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!’...
(The entire section is 2185 words.)