Inequality in The Marrow of Tradition

The Marrow of Tradition by Charles Waddell Chesnutt utilizes inequalities tied to the era of the American South where the Wellington Insurrection of 1898 occurred as a result of growing racial tensions coupled with the growing divide of economic opportunity among the people there and the relations between these inequalities and divides to paint a hyperreal portrayal of the post-Civil War South in terms of aesthetics and those who populated it, all of whom represent different ideas and motifs that existed during Chesnutt’s time. Among these types of inequalities, the three important ones to look at are racial, shown through the relationship between the white and black casts in the story, social, through the socio-economic differences between the black community itself, and gender, through the emasculation of man and the fetishization of women suffering as a martyr for unjust violence and retaliation.

Racial inequality is a major factor of The Marrow of Tradition to illustrate a brutally realistic depiction of the tensions felt during Chesnutt’s time in the South and reactionary to the real-life Wellington riots. These inequalities between the races are clearly expressed through the varying relationships that the white citizens of the novel have to the blacks. One of the most significant figures for this dynamic is Major Carteret, one of the first major characters the reader is introduced to. In this scene, Mr. Delamere, appalled that the Major appears to not trust his servant Sandy, who Delamere insists is an honest man, points at the Major’s hostility towards the race. Major Carteret retorts him by saying he is mistaken “in imagining [him] hostile to the negro” and that rather his predisposition is simply that he merely objects “to being governed by an inferior and servile race” (Chesnutt, 25). By characterizing Major Carteret so early on in this way to others who may share somewhat different ideas on race in such a drastic and prejudicial way, the stage is set early on for a singular long commentary on racial inequality. Despite this characterization, Carteret is perhaps not fully to blame. The narrator describes Carteret later as having “a narrow, but a logical mind, and except when confused or blinded by his prejudices, had always tried to be a just man” (320) which suggests that despite everything he is still a good person, but he is victim to a greater institution of prejudice at work, that Carteret is simply a man imprisoned in the cultural dominance of Reconstruction-era South. This is a significant break from other race motivated works which paints white people as hateful monsters, here Chesnutt makes Carteret a tragic figure who was robbed of his potential to be a truly just and logical person due to the oppressive environment he grew up in. Upon realizing how great of a divide there is between his society and the black South, he withdraws from his previous sense of justice and is now on the receiving end of “pure elemental justice” (321). Racial inequality in The Marrow of Tradition affects not only the oppressed blacks, but also the oppressed white, and Chesnutt’s decision to portray it as such makes victims of everyone under the veil.

Chesnutt uses social inequality to make his African American cast fully dimensional, and rather than resort to Stowian broad brushstroke sentimentality, he creates division and flaws among them through illustrating the separation of class breaking the old pre-Civil War mentality of black America to post. This is shown most clearly in the difference between the Miller family and Manny Jane and her grandson, Jerry. The Millers represent the potential of African Americans not bound to their past and instead create a future of happy middle-class life for themselves while Mammy Jane and Jerry, still in their pre-Civil War mindsets, are happy with what has already been provided for them on their behalf. This social difference s made distinct by the way both groups communicate. The Millers are refined and eloquently versed in the English language, while Jane and Jerry are much rougher and pidgin-like. Consider how Jerry speaks:

I knows w’at wants damnation, do’ dere’s lots of ’em w’at deserves it; but ef dat one-eyed Cap’n McBane got anything ter do wid it, w’atever it is, it don’ mean no good fer de niggers, – damnation ‘d be better fer ’em den dat Cap’n McBane! He looks at a nigger lack he could jes’ eat ‘im alive.” (Chesnutt 38)

Now compared to how Dr. Miller speaks:

“How much I can accomplish I do not know, but I ‘ll do what I can. There are eight or nine million of us, and it will take a great deal of learning of all kinds to leaven that lump…we shall come up, slowly and painfully, perhaps, but we shall win our way. If our race had made as much progress everywhere as they have made in Wellington, the problem would be well on the way toward solution ” (51)

The difference between the two is made very clear, showing the divide within the African American community between the classes. Mammy Jane even gets a moment to interact with one of the Miller’s, Jane, and this interaction further sheds light on their social inequality. Upon seeing Jane ride in on her own cart, Jane proclaims in awe “fo’ty yeahs ago who’d ‘a’ ever expected ter see a nigger gal ridin’ in her own buggy” (106) This further removes Jane, this time with a clear date, from the modern middle-class African American scene.

