Following the Civil War, just prior to the turn of the century, many
American novelist were writing more freely of the previous slave culture. Two
of these writers being Mark Twain and Charles Chesnutt. Mark Twain was a
popular white author by this time. Charles Chesnutt, the son of free blacks,
decided to pursue a dream of becoming an author in order to remove the spirit of
racism. By studying these authors in particular, the views of a white raised in
the slave holding south are juxtaposed with the views of free black. Both Twain
and Chesnutt satirize whites in different ways through their literature. Twain
also displays some unfavorable preconceptions of blacks. This can be attributed
to his own upbringing in the slave holding south.
The main character of the Chesnutt stories is an old Negro man,
previously a slave, who engages his new white employers in many tales about life
on the plantation. Uncle Julius relays these stories with much detail. Though,
at the conclusion of each, the reader is left wondering whether the tale was
true or if Uncle Julius had conceived of it merely to satisfy his own desires.
Chesnutt has added to the end of each story an ulterior motive of Uncle Julius
that seems to be met by the telling of his tales. By doing this, Chesnutt
discretely satirizes whites in general.
In the first story, The Goophered Grapevine, Uncle Julius tells of a
conjure woman putting a goopher on the grapevines, causing all blacks that eat
the grapes to die within one year. This story is relayed upon the first meeting
of the northern white couple (John and Annie) and the native South Carolinian.
After telling his tale of Henry and the others that suffered from this spell,
Uncle Julius concludes that these northerners should not buy this vineyard,
adding conveniently that he is not afraid to eat the grapes because he know the
ole vimes fum de noo ones.
John decides to buy the farm in spite of Uncle Julius’s warnings, but he
does offer him employment as a coachman. It seems as if Uncle Julius had been
trying to guarantee his usefulness on the plantation even after its sale. Was
white man tricked into believing Julius’ knowledge would be useful in the
renewing of the vineyards? Chesnutt lets the reader wonder, but regardless of
his tale being the reason for his employment, Uncle Julius gets to stay on the
land and receives a wage to compensate for any money he may have lost in the
sale of the vineyard.
As the family settles into their new home the wife sees a need for a new
kitchen. There is an abandoned schoolhouse on the corner of the property that
could serve for some of the wood to build with. Uncle Julius hears of the idea
and is immediately reminded of another story.
Chesnutt has titled this story Po’ Sandy. In this story Uncle Julius
tells of a strong, hardworking slave, Sandy, that was tired of being sent away
to wok for the Master’s grown children. His wife Tenie, conjure woman, places a
spell on Sandy turning him into a tree. Sandy continued to have problems in
this state. Tenie decides to turn him back and run off with him one night.
Unfortunately, Tenie was sent to nurse her master’s daughter-in-law and by the
time she returned the tree had been sent to the mill. Sandy was used to build
the kitchen, that later became the old schoolhouse at the corner of the
plantation. Tenie died on the floor of that schoolhouse mourning her husband.
This story so disturbed Annie that she refused to use any old lumber
from the schoolhouse. At the conclusion Annie also admits that she has given
Uncle Julius permission to use the old schoolhouse for meetings of the new
Colored Baptist Church. Yet again Uncle Julius has received some sort of
benefit from the telling of his tales.This leads the reader to believe that
he had this ulterior motive in mind the entire time. Chesnutt seems to be
satirizing the unknowing white woman.
In the final selection chosen from the works of Chesnutt, Uncle Julius
tells the story of Dave’s Neckliss. Dave, a good Christian slave, is accused of
stealing a ham from the smokehouse and forced to wear a ham chained around his
neck for punishment. Wiley, the real thief, had set Dave up because he loved
the girl that Dave had been going around with. When this was discovered, the
master tried to make reconciliation by telling all the slaves. Dave had already
lost his senses a little and thought he was a ham. Uncle Julius later found him
hanging the smokehouse.
Uncle Julius explains how he cannot eat more than two or three pounds of
ham without having to stop and think about Dave. John asks for ham at breakfast
the next morning. Annie first claims that ham was too heavy for breakfast, but
admits that she had given it all to Uncle Julius. Annie has been outsmarted
once more by a black man.
