I’m chagrined to confess that I only recently became aware of the prominent African-American author, Charles W. Chesnutt. He produced the majority of his work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and is perhaps best known for his Conjure Tales, which are set in the American south among the poor black post-slavery population. I picked up The Northern Stories of Charles W. Chesnutt because it happened to be easily available and I thought I’d get some idea of his writing and perhaps going on to explore other works later.
It’s unfortunate that this mixed-race man from Ohio, despite procuring publication in a number of prestigious magazines and journals, was unable to support himself with writing and fell back for expenses on a successful court stenography business which left him little time for literature.
These tales reveal a man of careful craftsmanship and some wit working hard to convey the experiences of his own people but to also transcend the boundaries of race and explore the human condition as a whole.
Some pieces, such as “The Passing of Grandison” are set squarely in the era of slavery. Others, such as, “Uncle Wellington’s Wives” explore the difficulties of slaves transitioning to freedom. Then there is “Her Virginia Mammy” which deals with the matter of passing for white. Many of the stories reveal the prejudice common among negroes of preferring light to dark when it came to complexion. There is, for example, a “blue vein club” which admits only those whose skin is light enough to expose the blue blood flowing through the veins. I recall a friend telling me once about “paper bag” dances being held in his Louisiana home town. Only those whose skin was as light as a paper bag or lighter were admitted.
Still other stories, however, as “Shadow of My Past” mention race not at all.
Although Chesnutt’s style feels a little dated and stiff, its power is evident and well worth reading. I found Charles Duncan’s exposition of the individual stories annoyingly intrusive and quit reading them after the first one because they are so extensive they denied me my own experience of the tales. Maybe other readers won’t agree, but whatever the judgment I’m confident in recommending the stories themselves and thank Mr. Duncan for rounding them up and putting them together between one cover.