Essays and Criticism
In 1880, while he was still working as a schoolteacher in North Carolina, Charles W. Chesnutt wrote in his journal, ‘‘The object of my writing would not be so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites—for I consider the unjust spirit of caste that is so insidious as to pervade a whole nation, and so powerful as to subject a whole race and all connected with it to scorn and social ostracism—I consider this a barrier to the moral progress of the American people: and I would be one of the first to head a determined, organized crusade against it. . . . The work is of a two-fold character. The Negro’s part is to prepare himself for recognition and equality, and it is the province of literature to open the way for him to get it—to accustom the public mind to the idea; to lead people on, imperceptibly, unconsciously, step by step, to the desired state of feeling.’’ Chesnutt stayed true to his stated mission; in much of the fiction he wrote after the folktales collected in The Conjure Woman, Chesnutt attempted to make white America see a new, more positive image of black America. He also asked blacks to confront their own problems and responsibilities with the question of racial issues.
‘‘The Sheriff’s Children,’’ asserts William L. Andrews in The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt, ‘‘constitutes Chesnutt’s boldest arraignment of the South, both Old and New, for its sins of omissions against black people.’’ Published in 1888, it was one of the first stories in which Chesnutt shifted from the folktales and local color tales that had made up his previous fictions. In writing to Albion Tourgée, a northern writer who wrote sympathetically about African Americans in the South, Chesnutt called his newest work ‘‘a southern story,’’ but noted that its subject was ‘‘dealing with a tragic incident, not of slavery exactly, but showing the fruits of slavery.’’ He admitted that the story ‘‘has a moral’’ but denied that he took a moralistic stance: ‘‘I tried to write as an artist, and not as a preacher.’’ Indeed, he later expressed concern that his 1899 collection, The Wife of His Youth, and Other Stories of the Color Line, might read too much like a sermon, but he hoped that ‘‘it might have its influence in directing attention to certain aspects of the race question which are quite familiar to those on the unfortunate side of it.’’ Chesnutt’s comments, written before the collection’s publication, proved prophetic: many black reviewers praised him for showing ‘‘educated, intelligent, and refined’’ African Americans to white America, instead of the expected stereotypes; while the majority of white reviewers objected to his stark racial themes, and particularly to the specter of miscegenation.
Chesnutt, however, does not begin ‘‘The Sheriff’s Children’’ on such racial topics, though they ultimately arise as the crucial aspect. Instead, Chesnutt describes the county in North Carolina where the story takes place. Even though the text focuses on the physicality, evidence is presented of the prejudice that resides so particularly in the South, for according to the narrator, ‘‘Most of the white people own the farms they till,’’ but no mention is made of African Americans. Until a scapegoat is sought for a crime, the only mention of African Americans in the story comes with a stereotypical, idyllic description of ‘‘the yodel of some tuneful negro on his way to the pine forest.’’ In contrast, the tragedy of the Civil War, now ten years over but still ‘‘the era from which all local chronicles are dated,’’ is sharply evoked.
The narration then hones down its vision to the individual town of Troy. An unprecedented event has taken place, the murder of a white gentleman, a former soldier in the Civil War. A ‘‘strange mulatto’’ had been sighted in the vicinity and soon a sheriff’s posse has caught him and brought him to prison. Although a trial is impending, for many of the residents of the town, the promise of almost certain punishment is not enough, for ‘‘a white man had been killed by a negro,’’ and that required vengeance. They determine to lynch him that afternoon— and then the heart of the story begins.
The only man willing to stop such a crime is Sheriff Campbell. He is ‘‘a man far above the average of the community in wealth, education, and social position.’’ He is also a man of duty with ‘‘a high sense of responsibility attaching to his office.’’ Because of this, he ‘‘with no uncertainty in regard to his course’’ goes forth to defend the prisoner. The sheriff confronts the unruly, ignorant mob—one man against many—and he prevails. The mob disperses and the prisoner is safe. As Andrews writes, this scene provides ‘‘a preliminary climax’’ for the reader: ‘‘For once, the forces of law and decency prevail over those of racial enmity and violence.’’
This sense of relief, however, is short-lived. The prisoner, Tom, has picked up the sheriff’s gun, and now aims it at the sheriff. Tom is determined to flee, even though it means killing the sheriff—the man who has saved his life—to ensure no alarm will be raised. The sheriff is aghast when he hears Tom’s plan. ‘‘‘Good God!’...