Finally, there are themes of gender inequality amongst the characters of The Marrow of Tradition. Though an unconventional way at shedding light on this, one can see it within the character of Tom Delamere. Tom, though a respected man and pride to his family, is constantly characterized as feminine. He is described as conveying “no impression of strength” and an air that “subtly negatived the idea of manliness.” (Chesnutt 16) Chesnutt uses Tom to show how the men of the South were eroding into something weaker and lesser than what was expected from a man. Tom as a male character is drawn inferior to other males in the story such as Major Carteret or General Belmont due to him possessing feminine traits. This leads to a conclusion that the former faux-aristocratic Southern masculine ideals are being emasculated and falling into degeneracy. On top of this, gender inequality is also expressed through the character of Polly Ochiltree. Polly is a frail and maniacal woman who no one in the story appears to really care about. However, as soon as she is murdered, the entire white male population of Wellington take up arms to avenge her, and their suspects are every black man in the town. This ties into the idea that it was a duty to preserve white female purity against the brutality of black males. Despite there being no evidence of rape, the men declare that she had been sexually assaulted by a black man prior to death. Female sexuality in this world is only cared about when one believes it has been abused by a member of the black race. Polly has ironically become a martyr, with no real thought or care put into how she was killed and who it could have been done by, and her murder is fetishized and distorted by the men to suit their racist desires.

The Marrow of Tradition is an exceptionally heavy book made more so due to the time it was written, shortly after the race riots it was inspired by. As such, Charles Waddell Chesnutt needed to make sure that he approached the source material with great care and consideration in how it would represent its layers of oppression and inequality. The primary inequality types it focalizes on, being racial, social, and gender, are all fully explored and materialized throughout the narrative. Depictions of racial inequality through character relation dynamics show the oppressive nature the South has both on white and black citizens, social inequality amongst the black population highlights the economic divide between the “old” and the “new” generations, and gender inequality shows the emasculation of the Southern man and the objectifying of women as excuses to propagate racial violence.

Chesnutt’s Criticism of Social Injustice During Reconstruction

In The Marrow of Tradition, Charles Chesnutt tells the story of social injustice in the Reconstruction period of the late 1800s. He uses a variety of unique characters, ranging from aristocratic white supremacists to vengeful blacks. Chesnutt criticizes the forceful removal of blacks from political office, the common denial that blacks are human beings, and lynching.

To begin, Chesnutt deems the violent coup d’etats against black office-holders to be unlawful and worthy of unanimous criticism. In the novel, the town of Wellington, based upon the infamous city of Wilmington North Carolina, commences in a state of relative peace. The population is mostly black or mixed race, and most local and regional politicians are black as a result. Whites and blacks live together without any significant instances of civil unrest, and though many whites still hold age-old prejudice opinions, each race normally keeps it boundaries unscathed. However, upon the rise of the Big Three (Major Carteret, General Belmont, and Captain McBane), the town’s civility teeters on the frail hinges of disaster. Major Carteret, plotting the removal of local Republican (mainly black) officials says, “You are mistaken, sir, in imagining me hostile to the negro…On the contrary, I am friendly to his best interests. I give him employment; I pay taxes for schools to educate him, and for court-houses and jails to keep him in order. I merely object to being governed by an inferior and servile race.” Chesnutt explains that white supremacists, such as Major Carteret, had a tendency to veil their true intentions with words of friendliness and entrustment, so that their actions may be achieved with very little suspicion and public outrage. Chesnutt finds this to be ludacris, and makes clear that Carteret is in all actuality, preparing for an unjust coup d’etat.

