Sunday, July 11, 2010

On "The Marrow of Tradition" by Charles Chesnutt ***

This book made me angry. Revenge is not a feeling I usually get to "enjoy," but Chesnutt's book seems gauged to do just that, stir up feelings of animosity. It's essentially a text about the wrongs done to African Americans in one southern town, which serves as an microcosm for the South itself, during the latter days of Reconstruction, just years before the right to vote would be take from former slaves via state constitutions and laws.

In this small town, a white man marries a black woman in secret and leaves a tiny bit of his fortune to his colored daughter. His white daughter from a previous marriage gets most of the estate. But that's not good enough for her aunt, who arranges to steal the will and cast the black wife and her daughter out of home. The secret lives on with only the aunt.

Meanwhile, a set of newspaper men in town are tired of Republican blacks taking the political positions, tired of blacks getting "uppity," so they decide to take back the town for themselves. Even though the state constitution will change in two years, that's not soon enough. These men set out to create a riot that will displace the black leaders. In the course of the novel one after another black man will be taken advantage of, killed, belittled, pushed aside. When rage arises at the end, one can't help but feel with the oppressed people.

Written in the early 1900s, I have to wonder to whom Chesnutt was writing. This clearly wasn't a book that would have been popular in the South.

You can read the novel here at Project Gutenberg.

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