Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Clay's Gay and I'm Happy

Wow, what a week! I finished my first paper for my US History class. I'll publish it here for all to read. But first...

Clay Aiken announced to People Magazine that he is Gay. Ok, so maybe this is a big deal to the world b/c the rumours have been circulating for years. Maybe it's because so many people are surprised that someone would stay in the closet for 29 years. Maybe it's because so many people are backward and need to get a life.

So Clay is gay. So what. I like him. I always have. I always will (unless he becomes a serial killer. It would be difficult for me to be a fan of a serial killer.) I don't care who he dates, what cereal he eats, or how often he clips his toe nails.

So grow up people. This is the 21st century. People are queer, they're here, so get over it!


Now on to my paper...


If you haven't read the above book, DO IT. You will have your eyes opened to race relations in this country. It was written 100+ years ago and is still as valid and important today as it was when it was published. You can't fully see our present or look into our future without knowledge of our past.

Did you know that in 1898, the only successful coup d’├ętat of a government in the United States of America occurred?

Out right murder and massacre flooded the streets of Wilmington, NC. And it happened the day after the November election.

And you know what?

No one did a single thing about it.

Not the government.

Not the military.

No one.

And the legacy lives on…

It made the Rodney King riots of 1992 look tame. The death toll is still undetermined, these 110 years later. Unknown numbers of African Americans were murdered in the streets by white supremists. The majority that were left, were run out of town.
Here's my paper... I may edit it once I get feedback from the TA. Please don't plagiarize my paper. Stealing is beneath you...

The Marrow of Tradition and the Use of Novels as Historical Sources

In the Marrow of Tradition we follow three families; their experiences and intimate beliefs on race and society. The book covers a pivotal turn of racial politics in United States History.

These three families: the Carteret’s, Delamere’s, and Miller’s are forced to examine their long held beliefs in deeply personal ways through violent environments. They are exposed to their own hypocrisy as well as their own noble (or ignoble) truths.

Through these families, American readers, being a multi-racial people, living in an immigrant country, are able to freely examine our own deeply ingrained feelings. The medium of the fictionalized historical novel allows us to do this in a slightly less intimidating way allowing us to safely and honestly examine our own attitudes. In essence, Chesnutt allows us to be the lynch mob as well as the lynched.

Fictional Wellington is a city on the dawn of integration. The absolute power that white plantation owners and the white wealthy families once held has been diminished and given over to a more wholly democratic system. Former slaves and free men have been enfranchised and now hold some political offices.

The emasculated southern white men, who have lost a war, and now some of their power, are searching for reinstatement of their full authority. They soon find that violence and anarchy is not beneath them. On Election Day a coup d’├ętat is planned and it quickly spirals into a murderous riot. All the families are affected. They each experience the full
horror of the day (though perhaps none so much as the Miller family) and are painfully forced to re-examine honor, equality and humanity.

The Rape Myth

At this time, in turn of the century America, the rape myth was an incredibly powerful rallying theme for uniting white Americans and especially essential to the white man’s perception of his own supremacy. Chesnutt demonstrates through his writing that as dominant as the rape myth is, it is, it is still, truly a myth. He expertly conveys a range of views within the white race regarding black men – from Quaker raised Ellis, and moral Old Delamere, through the range of the spectrum to its darkest fringes with the crude and violent Captain McBane. The belief of the deep ingrained savagery of the black race seems to be at the root of the white characters predjudice, in varying degrees, excepting the Philadelphian, Dr. Burns and the honorable Old Delamere.

Major Carteret:
Mr. Delamere had grown old, and had probably lost in a measure his moral influence over his servant. Left to his own degraded ancestral instincts, Sandy had begun to deteriorate, and a rapid decline had culminated in this robbery and murder,--and who knew what other horror? (181)

Lee Ellis:
…but as to negroes, they were as yet a crude and undeveloped race, and it was not safe to make predictions concerning them. No one could tell at what moment the thin veneer of civilization might peel off and reveal the underlying savage. (119)

A powerful example of the influence the rape myth held is seen in the reaction of the ‘Big Three’ (Major Carteret, Gen. Belmont and Capt. McBane) to an editorial about lynching and consensual inter-racial relationships published in the local black owned newspaper.

