How a black writer from 19th century America used humor to fight white supremacy

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(THE CONVERSATION) Every writer struggles with the dilemma of staying true to their vision or giving publishers and readers what they want. Several factors can influence the latter: the market, trends and sensitivities.

But in the decades following the Civil War, black writers seeking to accurately portray the horrors of slavery had to contend with readers whose worldviews were colored by racism, as well as an entire swath of the country eager to cover the past.

Charles Chesnutt was one such writer. Forced to work with skeptical publishers and within the confines of popular forms, Chesnutt nonetheless endeavored to shed light on the legacy of slavery.

Her 1899 collection of stories, “The Conjure Woman”, took place on a southern plantation and sold well. At first glance, the stories seemed to mimic other books set in the South written in a style called “local color”, which focuses on regional characters, dialects, and customs.

But Chesnutt had in fact written a subversive counter-narrative, using humor to unravel nostalgic Southern myths and expose the contradictions of a racist society.

rewrite the past

After the Civil War, there was a concerted effort to portray the South as a pastoral place possessed by a culture of honor. Slavery, on the other hand, had been a nurturing, even benevolent institution.

These beliefs bled into fiction of the time, with white authors such as Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris writing stories that sentimentalize and soften the complex stories of the past.

Many of these stories feature an older man who was once a slave and was given the affectionate nickname “uncle”. These characters tended to depict the Civil War as an affront to the Southern way of life, while portraying the South and its landed nobility as heroic.

In “A Story of the War,” for example, Harris introduces the character of Uncle Remus, who recounts the time his master left to fight the Civil War. Overwhelmed with concern for the man who enslaved him, Uncle Remus follows him and sees a soldier from the North preparing to shoot him. In a moment of panic, Remus shoots the Northerner, wounding him.

“A History of the War,” like most colorful local Southern tales, drew readers invested in the lost cause of the Old South, a revisionist ideology that portrays the creation of the Confederate States and the cause of the Civil War as just and heroic.

Historian Fred Bailey notes that stories like Page’s and Harris’s were “praised by the upper classes of the South”, while associations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy regularly read these works at their meetings.

Chesnutt’s revisionist humor

At first glance, it would appear that Chesnutt, who was of mixed race and could easily have passed for white, was simply working in the dominant literary form of his time and crafting stories for white audiences.

Like his white contemporaries, Chesnutt in “The Conjure Woman” includes a character who is an “uncle” living on the abandoned plantation where he once worked.

But Chesnutt, as literary historian Dickson Bruce points out in his 2005 essay “Confronting the Crisis: African American Narratives,” used the plantation setting to present a more authentic depiction of slavery.

Uncle Julius, who appears in each of the stories in the collection, is not nostalgic for a bygone era. Instead, he reflects on his own life and seeks to show the humanity of slaves. He uses his storytelling ability to cleverly scam a white porter who bought the plantation where Julius lived during his servitude and after the Civil War. The stories are descriptive, corrective – and, above all, funny.

While Chesnutt’s tales explicitly address the harsh history of slavery, each of the stories ends on a lighter note, with Uncle Julius often getting what he wants. Throughout the collection, he parodies the conventions of Southern fiction – whether refuting racist tropes or showing the cruelty of the ruling class – subtly mocking a culture shrouded in the fog of the nostalgia.

Bound by form

At the same time, Chesnutt felt like he couldn’t just write denunciations against myths like the lost cause. To be published, black writers had to appeal to the sensibilities of white readers and the demands of publishers.

For example, Uncle Julius spoke in a black dialect that resembled those of uncles written by white writers. It hasn’t been easy for Chesnutt. In a letter to his editor, Chesnutt described writing in this dialect as a “desperate task”.

Nonetheless, he avoided pandering completely to general expectations of how black characters should be portrayed.

He rejected emerging Reconstruction historiography that refused to recognize the agency of African Americans, and despite his work within the form, Chesnutt did not cast Julius as a buffoon who was happy to serve white people in her bosom.

Although his stories did not openly denounce racism, Chesnutt hoped they could still eliminate prejudice:

“But the subtle, almost indefinable feeling of Negro revulsion, which is common to most Americans—and quite easily explained—cannot be stormed and stormed over; the garrison will not capitulate: their position must therefore be undermined, and we will find ourselves in their midst before they think it.

Humor opens doors

Chesnutt is far from the only black artist who is asked to compromise. Poet Langston Hughes argued with his patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason, who saw African Americans as a link to the species’ primitive past and wanted her work to be devoid of political progressiveness.

As Hughes wrote in his 1940 autobiography, “The Big Sea”, “I was only a Negro American – who had loved the surface of Africa and the rhythms of Africa – but I didn’t I wasn’t Africa. I was Chicago and Kansas City and Broadway and Harlem. And I wasn’t what she wanted me to be.

In Chesnutt, I also see connections to contemporary black comedians who center their humor around race.

During the third season of “Chappelle’s Show,” Dave Chappelle suffered an existential crisis because the comedian wasn’t sure how people reacted to his humor. In a 2006 interview with Oprah Winfrey, he explained how, while filming a blackface sketch, “someone on set, who was white, laughed in such a way – I know the difference between people who laugh with me and make fun of me. And it was the first time that I had a laugh that made me feel uncomfortable.

Shortly after, Chappelle left the show.

While Chesnutt was certainly not the first African American artist to use humor to portray the horrors of slavery, he was one of the first to reach the American mainstream.

The humor disarms readers, helping them cross a psychological threshold and enter a space where a more nuanced conversation about the country’s history can take place.

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