How do authors Paul L. Dunbar and Charles W. Chesnutt portray political, economic, and social progress during the Reconstruction era?

Quick answer:

Both Paul L. Dunbar and Charles W. Chesnutt adopt a realistic tone toward the politics, economics, and social progress of the Reconstruction era. They recognize the complexities and realities of the era as they both celebrate African American achievement and reveal continued oppression.

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Paul Laurence Dunbar and Charles W. Chesnutt are both post-Reconstruction African American authors, but their writing is highly influenced by both the days of slavery and the days of Reconstruction as they tried to present the plight of African-Americans during both periods. Let's look at some examples of their work.

Dunbar wrote both poetry and prose, both in dialect and in standard English. In his works, he celebrated the achievements of African Americans, how they worked hard to overcome the scars of slavery and come into their own as individuals and as a people. In “Ode to Ethiopia,” for instance, Dunbar declares his pride for his people and their progress, for they are courageous and must now take full advantage of their freedom. Yet in “Sympathy,” Dunbar laments the continuing oppression of African Americans in politics, economics, and society. They are like caged birds who both beat their wings against their prison and sing at the same time.

Chesnutt also writes about the mixed existence of African Americans. Chesnutt could actually “pass” as white, yet he chose to identify with his African American heritage in all its complexity. He focused on this complexity in his works, choosing to present a dark version of slavery as in The Conjure Woman and examining the complicated realities of Reconstruction in stories like “The Wife of His Youth” (in which a successful, light-skinned African American man must make a choice about whether to accept the wife who has found him after so many years). Like Dunbar, Chesnutt celebrates progress, but he also presents the difficulties, moral and otherwise, that progress can bring as African-Americans strive to make a new life for themselves. Many of Chesnutt's novels reveal the legacies of Reconstruction, including the political gains and losses, lynching, and segregation. He does not hide reality but rather sets it forth to be faced and examined.

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