The Southern Literary Journal 35.1 (2002) 97-107
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Race, Place, and Space:
Remaking Whiteness in the Post-Reconstruction South
Angelo Rich Robinson
"The object of my writing would be not so much the elevation of the white—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; and I would be one of the first to head a determined, organized crusade against it."
—Charles Chesnutt, The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt (1993)
"The Racial Contract has always been recognized by nonwhites as the real determinant of (most) white moral/political practice and thus as the real moral/
political agreement to be challenged."
—Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (1998)
Though published nearly a century apart Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition (1901) and Charles W. Mills' The Racial Contract (1998) both convey the idea that race is the "real determinant" that drives America's political, social, and economic systems from which whites profit. From one generation to the next, whites pass on a tradition of privilege rooted in slavery and enacted through cultural practices that maintain this advantage. In his political and philosophical treatise, Mills states that racial loyalty enables whites to create and maintain their dominance individually and collectively. He opens his text declaring, "White [End Page 97] supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today" (Mills 1). In The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (1998), George Lipsitz also details how whiteness operates as clout permitting a multitude of economic benefits and opportunities based solely on race. Charles W. Chesnutt's novel, The Marrow of Tradition, examines the prejudice and racism that is inherent, at the heart, to the core, and indeed to the bone of this post-Reconstruction white supremacy. In fact, TheMarrow of Tradition becomes a blueprint for illustrating specific ways Mills' theory of whiteness exposes post-Reconstruction southern whites using segregation to remake whiteness and mandate the continuance of white supremacy.
The novel takes place during the years after the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments have granted black citizenship and suffrage respectively. After the removal of the armed forces under the terms of the Compromise of 1877, which had protected newly freed slaves since Emancipation, the white South was anxious to reverse any and all progress made by blacks and sought to return to the past when white supremacy reigned.
With the loss of the "citizen-versus-slave dialectic" (Hale 5) legislated by the Emancipation Proclamation, white supremacy could no longer be based solely on citizenship status. During slavery whiteness was normalized and deemed invisible, whereas enslaved African Americans were "raced" as an inferior deviation from the white norm. After slavery, however, the laws forced whiteness to abandon its "unmarked and unnamed" feature and be remade to show its face for the first time (Frankenberg 1), as evinced by the "White" and "Colored" signs that appeared throughout the South. In Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South: 1890-1940, Grace Elizabeth Hale states, "The cultural history of the American South between 1890 and 1940 provides the chiaroscuro necessary to make the invisible visible, to give whiteness a color" (Hale 3). In this light, southern whites strategized to again use black "inferiority" to justify their need for a separate "space" to keep blacks in their "place." The formulation of this thinking provides the foundation of the social and political order dictated under the terms of the "Racial Contract" as articulated by Mills. He argues that the ideal social contract developed by modern political philosophers like David Hume, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau has been seen both as "raceless" and applicable to all citizens of modern nations under Western democracy. Mills, a philosopher himself, challenges this popular scholarly assumption and argues that it is...