Chesnutt’s Criticism of Social Injustice During Reconstruction

March 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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