In addition, The Big Three, representing racists on a lesser scale, view blacks and other races of color to not only have inferior qualities, but to be subhuman as a whole. For example, Mammy Jane, a deferential, loyal servant to the Carteret family is brutally murdered during the race riot. Though she was known throughout the brittle community for her loyalty to the family which once enslaved her, she was murdered irregardless by men who saw her not for her character, but rather merely for the pigment of her skin. Though this instance is both unfortunate and ironic, it is even more displeasing to learn that young children were also beaten and killed by whites. Such carelessness and hatred is noted by Chesnutt, when he writes, “At such a time, in the white man’s eyes, a negro’s courage would be mere desperation; his love of liberty, a mere animal dislike of restraint. Every finer human instinct would be interpreted in terms of savagery. Or, if forced to admire, they would none the less repress. They would applaud his courage while they stretched his neck, or carried off the fragments of his mangled body as souvenirs, in much the same way that savages preserve the scalps or eat the hearts of their enemies.” Chesnutt effectively criticizes such viewpoints with statements like “a mere animal dislike of restraint” and comparing blacks to savages, an analogy racists were hasty to make. Moreover, Carteret writes “The negroes are no longer under our control, and with their emancipation ceased our responsibility. Their insolence and disregard for law have reached a point where they must be sternly rebuked.” Carteret believes that since blacks were freed from bondage, they have returned to their uncivilized manner, and must be rebuked in order for society to be restored to its “once glorious greatness.” Clearly, white supremacists do not do so much as acknowledge the equality on a natural level between these two races.

Finally, Chesnutt chastises the common Southern form of mob-law, lynching. Sandy, life-time servant to the Delamere family, is soon to be lynched after he is framed for murder by Tom Delamere. Fortunately, Mr. Ellis exonerates him, and the reader does not need to hear of the brutality of lynching, which Chesnutt feels is unjust and immoral. He writes, “Suspicion was at once directed toward the negroes, as it always is when an unexplained crime is committed in a Southern community. The suspicion was not entirely an illogical one. Having been, for generations, trained up to thriftlessness, theft, and immorality, against which only thirty years of very limited opportunity can by offset, during which brief period they have been denied in large measure the healthful social stimulus and sympathy which holds most men in the path of rectitude, colored people might reasonably be expected to commit at least a share of crime proportionate to their numbers.” Lynching lacks evidence, and ignores the federal law, which states that all deserve the right to a fair trial before conviction. Minorities were most often the victims of lynching. Blacks, Jews, and Asians living in the South were prime targets for lynching, as stereotypes aroused suspicions regarding these people. Blacks were said to be “rapists, murderers, and thieves”, Jews were said to be “obsessed with money, crooks, and ‘Jesus’s killers’” and because Asians often possessed inadequate English skills, they were considered untrustworthy as well. In The Marrow of Tradition, Sandy is accused of being both a murderer and a crook. Had his victim been white, one can assume his sentence would have been standard: trial and jail time. However, because his victim was a white woman, one of prestige in the community, he was seen in an entirely unparalleled light: as a “nigger”. Chesnutt understands the concept of incongruity between justice within the two races, and he emboldens it with Sandy’s outrageously brief and prejudiced conviction, and his imminent lynching. Due process did not commonly permeate into black communities. Blacks, like Sandy, were denied constitutionality, which is both a right and privilege, and Chesnutt hopes to expose this in his writing.

In conclusion, governmental upheavals, the severely racist viewpoints towards blacks, and lynching are all subjects Chesnutt hopes to expose to the public and criticize. He uses various characters to portray both negative and acquiescent viewpoints. Quotes from Major Carteret exhibit a nature of hierarchy and racism to a degree that a reader can discern. Chesnutt wishes that the reader, like he, will find Carteret’s sentiments outrageous and immoral. Chesnutt models his characters after larger topics and views. For example, Carteret represents racists, and Sandy represents the struggles of the common black man in segregated Southern society. By feeling either empathy or animosity towards these fictional, yet practical characters, Chesnutt allows for the reader to recognize that Southern society deserves criticism, even in a supposedly “progressive” epoch. In summary, despite Lincoln’s emancipation of those in bondage, and Johnson’s attempts at Reconstruction, social injustice still coursed throughout the bitter veins of Southern communities, and Charles Chesnutt attempts to do society justice by criticizing it.