These three example show Chesnutt is satirizing the whites. He shows,
through Uncle Julius’ stories, that blacks have the ability to beguile whites in
order to have their own motives met. Thus Chesnutt portrays blacks possessing
greater intelligence than many at the time accepted.He does this very
discretely through the black folk stories of supernatural, but the surrounding
satire is still apparent.
Twain also satirizes whites in his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, more
specifically the whites of the slave holding south. This is brought out
originally in the scene where Wilson receives his name. The serious attitudes
of property prevents the white towns people from understanding the joke Wilson
makes about the dog. For the reader it is apparent that Twain is pointing out
the stupidity of the towns people rather than that of Wilson.
Twain also shows Roxy as a black that is in a small way superior to the
townsfolk. She is able to outsmart the entire town, including her own master,
by switching her own child with her master’s son. Ironically, the only white
who figures out this scheme is Wilson, the person the townspeople labeled a
pudd’nhead. Here, Twain again satirizes the whites of the south by showing
their ignorance. These people are so preoccupied with the idea of race, yet
they cannot tell the difference between a person they would label nigger and a
Twain also raises some questions regarding the nature of race. Are
their innate qualities of race or does it depend entirely on ones upbringing?
Twain questions nature versus nurture. In the story Tom is a white boy that
possesses black blood and Chambers is white. Twain spends some time comparing
these boys as they grow up. He says, Tom was a bad baby from the very
beginning. He was given anything he desired. Tom grew to be small and weak,
while Chambers grew big and strong. Twain points to the difference in diet and
activity. Tom ate sweets and was waited on, while Chambers was coarsely fed
and worked around the house.
Although Twain states that Tom was bad from the start, the reader is
left wondering what would have happened if he had received Chambers discipline,
diet, and work load. At the conclusion of the book, the white townspeople of
Dawson’s Landing blame Tom’s awful behavior on the drop of black blood that he
possesses. Though, Twain seems to be saying that it was his white upbringing
that made him into the man became. This also satirizes the whites of Dawson’s
Landing, showing them as simple minded.
Twain also questions the self-concept of blacks. Here we see some of
Twain’s racist attitudes displayed. He tries to show the irony of the blacks
view of themselves in the case of Roxy. Though Roxy has no physical
characteristics that distinguish her as black in her own mind that is what she
is. From the very start of her life she has worn that label and her personality
has been patterned after that. Her dialect is poor and uneducated just as she
herself is. She has not been schooled as to the proper manners of a lady and
thus she is crass and vulgar at times. All of these outward facets of Roxy’s
personality expose her as black, though her features do not.
Even being raised in this manner, Twain portrays Roxy as feeling
superior to the other slaves because of her white heritage. At one time she
says to Jasper, another slave, I got somep’n’ better to do den ‘sociat’n’ wid
niggers as black as you is. This was all in jest, but throughout the book
Twain shows Roxy as having a low view of blacks, especially her own black
heritage. When scolding her son Tom for refusing to challenge the twins, Roxy
blames his cowardice on de nigger in him. After noting all of the predominant
white members of his pedigree, she concludes that de nigger is his soul.
Twain seems to have some assumptions of his own that blacks have no pride
in their own heritage.
Twain and Chesnutt both satirize whites, but in different ways. Twain,
being a white, satirizes the slave holding south, rather than whites in general.
Chesnutt, on the other hand, uses a couple from the north in a story set in the
free south. Chesnutt also is more descrete in his satire, while Twain pokes fun
directly. Twain also displays some of his own prejudices, being a white trying
to explain the black culture. On the contrary, Chesnutt honestly portrays
blacks from an inside perspective. Roxy was ashamed of the black blood in her,
while Uncle Julius seemed to be a proud old man, happy to tell of his black
friends and past. From the analysis these literary selections we can gain a
greater understanding of racial views but, one may say that everything is not as
simple as black and white
Category: Social Issues