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  • Birth in the Briar Patch: Charles W. Chesnutt and the Problem of Racial Identity
  • Daniel Worden (bio)

In his speech “The Courts and the Negro,” written around 1908, Charles W. Chesnutt faults the American government’s geographic location for the limits and widespread denials of the Fourteenth Amendment’s power. The government’s central location in Washington, D.C. perpetuated racism, Chesnutt argued, for “inevitably the administration, the courts, the whole machinery of government takes its tone from its environment” (Charles 896). This racism, present within the “clubs and parlors” of the South, feeds the “attitudes of presidents and congressmen and judges toward the Negro,” and therefore, “to men living in a community where service and courtesy in public places is in large measure denied the Negro, there seems to be no particular enormity in separate car laws” (897). Chesnutt goes on to reference the U. S. Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which ruled in favor of Louisiana’s segregated railroad cars: “And under Plessy v. Ferguson, there is no reason why any Northern State may not reproduce in its own borders the conditions in Alabama and Georgia. And it may be that the Negro and his friends will have to exert themselves to save his rights in the North” (903). The federal government’s southern context, then, both defers any institutional remedy to America’s racism and produces racism through association. [End Page 1]

For Chesnutt, race continues to be a structural form of inequality into the twentieth century because of regional influence. Race is not an identity but a legal category, produced by “class interest” rather than “justice,” region rather than reason (Charles 895). Chesnutt’s view of race as a social fiction is developed further in a series of essays written for the Boston Evening Transcript in 1900 titled “The Future American.” In these essays, Chesnutt envisions “complete racial fusion” through marriage and reproduction between black and white (862). With this northern mouthpiece, Chesnutt proposes a plan of intermarriage that would eliminate race. In a region less dominated by racial prejudice, Chesnutt sees a possibility for race’s elimination as a meaningful category.

Chesnutt’s views on race in the late nineteenth century oddly anticipate those of literary critic Walter Benn Michaels in the late twentieth century. In “Autobiography of an Ex-White Man,” referencing James W. Johnson’s 1912 novel of biracial passing, Michaels argues that race is simply a “mistake” rather than an “identity” or even a “social construction.” According to Michaels’ logic, “either race is an essence or there is no such thing as race” (125).1 This claim leads him to the conclusion that indeed race does not exist. In light of this epistemic claim, deduced from both a postmodernist resistance to “essence” along with biological evidence that race is indeed not a meaningful category for genetic research, Michaels finds that “the point of our new knowledge—the knowledge that there are no biological races—would be to undo the consequences of our old ignorance, to produce a world in which race was not a compelling reality” (131, emphasis in original).2 Michaels advocates the abandonment not only of racial identification but also of identification in general. In the larger scope of Michaels’s work—and this argument is broadened to include all of history after 1967 in The Shape of the Signifier—identity and ontology are the real culprits behind both the senselessness of culture in global America and the Left’s failure to produce a consistent political vision. For Michaels, race allows people to claim an identity that entails contradictory beliefs about what that identification actually commits them to. Accordingly, Michaels argues that diversity is a problematic political project because it puts into practice the contradictions of racial identity.3

Weighing in on the contemporary issue of reparations for slavery in The Shape of the Signifier, Michaels makes a strong argument against coupling identity and history. He argues that historical inequality should in no way impact contemporary attempts to produce equality. This argument is made even more forcefully in The Trouble With Diversity: How [End Page 2] We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. Critical of the...


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