Is Sally Ann H. Ferguson’s assessment of Charles Chesnutt accurate and fair?
Dr. Sally Ann H. Ferguson is a professor at University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a scholar who has published widely on Charles Chesnutt in leading peer-reviewed journals in her field, incluing MELUS (Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States), a leading scholarly forum for discussion of, inter alia, African-American literature.
In literature, peer-reviewed journals have a long and complex submission cycle intended to ensure the quality of the work they publish. When a scholar submits a manuscript, first the editor makes an initial judgment as to whether it fits the topic of the journal and appears competently written. Next, the article is sent out to two experts, ususually with PhDs and mutiple publications on the topic of the manuscript, with the author's name removed. The two expert readers send back opinions, and the editor decides on the basis of those reports whether to publish the article as is, whether to ask for revisions, or whether to reject it.
Dr. Ferguson's work on The House Behind the Cedars, in particular her analysis of the concept of passing, and critique of accomodationism, have been judged by her peers original and interesting. To pass through the process of peer review means that she is factually accurate (e.g. she gets dates correct, quotes accurately, has read and mastered the existing scholarly literature). While her judgments are well-informed, value judgements are things on which well-informed and intelligent people can disagree. Thus while any student or scholar writing about The House Behind the Cedars needs to take her work into account and treat it seriously, you can ultimately disagree with her value judgments or conclusions. Part of the point of literary criticism is to make you think more carefully and deeply about a work, and even critics with whom you might disagree are valuable if they make you think more profoundly than you would have had you not read their work.