Friday, February 13, 2015

A Matter of Principle

Charles W. Chesnutt (1858–1932)
From Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, & Essays

Charles W. Chesnutt writing at the desk in the library of his home at 9719 Lamont Avenue, circa 1905. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery.
In his essay “What Is a White Man?” (1889), Charles W. Chesnutt observed “that where the intermingling of the races has made such progress as it has in this country, the line which separates the races must in many instances have been practically obliterated.” Several of his stories and novels deal with the comic—and occasionally tragic—effects of the social confusion and legal complications that result from attempts to determine or avoid this “color line.” As a light-skinned African American, Chesnutt particularly reserved what he called “a very kindly irony” for those of his fellow Cleveland residents who were regarded as black by white society yet who presented themselves as superior to their darker neighbors. Or, as biographer William L. Andrews writes, Chesnutt satirized “an assimilationist philosophy among upwardly mobile, light-skinned Afro-Americans which implied ‘absorption’ into the white race as its goal.”

Two of Chesnutt’s targets, often enough, were snobbishness and hypocrisy, whether found in white society (see “Baxter’s Procrustes”) or black (as in one of his best-known stories, “The Wife of His Youth”). In the satirical “A Matter of Principle,” he introduces Cicero Clayton, a stalwart member of the Blue Vein Society, a fictional social organization that made its original appearance in “The Wife of His Youth.” The Blue Veins were almost certainly modeled on the Cleveland Social Circle, an elite social club for “better-educated people of color” that Chesnutt himself had joined a decade before he wrote the stories.

In other words, both stories portrayed—and mercilessly mocked—Chesnutt’s own social circles in the city of Cleveland (barely disguised as “Groveland”) during the late 1890s. The effect of this immediacy, Andrews asserts, is “a balance of objectivity . . . that had not been equaled in American race fiction up to his day.” The irony of “A Matter of Principle,” in particular, “lies in the contradiction between Clayton’s espousal of the theory of ‘the brotherhood of man’ and his practice of exclusivism and color consciousness in his own social relationships.” The story’s deft use of exaggerated farce led literary scholar Charles Duncan to call it “one of Chesnutt’s funniest,” noting that the humor “functions to soften the satirical thrusts at those who would practice discrimination.”

Notes: The presidential inauguration mentioned on page 153 is that of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877. On page 156, Chesnutt refers to Russian writer Alexander Pushkin, whose great-grandfather (Abram Hannibal) was an Abyssinian nobleman sold as a slave to Peter the Great, and French novelist Alexandre Dumas, whose grandmother was Marie Cessette Dumas, a woman of African descent. On page 158, the full quote that the story leaves incomplete is: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil” (Jeremiah 13:23)

Readers might notice an anachronism in the story. The decade is identified as the 1870s, yet the characters have convenient access to telephones. The first telephone line was not installed in Cleveland until the summer of 1877, and according to The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History “telephone service in Cleveland properly begins with the first telephone exchange, opened 15 Sept. 1879 by the Western Union Telegraph Co.” The Cleveland Telephone Company was not established until January 1880; even a decade later, barely 1% of Cleveland’s residents had phone service.

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“What our country needs most in its treatment of the race problem,” observed Mr. Cicero Clayton at one of the monthly meetings of the Blue Vein Society, of which he was a prominent member, “is a clearer conception of the brotherhood of man.” . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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