Black and White
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
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
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
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 white.
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
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
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