"This article," said Carteret, "violates an unwritten law of the South. If we are to tolerate this race of weaklings among us, until they are eliminated by the stress of competition, it must be upon terms which we lay down. One of our conditions is violated by this article, in which our wisdom is assailed, and our women made the subject of offensive comment. We must make known our disapproval." (86)

This article referenced above, is based on the true-life editorial written by Alexander Manly in 1889. In it, Manly denounced the concept that sexual violence was solely a black phenomenon. He also goes on to write what many readers of the day would find to be highly explosive comments, “We suggest that the whites guard their women more closely, as Mrs. Felton says, thus giving no opportunity for the human fiend, be he white or black.” (Alexander Manly” 407) and then again, “Don’t think ever that your women will remain pure while you are debauching ours. You sow the seed – the harvest will come in due time.” (“Alexander Manly” 408)

The ire raised in the novel by the article coupled with the robbery and murder of Mrs. Ochiltree explodes when attached to the idea of the rape myth. Conclusions are immediately drawn when a black man is accused of the crimes. “The criminal was a negro, the victim a white woman;--it was only reasonable to expect the worst.” (182)

Throughout The Marrow of Tradition, Chesnutt offers readers his own wisdom in the form of the omniscient narrator.

for knowledge and wisdom are not impartially distributed among even the most favored race. There were ignorant and vicious Negroes, and they had a monopoly of neither ignorance nor crime, for there were prosperous negroes and poverty-stricken whites. (79)

African American Diversity

The diversity within the African American community in Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition is vast. He seems to like to play on names. We have Janet Miller, an educated woman of mixed racial background, contrasted with Jane Letlow, an uneducated emancipated house slave. They are vastly different in appearance as in their speech. Janet Miller is a virtual mirror twin of her fully white sister Olivia Merkell Carteret. Olivia is held up throughout the novel as the picture of ‘Southern White Purity’, and Mammy Jane, as refered to by the whites, nearly worships her and the whole Merkell family; never is this made so startlingly clear as at her death. (297) She has bought into the notion that the black race is inferior and should be subservient to the noble high class white race. Jane is, not surprisingly, racist against some within her own black race. She has ingrained this into her son, Jerry, who succumbs to skin and hair bleaching in an attempt to be white. (244)

While Jerry Letlow might try to bleach away his blackness, another black character, Josh Green, revels in it. He is a proud black man, courageously defending his honour and that of his people, even to the death. (309)

In stark contrast to the working class black characters, Janet Miller’s husband is a highly educated doctor. Arguably the most educated person in all of Wellington. He works tirelessly to lift up his people and the community. Interestingly, Chesnutt has made Dr. Miller very light in complexion. “In the dusk his own color, slight in the daytime, would not attract attention.” (294) We know that Dr. Miller is the son of a free man, grandson of a slave (who bought his own freedom) and that he could probably pass for white. This coupled with the fact that his wife, Janet is often mistaken for her paler half-sister, Olivia Merkell Carteret, could be argued in evidence that a colour line is really an illusion. It lends credence to the idea of a specter for humanity where one can find solace in many colours and creeds, rather than the impossible and unsophisticated theory of separation between black and white.

All of these characters are essential in The Marrow of Tradition, as are the diverse array of white characters, to reinforce the verity that character, integrity, morality and honour are not divided along racial lines. They ebb and flow throughout humanity, heeding no notice of race, gender, or class.

Relationships between Whites and African Americans

The inter-racial relationships are complex, confusing and contradictory in turn of the century Wellington. However, I believe that they are quite realistic and historically accurate. Chesnutt himself is of a mixed race heritage and having lived in both the North and the South throughout his life, and perhaps at times, being mistaken for a white man (my own conjecture based on photographs) he may have experienced both sides of this complicated relationship. For example, Major Carteret’s feelings on the black race range from annoyance to dreams of genocide (245) to wishing to rescue his house servant from death in exchange for his own life. (305) The sincerity of his wish is questionable. Certainly his actions in the preceding 300 pages seem to indicate he would behave otherwise!

It seems the majority of the white characters in The Marrow of Tradition either look upon the black race in general with distain, and are most comfortable in keeping black society as subservient as possible. There are of course the exceptions to the rule. Old Delamere rescued his servant Sandy’s family and eventually freed them, before mandated with the emancipation proclamation, and loved and raised Sandy with pride and respect (I suspect a benevolent ulterior motive here: with Old Delamere’s grandson and Sandy looking so much alike as to be interchangeable when ‘made up’ similarly, could not Sandy be Old Delamere’s grandson too? (173)

Interestingly enough, some of the older, former slaves, seem to count their former Masters as friends, even discounting others within their own race. It would appear they’ve exchanged a racial divide for a caste system. Jane Letlow feels many within her race are beneath her and others need to be kept in their place. Her son, Jerry, advocates the lynching of an innocent man and feels more respect for Major Carteret, than the more liberal Mr. Ellis, because he refuses to shake Jerry’s hand.

Mr. Ellis had once shaken hands with Jerry,--but Mr. Ellis was a young man, whose Quaker father had never owned any slaves, and he could not be expected to have as much pride as one of the best "quality," whose families had possessed land and negroes for time out of mind. On the whole, Jerry preferred the careless nod of the editor-in-chief to the more familiar greeting of the subaltern. (29)

The more educated and middle class African American characters seem to tread a fine line. They are in a constant struggle to better the lives of their fellow African Americans while staying safely within the rules and boundaries of southern white society and occasionally crossing into dangerous territories as necessary.

