- Goophering Jim Crow:Charles Chesnutt’s 1890s America
Connecting Charles Chesnutt’s fiction to its historical moment presents a real challenge: How can we make sense of the fact that the nadir of U.S. race relations was the apex of Charles Chesnutt’s authorial career? In the 1890s, as lynching became an epidemic and Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement became entrenched, Chesnutt became an author—1899 alone saw the publication of a biography of Frederick Douglass, a book of “color line” stories, and the celebrated conjure tale collection. To explain how Chesnutt’s conjure stories addressed their 1890s readership, a number of critics have argued that the tales’ racial critique was “subtly subversive”—that is, opaque enough to be “indecipherable to most late nineteenth-century readers.”1 Houston Baker contends that in the conjure stories, Chesnutt masks “Afro-American transformative resourcefulness under the guise of an ole ‘uncle’ speaking nonsense.”2 Eric Sundquist likens Chesnutt’s method to a cakewalk, a practice at once “subordinated and resistant.”3 Other scholars, less sanguine about the tales’ subversive potential, see them as commodifying African Americans’ cultural heritage. Richard Brodhead, for example, asserts that “through the transaction of storytelling,” Chesnutt’s fictional storyteller Uncle Julius “served one group’s life up as the stuff of another group’s entertainment.”4
Whether seeing cakewalk or cooptation, these critics understand Chesnutt’s work within the era’s efforts to define—in hard-and-fast terms—African American identity. In this period, writers were using dialect fiction “to encode an essential blackness in the written representation of speech, making the lines of writing into color lines designed to segregate upon the [End Page 12] printed page.”5 Politicians and racial scientists were seeking this “essential blackness” in blood and bones—in, that is, one-drop rules of ancestry and eugenic practices like craniometry. These efforts in U.S. literature and life worked in tandem with the decade’s division of the social sphere into the separate and unequal black and white worlds of the Jim Crow period. Yet this quest for the essence of blackness also gave rise to a countermove among some African American artists and activists, who endeavored to show that race is unstable—a mutable construct that thwarts definitions and dividing lines. Homer Plessy challenged the designation of separate spaces for the “white and colored races” by showing that prevailing racial logics made him both white and colored. In the language of the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision that bears his name, Plessy was “of mixed descent, in the proportion of seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth African blood,” but “the mixture of colored blood was not discernible in him.”6 He was, therefore, “colored” according to his state’s laws but white according to his skin’s color. Charles Chesnutt, too, insists upon the instability of race in his nonfictional and fictional works. In an 1889 article, Chesnutt argues that “the intermingling of the races” in the United States “practically obliterated” “the line which separates the races.”7 Chesnutt demonstrates that there is no easy answer to the question posed by his essay’s title “What Is a White Man?” because the response varies by locale. A man like Plessy, deemed black by Louisiana’s code noir, could cross the border into Mississippi and thereby cross the color line, because he would be deemed white by that state’s code of 1880. In Chesnutt’s conjure stories, characters turn from white to black and from black to white.
While race is fluid in the conjure tales, class is fixed. Unlike fellow plantation fiction writer Thomas Nelson Page, whose stories express fears about “po’ white trash” dispossessing old-order patricians in the post-Reconstruction South, Chesnutt depicts the antebellum poor, black and white alike, persisting in poverty in the postbellum era.8 By examining two contemporaneous discourses with which the tales enter into dialogue—social reformers’ analyses of the overseer, whose occupation cements his social class, and travel writers’ accounts of the clay eater, whose diet changes his skin color—I open up a fresh perspective on Chesnutt’s engagement with his 1890s context. My approach suggests that the...