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.