Chesnutt summarized the theme of his second book of short stories in a letter to his publisher written a few months before it came out:I should like to hope that the stories, while written to depict life as it is, in certain aspects that no one has ever before attempted to adequately describe, may throw a light upon the great problem on which the stories are strung; for the backbone of this volume is not a character, like Uncle Julius in The Conjure Woman, but a subject, as indicated in the title—The Color Line.
Chesnutt’s more direct approach to these highly charged racial issues presented a challenge that the conservative reading public often proved unwilling to meet. Particularly shocking to contemporary critics were such stories as “The Sheriff’s Children,” in which a young man of mixed race, Tom, is arrested as a murder suspect in a small town in North Carolina about ten years after the Civil War. A lynch mob attempts to break into the prison to hang him without a trial but is driven away by Sheriff Campbell. Tom then gains possession of the sheriff’s gun and reveals that he is the son of Campbell and a slave woman whom Campbell had sold. Just as he is about to shoot the sheriff, Tom is shot and wounded by Campbell’s daughter and disarmed. Campbell spends the night contemplating his past and decides to atone for his moral crime of neglect against his son, whom he now believes to be innocent of the murder. When he...
(The entire section is 510 words.)