The Marrow of Tradition by Charles W. Chesnutt

In aftermath of the American election, with the biggest question being ‘what do we do now’ in light of white supremacy/intolerance being brought back to the surface, one of the best things to do is to educate ourselves as much as we can. I will be making a pointed effort to read literature by non-whites, by women, by as many different background combinations as possible, and I’ll be posting about them here and I will (hopefully) be encouraging the readings of all these upcoming texts.

I only just started The Marrow of Tradition by Charles W. Chesnutt (found it randomly in a book shop), and for the rest of the texts I will wait until I have a sufficient chunk of the text read before I write about it, but I wanted to share a little bit about the history of this text, as it seems particularly relevant.

the-marrow-of-tradition

The Marrow of Tradition is historical novel, depicting a fictional account of Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina. The Wilmington Insurrection was described by whites at the time as ‘race riot’ that was caused by black people, but it was in fact an insurgency by white Democrats who overthrew the legitimately elected local government and expelled black leaders from the city. “What happened in Wilmington became an affirmation of white supremacy not just in that one city, but in the South and in the nation as a whole.” -Laura Edwards

When Charles W. Chesnutt learned about this incident in 1901 from some of his relatives who had lived through the violence, he wrote to his editor that it was “an outbreak of pure, malignant, and altogether indefensible race prejudice, which makes me feel personally humiliated, and ashamed for the country and the state.”

This occurred because white Democrats were seeing political control slip into the hands of the Republicans, many of whom were black. This led to white backlash and a campaign against “Negro domination”, because of a “violation of a widely held doctrine of white supremacy. Many whites objected to being summoned before a black judge, to being arrested by black officers, or to having their homes inspected by black sanitation officers, and they were unwilling to share any but the most minimal forms of authority with African Americans, especially those who replaced white Democrats in political positions.” (Eric J. Sundquist, Introduction to The Marrow of Tradition)

A note about the author: he was born to free persons of colour (people who were mixed race who were not enslaved), but due to the fact that his paternal and maternal grandfathers were white slaveholders, he was very light-skinned and could pass as white if he had wanted to. He identified as African-American though he was seven-eighths white. He never chose to pass as a white man, and spent time in Fayetteville and Charlotte working as a teacher and then assistant principal in black schools, until settling in Cleveland in 1884 to work as a court stenographer. He went on to build a successful law firm, and his successful legal career “offered him a particularly good perspective on American race relations at a moment when the law itself was being put in the service of destructive racial prejudice”. (Sundquist)

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