Dr. Miller:

It was a veritable bed of Procrustes, this standard which the whites had set for the negroes. Those who grew above it must have their heads cut off, figuratively speaking,--must be forced back to the level assigned to their race; those who fell beneath the standard set had their necks stretched, literally enough, as the ghastly record in the daily papers gave conclusive evidence. (61)

Dr. Price:

It had been easy to theorize about the negro; it was more difficult to look this man in the eyes--whom at this moment he felt to be as essentially a gentleman as himself--and tell him the humiliating truth. (74)

Dr. Price:

He really thought him too much of a gentleman for the town, in view of the restrictions with which he must inevitably be hampered. There was something melancholy, to a cultivated mind, about a sensitive, educated man who happened to be off color. Such a person was a sort of social misfit, an odd quantity, educated out of his own class, with no possible hope of entrance into that above it. (75)

"That is the situation," added Miller, summing up. "Their friendship for us, a slender stream at the best, dries up entirely when it strikes their prejudices. There is seemingly not one white man in Wellington who will speak a word for law, order, decency, or humanity. Those who do not participate will stand idly by and see an untried man deliberately and brutally murdered. Race prejudice is the devil unchained." (194)

The inter-racial relationships are thorny at best, inhumane at worst and prickly in general. One topic I wish to address is something that I found simultaneously offensive and odd from Mr. Chesnutt’s novel. All of the educated African American characters are light skinned and many could pass for white, while the more subservient and subversive characters are of a darker complexion. I can’t help but wonder why he would do such a thing. Perhaps he can relate more to this physicality because he himself was fair skinned. Yet it almost seems to play into the white supremacist belief illustrated throughout the novel by the very characters we are supposed to dislike. Why do the most successful, educated, kind, patient black characters come from mixed heritage, or at the very least have very light skin? I am uneasy with this representation of the successful black person, and wonder if Chesnutt is trying to imply that lighter skin is somehow superior. I hesitate to fully embrace this idea, since it is at such extreme odds with what he is trying to convey throughout novel.

The Marrow of Tradition as a primary historical source

While Chesnutt’s novel is a work of fiction, I feel it serves an important purpose for relating history in an easy, entertaining and memorable manner. His text is rich with characters and powerful prose, at times almost lyrical and poetic. Once read, The Marrow of Tradition will stay with you for the rest of your life. It is an incredibly effective teaching tool. As a primary source, it relates the complex social structure of the early 20th century South through the use of characters and their relationships. Chesnutt wrote his novel shortly after the massacre on which it is based, and within two years The Marrow of Tradition was published. Nearly all the public events, the article that helped to incite the southern whites, unjustified lynching, the public massacre and government overthrow are historically accurate. Chesnutt had strong ties to North Carolina, the state in which the massacre occured. He was born in North Carolina, raised in North Carolina, and taught in North Carolina. The day after the Wilmington, NC riot he wrote to his publisher:

Nov. 11, 1898

Dear Mr. Page:-

I am deeply concerned and very much depressed at the condition of affairs in North Carolina during the recent campaign. I have been for a long time praising the State for its superior fairness and liberty in the treatment of race questions, but I find myself obliged to revise some of my judgments. There is absolutely no excuse for the state of things there, for the State had a very large white majority. It is an outbreak of pure, malignant and altogether indefensible race prejudice, which makes me feel personally humiliated, and ashamed for the country and the State. The United States Government is apparently Powerless, and the recent occurrences in Illinois in connection with the miners strike to emphasize its weakness. (Browner)

Once he decided to write about the Wilmington riot, Chesnutt was in an advantageous position for he could interview his own relatives who had survived the massacre. Thus having been given a first hand account he has provided us with a detailed description of that day, and the atmosphere in Wilmington leading up to the disaster. (Merriman, par.7)

It would be misleading to assume that The Marrow of Tradition is a perfect representation of the past. It is written by one man, with no official collaborators. It is a fictionalized account, that is to say, not historical truth. And as un-biased as I’d like to believe Charles Chesnutt to have been, no human is perfectly un-biased. After all, this is a highly personal tragedy as evidenced by his words in the above quoted letter.

That said, The Marrow of Tradition, I believe, passes any historian’s litmus test as a useful primary source, so long as it is used in conjunction with other primary sources and historical events referenced within the text.

Works Cited
Browner, Stephanie. “The Wilmington Riots.” The Charles Chestnutt Digital Archive. 2001.
Chesnutt, Charles. “Alexander Manly.” The Marrow of Tradition. Eds. N. Bentley and S. Grunning. Boston: Bedford/ St.Martin;s, 2002.
Chesnutt, Charles. The Marrow of Tradition. New York: Penguin, 1993.
Merriman, C.D. “Charles W. Chesnutt.” The Literature Network. 2006.