry, a novel that lays the foundation for black multiculturalism. From this perspective, The Quarry not only portrays Cleveland as the basis for describing race relationships in Northeast Ohio in the 19th and 20th centuries, but also offers a means to discuss issues of diversity and inequality in American politics for an audience that won’t exist until the 21st century.

The protagonist of The Quarry is an orphan adopted by a white family, who disowns him upon discovering that he has African American ancestry. He is then raised by an African American family to be a “race” leader before he is revealed to be the white son of a Mayflower descendent and an Italian countess. With this knowledge, though biologically white, he decides to marry his black fiancée and serve as a black ‘race’ leader. The fact that The Quarry is considered to be Chesnutt’s most autobiographical novel illustrates the tendency to conflate the author with his work. It also exemplifies the personal and literary challenges Chesnutt brings to the “race novel” discussed earlier. At the same time, deconstructing the idea of The Quarry as autobiography can also serve as the point of departure for broader discussion. Before this can occur, however, instructors will need to identify and discuss important differences between Chesnutt and the novel’s protagonist as soon as possible. We suggest the following points:

  •  Unlike Chesnutt, the protagonist is raised in comfortable circumstances that embody the black middle class while Chesnutt’s childhood was not privileged. Moreover, while Chesnutt’s father advocated the idea of education, he did not advocate higher education; nor could Chesnutt have pursued higher education without the intervention of Robert and Cicero Harris.
  •  Unlike Chesnutt, the novel’s protagonist is not faced with the idea of racial superiority.
  • Unlike Chesnutt, the protagonist owns both his heritages; nor does he have to pass to explore his Euro-American heritage.
  • Unlike Chesnutt, the protagonist’s identity is not determined by the arbitrary one drop rule

Like Chesnutt, the protagonist’s journey to himself is the result of how the protagonist comes to see himself and the world around him. In this sense, the protagonist and Chesnutt participate in a tremendous learning process which both share with readers.  For Chesnutt, the learning process is shared in his journals. Return again to the impact of Latin recorded in the first journal. Commenting on his lack of formal instruction, he concludes:

As I have been thrown constantly on my own resources in my solitary studies, I have acquired some degree of self-reliance. As I have no learned professor or obliging classmate to construe the hard passages, and work the difficult problems, I have “persevered” till I solved them myself.  (Chesnutt, Journals, p. 92)

In the second journal, Chester sets the standard for himself should he become a writer: “If I do write, the objects of my writing would be not so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites” (139). In this case, just as Chesnutt persevered to master his Latin, with The Quarry, he perseveres to achieve the charge he sets for himself should he become a writer: the elevation of white people by way of a “moral revolution,” a revolution that must be brought about” “in a different manner” (140).  In The Quarry, Chesnutt lays the foundation for black multiculturalism, —a revolutionary worldview that prefigures issues of diversity by almost a century. Chesnutt’s black multiculturalism is one wherein the principles of Western thought and humanities are, like Chesnutt’s classical education, filtered through the perspective a distinctly African American experience. Chesnutt’s idea of black multiculturalism is not defined by racial identity, nor does it confine itself to concepts of race designated as absolute by legislation. Nor does Chesnutt theorize the concept of black multiculturalism; rather, with The Quarry, he places its existence as a reality within the black community. Chesnutt’s idea of black multiculturalism expands the future of the African American experience beyond 19th century alternatives of assimilation espoused by W.E.B. DuBois or acculturation espoused by Booker T. Washington. Instead, Chesnutt’s African American multiculturalism relocates the concept of hegemonic whiteness to a position where it must study itself as a tool for challenging racism.

Framed in the Cleveland Challenge, The Quarry can be seen as asking new questions, questions that engage broader perspectives such as the idea of black multiculturalism. In turn, such questions stand to drive larger discussions on race and culture in the 21st century. To that end, we offer the following suggestions to get the dialogue started:

  • Define black multiculturalism.
  • Discuss the novel as the first work of black multiculturalism.
  • Define the mixed-race experience.
  • Discuss the ways in which the mixed-race experience shapes mixed race literature:
  • Discuss The Quarry as a work about mixed-race experience.
  • Ask: Is racial designation the same racial identity?
  • Ask: Should an individual who is mixed-race identify with one race?
  • Ask: Is racial identity determined by the individual or the individual forebears?
  • Ask: although The Quarry takes place at the start of the 20th-century, how does the narrative address mixed-race experience at the start of the 21st century?
  • Respond to the following statement by philosopher Naomi Zack: “When every solution to the problem fails, sometimes the problem itself must be questioned.”





















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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.