Representation of Extreme White Supremacy Leaves No Room for Integration

The extreme stereotyping in The Marrow of Tradition is Chesnutt’s attempt to reconstruct the riots of Wilmington, North Carolina and protest the barbarity and consequences of white supremacy. He uses characters such as Major Carteret, Olivia Carteret, Captain McBane, and General Belmont to convey this idea of extreme white supremacy in this post-reconstruction interpretation of Southern society. His opposing characters, Dr. Miller and his wife Janet, are a representation of the rising African American class trying to make strides toward integrating into this white society while resisting white supremacy. This representation of extreme white supremacy prohibits Chesnutt’s main African-American characters, Dr. Miller and his wife Janet, from being able to integrate into society at the end of the story and leaves the readers conflicted on a probable solution to his posed problem. Chesnutt’s novel does not succeed at proposing a solution to integrating African Americans because he has created a corrupt white supremacy society that leaves no room for progress or assimilation.

The African American community in The Marrow of Tradition expresses a great deal of sorrow and grief toward their maltreatment from white society. Yet, most are willing to overlook that and move forward into a more progressive era. Of course, supreme white society does not reciprocate these feelings. On the contrary, Chesnutt depicts a meeting between General Belmont, Captain McBane, and Mr. Carteret coming together and toasting to, “No nigger domination,” and, “White Supremacy everywhere…Now and forever,” in response to African Americans taking local office and having the right to vote (67, 68). Furthermore, the treatment of Sandy by Captain McBane is evident proof that he will never be able to see an African American as his equal in society. Before the war, Captain McBane was considered a part of the poor-white class and he was able to profit from the war more than slaves. He is a character that shows no mercy towards this idea of integration in how he treats Sandy. He throws money at him, is physically violent with him, and even insults his qualities as a gentleman. Sandy, representing a class of African Americans who still continue a line of work for their master’s families, takes this treatment as if he has no other choice even though he is no longer a slave. This one scene represents the struggle for integration into this supreme white society. Chesnutt has created these stereotypes in each of his characters that give them the harsh reality of the reader’s society. It would never be possible for McBane, resentful of his origins and makes a point of his authority at the expense of those below him, to accept a man like Sandy as his equal in society. From this particular scene, it is evident to readers that integration would not be possible with a mindset of white supremacy infecting society.

Another example of an African American character wanting acceptance and recognition from this supreme white society is Janet Miller. Janet Miller is the “tragic mulatta” of the story as she is shunned by her half white sister, Olivia. Early in the novel Janet expresses that she, “would have worshipped this sister, even afar off, had she received even the slightest encouragement,” (Chesnutt 85). At this point, Janet wanted the same acceptance as her “equals” like Sandy or Mammy Jane, however, she is a product of slavery and would serve as a reminder to everyone that a white man entered willing relations with an African American woman. Her character also serves as a question of legal marriage between a white man and an African American woman that the Carterets refused to recognize until it was too late. It shows the corruption of how a white society is willing to deny rights to an heiress on the basis that she is black. The act of burning the legal document that gave Janet the credibility she longed for her whole life was stripped from her by Olivia. She did it cold heartedly and only regretted the act until she realized her dilemma of morals and values versus legalities.

By the end of novel we see Janet’s feelings toward acceptance and recognition altered from before as she learns the true nature of her sister and white society. The words between the two sisters arouses mixed feelings of emotion from both characters and leaves the readers vexed by the unresolved ending posed to them by Chesnutt. In Janet’s speech to Olivia she fervently states, “For twenty-five years I, poor, despicable fool, would have kissed your feet for a word, a nod, a smile. Now, when this tardy recognition comes, for which I have waited so long, it is tainted with fraud and crime and blood, and I must pay for it with my child’s life!” (Chesnutt 246). The readers can see the complete turnaround of emotion in Janet towards her longing for acceptance. She no longer feels ashamed or out of place. She was able to establish her own identity as a wife and mother, and found her role outside of the white society she was always peering into. Janet found the true characters of her sister and her society and found it to be something she and her husband can never be a part of. Chesnutt further represents these feelings of resentment and disgust for their white supremacy society with Janet stating, “I throw back your father’s name, your father’s wealth, your sisterly recognition. I want none of them,” (246). This is a bold statement on behalf of the African American community that Chesnutt poses, yet, the vexation has not presented itself. He continues by Olivia giving Janet the power to save the child’s life.

