The Marrow of Tradition

by Charles Waddell Chesnutt

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What is the significance of the characters Josh Green and Dr. William Miller in The Marrow of Tradition?

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The significance of the foil characters Josh Green and Dr. William Miller in The Marrow of Tradition is that they represent different responses to racial oppression among the African American community. Josh is a militant who refuses to lie down to the White man, whereas Miller is more moderate and thinks it pointless to challenge White supremacy head on.

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The existence of Josh Green and Dr. William Miller as foil characters in The Marrow of Tradition reminds us of the variety of responses among the African American community to bigotry, oppression, and racial prejudice. Some African Americans adopted the militant approach of the Black laborer Josh Green and sought to confront the injustices of Jim Crow head on.

Green gets involved in armed resistance against an angry White lynch mob, which has been incited to violence by the race-baiting editorials of Major Carteret. Josh knows that challenging White supremacy in this way is very dangerous indeed. But he figures he’s got nothing to lose.

Dr. William Miller, on the other hand, doesn’t want to get involved in any kind of direct challenge to White supremacy. It’s notable that he doesn’t participate in armed resistance against the White lynch mob. This is a clear sign that he regards direct action as largely futile. He’d much rather just keep his head down and try to work with the system as best he can. This is because he realizes that White supremacy is deeply ingrained in the culture of the South and cannot be changed overnight. He’s therefore committed to long-term gradual change that’s both peaceful and legal.

In that sense, it’s probably safe to say that he represents the prevailing opinion of the majority of African American citizens in Wilmington.

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Josh Green, an African American activist, takes a militant stance against white supremacy. He considers his position to be morally justified because he cannot stand by and watch while racists attack and kill innocent black people, including children. He is willing to risk his life for the cause and even to take offensive, not just defensive, positions. The author implies, however, that pride may be clouding Green’s judgment and thus further endangering those whom he professes to represent.

As a doctor who is married to a biracial woman, William Miller is inescapably connected to the dominant white society. His profession as a physician connects him to life and healing. Although he and his wife lose their child, he decides to help the Carteret’s son. One of his main reasons is that the children’s mothers are related by blood, and his wife, despite her continued rift with her half-sister, recommends the way of compassion when it comes to treating the child. Because the patient treated is explicitly a child, his continued life thanks to Miller’s actions represents the future and hope.

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Essentially, Dr. Miller and Josh Green represent the two poles of a debate among African-Americans in the wake of the Wilmington "race riots," the forcible overthrow of African-American leadership in the city of Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898. The events in Marrow of Tradition are based on these events.

Dr. Miller represents a moderate voice among African-Americans. He is educated, is married to a woman of mixed race, and belongs to an emerging black middle class. He believes open resistance to white supremacy is futile, a conviction he displays when he is forced to switch passenger cars on a train in Virginia, and most tellingly when he refuses to lead the black community in armed resistance against a lynch mob. 

Josh Green, on the other hand, is angry and bitter, having lost his father to Klan violence (specifically at the hands of Captain George McBane) when he was young. He believes in violent resistance, even if it results in his own death. Having much less to lose than Dr. Miller, he is far less patient than the doctor, who is a believer in gradual, orderly reform. The differences between the two are highlighted in an exchange in Dr. Miller's office, when Greene shows up for treatment after being wounded in a fight. "You'll hit the wrong man one day...You'll get into a quarrel with a white man, and at the end of it, there'll be a lynching, or a funeral."

Greene replies, referring specifically to McBane:

I expec's ter die a vi'lent death in a quarrel wid a w'ite man...and fu'thermo', he's gwine ter die at the same time, er a little befo'...I'm gwine ter kill dat man as sho' as I'm settin' in dis cheer...

His prediction comes true, but Miller's nobility in rescuing Carteret's son near the end of the novel confirms that while Chesnutt admires the courage of Green, he sees true nobility in taking the high ground. 

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