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The Mask as Theme and Structure: Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Sheriff’s Children and The Passing of Grandison
The third and sixth stories in The Wife of His Youth, ‘‘The Sheriff’s Children’’ and ‘‘The Passing of Grandison,’’ illustrate the mask-theme and the maskstructure in Chesnutt’s fiction, and the fact that they do so in markedly different ways makes them worthy of separate consideration here. ‘‘The Sheriff’s Children’’ uses his mask theme negatively: hiding one’s true soul leads to tragedy. ‘‘The Passing of Grandison,’’ on the other hand, like ‘‘Her Virginia Mammy,’’ apparently argues that maskwearing can be a virtue if it is directed toward virtuous ends. ‘‘The Sheriff’s Children’’ uses techniques of subtle foreshadowing to screen its conclusion. In ‘‘The Passing of Grandison,’’ however, Chesnutt succeeds with a bold, dangerous ploy. Though he uses almost no foreshadowing, he succeeds in a nearly complete masking of the story’s surprise ending.
The two major figures of ‘‘The Sheriff’s Children,’’ Sheriff Campbell and his mulatto son, are both plagued by crises of personal identity; their reactions to these crises both exploit the theme of the mask and exemplify Chesnutt’s structural use of the mask concept. These achievements make a powerful story of one which might without them have degenerated into a naive, run-of-the-mill treatment of the long-lost son plot. Had Chesnutt made the revelation of the relationship between the Sheriff and the son whom he had abandoned as a child its focal point, his story would never have attained any particular significance. Chesnutt instead uses the Sheriff’s parenthood as the starting point for an examination of its tragic results.
Campbell is a man who wears the mask of duty and morality. Ronald Walcott stated the case quite well when he argued that while Campbell appears to be free of the primitive impulses which seem to motivate his neighbors, he ‘‘possesses his own inhibiting personal code before which all else must pay obeisance, his Southern gentleman’s concept of duty’’ . . . The point is that the Sheriff is not free of primitive impulses; the concept of duty which he has adopted has only hidden them. In his youth, he had fathered a child with a Black woman; later, in a fit of anger, he had sold them down the river. As the crisis of the story unfolds with his ‘‘child’’ standing before him—a prisoner accused of murder whom an unruly mob wants to lynch—Campbell begins to see himself for the first time without a mask, re- flected in his son’s eyes: ‘‘He knew whose passions coursed beneath that swarthy skin and burned in the black eyes opposite his own. He saw in this mulatto what he himself might have become had not the safeguards of parental restraint and public opinion been thrown around him.’’ Campbell had always lived by the code of the Southern aristocracy, one which sanctioned his behavior toward his lover and child. But he had never consciously realized that he was using the code to mask his instincts from himself. Whether the passions which coursed within him were noble or not, they were his, and he should have come to terms with them. When he learns who his prisoner is, Campbell begins to get an inkling of the existence of the mask which he has worn so long.
The prisoner, though, does not really come to grips with who and what he is. He feels trapped between two racial worlds. As Mr. Ryder says, in a story which satirizes this viewpoint, persons of mixed blood ‘‘are ground between the upper and the nether millstone.’’ They may be accepted by either the white race or the black but the former does not want them, and acceptance by the latter would be a disgrace. Ryder would prefer acceptance into the white world, and, here with Chesnutt’s apparent sympathy, Sheriff Campbell’s son has also selected that goal. The prisoner cries that he is ‘‘despised and scorned and set aside by the people to whose race [he belongs] far more than to [his] mother’s.’’ The mulatto rejects his Blackness, but the rigidity of white society prohibits him from taking up the white man’s mask. Essentially, the Sheriff’s son feels robbed of his birthright; he has grown rebellious as a result of his inability to wear a mask which appears to him to be not a mask at all but rather his true spirit. He feels that he is being forced to wear a mask of Blackness.
Whatever the merits of Chesnutt’s point about the proper sphere of the mulatto, it is clear that the Sheriff’s mask of duty and the mulatto’s mask of Blackness are evil forces; they cause the prisoner’s death and the father’s failure to atone for his past misdeeds. This outcome, tragic because both figures are basically noble men whose personalities reveal...
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Charles Waddell Chesnutt: The Sheriff’s Children (1889)
Charles Waddell Chesnutt vies with Paul Laurence Dunbar in being the first Afro-American author to be accepted by major American publishing houses and to win national recognition and fame. Both authors, in order to be published at all, had to come to terms with the literary forms and conventions of the Plantation Tradition whose chief exponents were Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Nelson Page, James Lane Allen and Harry Stillwell Edwards. This literary convention stipulated that the black characters be presented as living contentedly in an Edenic South, that they be quaint, childlike and docile, tellers of exotic yarns for the entertainment of massa’s children or for massa himself. It is this tradition which gave rise to the...
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