Some readers could interpret that this is a kind hearted gesture from Olivia in giving Janet the power in this situation over her beloved child. One could argue that she truly did have a change of heart at the end of the novel, however, the readers never get to see if the ultimate outcome of the situation. We will never know if Dodie is saved and the two families unite and overcome their differences in an effort to integrate society peacefully. Chesnutt himself did not come to this conclusion because he ended the story with Dr. Miller walking in the room with intentions to save the child. Even Chesnutt could not create a fictional world where blacks and whites can overcome their differences and assimilate into society as one.

While Chesnutt never expressed his personal solution to this problem of how to integrate whites and blacks into this fictionalized society of The Marrow of Tradition, he published an article “The Future American” on these matters afterwards. In the article Chesnutt suggested, “that evolutionary development in human existence in fact dictated the disappearance of American Caucasians as a racial group,” through the process of miscegenation (279). We can see how he integrated this mixing of races into The Marrow of Tradition through his suspected and verified mixed race characters. Janet’s racial status was confirmed as the tragic mulatta, however, other characters such as Tom Delamare and Sandy are suspected to be of mixed race. They looked so much alike, that Tom was able to pass as Sandy in the cakewalk and was “identified” by several people on his way home. Furthermore, Mr. Delamare appears to favor Sandy over his legitimate son Tom because Sandy has inherited all the qualities of a gentleman that you bestow to a son. Chesnutt himself identifies himself as mixed race and to be legally black by most state laws during his era. With all of the above in mind, it is not hard to see how Chesnutt would come to this conclusion, however, modern day readers know this was not the solution to integrating whites and blacks.

Another character that illustrates this impossibility of integration is Dr. Miller. He is conflicted by his own standing as a black man who is considered one of the most qualified doctors in his region. He does not identify with his fellow African Americans nor does he feel a longing to be a part of this corrupted white society surrounding him. This conundrum leaves him drifting between these two societies. This is expressed on his train ride as he is watching “his people” having a good time before he becomes uncomfortable and annoyed by their activities. He later states that, “these people were just as offensive to him as the whites in the other end of the train,” (Chesnutt 82). He does not belong to any group other than that of his family and practice. Unfortunately, his hospital is burned to the ground, his child is murdered, and once again white supremacy is withholding what is legally his. Mr. Delamare’s attorney purposefully hides the will giving a sum of money to Dr. Miller for his hospital. This is absolute corruption that Dr. Miller wants no part of, but at the same time leaves him with few options that Chesnutt does not explore. Miller becomes a crucial part of Chesnutt’s dilemma as he, “intensifies his point by showing that besides being subject to continual humiliation in social circumstances, even the Millers’ professional accomplishments are vulnerable to the moods of white society,” (Reilly). They will never be accepted because they blur the lines and no longer fit into the predetermined boxes that society has cut out for them. The Millers become a threat to white supremacy.

Chesnutt’s fictional representation of post-reconstruction society is corrupt, cruel, and mind washed with the ideas of white supremacy. It hinders progress and integration because African American characters are unable to break social and racial barriers without the threat of lynching or humiliation. It is keeping them stuck in the southern social hierarchy as a second class citizen. As a result, Chesnutt has created this integration dilemma by his own doing to the point that he leaves his readers with a serious problem unanswered. It is important to note this because it shows the severity and complexity of the problems people were faced with at the time. Even the most intellectual figures did not have solutions as to how to integrate society. Furthermore, Chesnutt’s work gave the rest of white America at the time a complex look at how the interworking of Southern hierarchy is corrupt and hinders racial and social progress. Unfortunately, he was unable to fully convey the problem following a feasible solution, and he left his audience with vexed feelings towards racial progress and southern literature.