The “Old” Discussion of Race in America

New literary developments in the late 19th century carried with them the expansion of African American literature, providing a voice to a previously unheard people. The opinions and ideals expressed by these writers were manifold as they came from a diverse, swiftly growing population who were only just beginning to realize the intensity and magnitude of their own needs as a community. Each of these writers, naturally, had their own perspectives, agendas, and primary interests. For example, Charles Chesnutt seemed more determined to convince his black and white audience that their perceived dissimilarities are becoming slighter and less visible as new identities develop and potentials arise. Pauline Hopkins, on the other hand, appeared to be more fascinated by the plight of the female in general, but particularly the phenomena of the African American woman’s experience. Both of these writers, respectively, have individual motives and strongly advocate for those beliefs, through writing, education, and speeches.

The concepts conveyed by these authors was part of their attempts to lend a voice to and create a space in society, free of discrimination, for the development of the rapidly evolving African American populace. Chesnutt and Hopkins accomplished these goals through the use of their literature, speaking of their troubles directly to their audiences. In his writings, Charles Chesnutt takes on the notion of a racial identity and deconstructs the concept meticulously by shattering previously standardized beliefs about the capabilities of African Americans in a post-Civil War era. Chesnutt was very interested in discourse with regards to topics such as race superiority, the breaking of stereotypes, and the psychology behind racism. Yet, despite his focus on those subjects, Chesnutt was also particularly concerned about the conflict faced by those of mixed race, such as himself. As miscegenation is such a complex concept, experienced by a relatively niche part of the African American community of the time, Chesnutt seemed to be devoted to carving out a space for those of mixed blood. He sought to eliminate the theory of the “one-drop rule”, a widely held belief that was founded upon the conviction that a single drop of African American blood was a type of pollution. Chesnutt endeavored to construct a place of acceptance for those who were multiracial, those who filled the gray area between blacks and whites. He created this middle space in “The Wife of His Youth”, through the Blue Vein Society, with “individuals who were, generally speaking, more white than black.” (464) The Blue Veins were the physical representation of a bridge between the races, a creation that undertook the mission of uniting the one with the other for the greater purpose of a harmonious society, exempt from racial intolerance.

Chesnutt strove to normalize both the African American and the mixed race community to his white readers, by attempting to convince them of the overpowering weight their similarities held over their differences. In fact, in “The Passing of Grandison”, Chesnutt seems to be suggesting, in his sly and subversive manner, that African Americans were not simply just smarter than whites believed, but also smarter than whites. The story’s end carries a sardonic note, one that hints at the author’s air of vague superiority. Chesnutt has created a narrative where the African-American character finally ends up on top after Grandison has one-upped his slave master so stupendously, the former waving “his hand derisively” while “the latter shook his fist impotently.” (483) The story almost seems to play into the relatively modern idea of reverse racism, but does not go quite far enough in Grandison’s success to produce a feeling of racial dominance. Chesnutt’s intention, rather, is to balance the scales. He seeks to create equilibrium in the social racial sphere, not to deprive or empower one race over the other. Chesnutt succeeds, for the most part, as his stories end with the image of an idyllic world of educated and liberated African Americans, side by side with open-minded and unprejudiced whites. His tales leave black readers with the unsubtle encouragement that they, too, can be just like – if not better than – the whites, and leaves the whites realizing that, truly, the blacks do not differ from them as greatly as they had thought.

Charles Chesnutt ultimately attempts, and mostly succeeds, at conveying the ideal of unity between the races. Despite taking on the topic of race and slavery as a whole, Pauline Hopkins took a special interest in discussing the struggles faced by women – and not necessarily African American women, as shown in her novel, Contending Forces. The one-drop rule makes an appearance in her story, being used, typically, to indict and attach guilt to a female. The horror indicated is almost palpable when Montfort asks, “Have you heard the rumors about my wife being of African descent?” (497) He fears the implications that should arise if the speculation were to grow. Those implications do culminate into heavy consequences for the Montforts, based on the gossip about Mrs. Montfort’s heritage, as well as Mr. Montfort freeing his slaves. Yet, circumstances may have differed greatly if rumors had been spread about Mr. Montfort being of mixed race, rather than his wife. The outcry over freeing his slaves might have been magnified, or perhaps the rumors would have been disregarded altogether because of his sex and social position. Hopkins intentionally makes Mrs. Montfort a sympathetic character – when she vehemently refuses Anson Pollock’s advances out of respect for her husband – so that when she places suspicions of an African taint on her, the readers automatically view her as the victim of a racist male society. This said society is personified by the character of Anson Pollock, who is the physical representation of patriarchy and bigotry. Hopkins uses Pollock to portray the widely accepted, dominant male idea of women as objects and possessions, when “the two children and their mother fell to the lot of Anson Pollock, as his portion of the spoils.” (499) African Americans, as well as women, were considered property of the male owner, to be tossed around as he willed. The children had to suffer under the thumb of Pollock because, according to the one-drop rule, if their mother was of mixed blood, then they were Africans by default. Pollock’s fellow lynchers exemplified the racist mentality that enveloped the South as a whole. The majority of their vindictive torture was targeted towards Mrs. Montfort, rather than her husband who had received a swift death. A member of the committee on public safety exerted the intensity of his anger onto a woman and he did not stop until he “had satiated his vengeful thirst” for blood. (499) It seemed as if these men were exacting retribution for a perceived slight, be it Mrs. Montfort’s gender or rumored race – or both – that had infuriated them to this height. Or, perhaps, they simply held her responsible for her husband’s actions, as if original sin caused her to be the culprit.

Hopkins creates a scenario where Mrs. Montfort is able to be independent and reclaim ownership of herself, albeit in a bleak manner. The moment of her suicide is colored with a sense of release as Mrs. Montfort uncovered a “sweet oblivion for the broken-hearted” in the depths of the lagoon. (499) She has finally been liberated from a society that tacitly approved of the degradation and commodification of her gender and the audience is given a sense of Hopkins applauding the sentiment behind the action. Essentially, Pauline Hopkins used fiction to tell the story of the suffering of women and African Americans – and especially African American women. She made a declaration to the public and society at large about the state of the culture with regards to race and gender, making them aware of her disapproval. She wished to eliminate the notion of separate and other, whilst being scornful of the act of assimilation. Rather, Hopkins encouraged a discourse about the improvement and betterment of society as a body by revealing the flaws she was able to view in the bowels of the racist South.

Charles Chesnutt and Pauline Hopkins were both heavily invested in the advancement of the African American people, in every aspect of existence. Chesnutt sought to persuade his white audience to embrace – not just accept – the African American community. He knew that the only way for his people to reach the same level of accomplishments as whites was to empower them, and provide them with the tools that would escalate their societal positions, particularly education. Hopkins was more concerned with the rights, and lack thereof, of African women. She attempted to shatter the barriers created by patriarchal society by informing her readers of existence and horror of these restrictions. Hopkins’s overall message to her readership tells white males to make room and African American females to take room. Despite their specific goals and methods varying, Chesnutt and Hopkins both strove for the overall social, economical, and political advancement of the African American population by constructing an area for the expansion of these people.