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Charles W. Chesnutt on Race and on Publishing The Conjure Woman

Charles W. Chesnutt, from "What is a White Man?" (THE INDEPENDENT, May 30, 1889).

The states vary slightly in regard to what constitutes a mulatto or person   of color, and as to what proportion of white blood should be sufficient to remove the disability of color. As a general rule, less than one-fourth of Negro blood left the individual white--in theory; race questions being, however, regulated very differently very different in practice. In Missouri, by the code of 1855, still in operation, so far as not inconsistent with the Federal Constitution and laws, "any person other than a Negro, any one of whose grandmothers or grandfathers is or shall be deemed a mulatto." Thus the color-line is drawn at one-fourth of Negro blood, and persons with only one-eighth are white.

By the Mississippi code of 1880, the color-line is drawn at one-fourth Negro blood, all persons having less being theoretically white.

Under the code noir of Louisiana, the descendant of a white and a quadroon is white, thus drawing the line at one-eighth of Negro blood. The code of 1876 abolished all distinctions of color; as to whether they have been re-enacted since the Republican Party went out of power in that state the writer is not informed.
Jumping to the extreme North, persons are white within the meaning of the Constitution of Michigan who have less than one-fourth of Negro blood.
In Ohio the rule, as established by numerous decisions of the Supreme Court, was that a preponderance of white blood constituted a person a white man in the eye of the law, and entitled him to the exercise of all the civil rights of a white man. By retrogressive step the color-line was extended in 1861 in the case of marriage, which by statute was forbidden between a person of pure white blood and one having a visible admixture of African blood. But by act of legislature, passed in the spring of 1887, all laws establishing or permitting distinctions of color were repealed. [26-27]

Charles W. Chesnutt, from "Post-Bellum-Pre-Harlem," in THE COLOPHON (1931)

At the time when I first broke into print seriously, no American colored writer had ever secured critical recognition except Paul Laurence Dunbar, who had won his laurels as a poet.  Phillis Wheatley, a Colonial poet, had gained recognition largely because she was a slave and born in Africa, but the short story, or the novel of life and manners, had not been attempted by any one of that group. . . . [101]

Thomas Dixon was writing the Negro down industriously and with marked popular success. Thomas Nelson Page was disguising the harshness of slavery under the mask of sentiment. (See information on the "plantation school.")  . . .

The firm of Houghton Mifflin [publishers of The Atlantic Monthly], however, was unique in several respects. . . . Three of the Atlantic editors wrote novels dealing with race problems-William Dean Howells in An Imperative Duty, Bliss Perry in The Plated City, and Mr. Page in The Autobiography of Nicholas Worth.

   The first of my conjure stories had been accepted for the Atlantic by Thomas  Bailey Aldrich, the genial auburn-haired poet who at that time presided over  the editorial desk. My relations with him, for the short time they lasted,  were most cordial and friendly.

Later on I submitted to Mr. Page several stories of post-war life among the  colored people which the Atlantic published, and still later the the manuscript  of a novel. The novel was rejected, and was subsequently rewritten and published by Houghton Mifflin under the title of The House Behind the Cedars [1900]. Mr. Page, who had read the manuscript, soften its rejection by the suggestion that perhaps a collection of the conjure stories might be undertaken by the firm with a better prospect of success.  I was in the hands of my friends, and submitted the collection. After some omissions and additions, all at the advice of Mr. Page, the book was accepted and announced as The Conjure Woman, in 1899, and I enjoyed all the delights of proof-reading and the other pleasant emotions attending the publication of a first book.  Mr. Page, Mr. Garrison and Mr. Mifflin vied with each other in helping to make our joint venture a literary and financial success.

The book was favorably reviewed by literary critics.  If I may be pardoned one quotation, William Dean Howells, always the friend of the aspiring author, in an article published in the Atlantic Monthly for May, 1900, wrote:

"The stories of The Conjure Woman have a wild, indigenous poetry, the creation of sincere and original imagination, which is imparted with a tender humorousness and a very artistic reticence.  As far as his race is concerned, or his sixteenth part of a race, it does not greatly matter whether Mr. Chesnutt invented their motives, or found them, as he feigns, among his distant cousins of the Southern cabins.  In either case the wonder of their beauty is the same, and whatever is primitive and sylvan or campestral in the reader's heart is touched by the spells thrown on the simple black lives in these enchanting tales.  Character, the most precious thing in fiction, is faithfully portrayed."

Imagine the thrill with which a new author would read such an encomium from such a source!

From the publisher's standpoint, the book proved a modest success.  This was by no means a foregone conclusion, even assuming its literary merit and the publisher's imprint, for reasons I shall try to make clear.  . . .

My race was never mentioned by the publishers in announcing or advertising the book.  From my own viewpoint it was a personal matter.  It never occurred to me to claim any merit because of it, and I have always resented the denial of anything on account of it.  My colored friends, however, with a very natural and laudable zeal for the race, with which I found no fault, saw to it that the fact was not overlooked, and I have before me a copy of a letter written by one of the to the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, which had published a favorable review of the book, accompanied by my portrait, chiding him because the reviewer had not referred to my color.  . . . [103]

While The Conjure Woman was in the press, the Atlantic published a short story of mine called The Wife of His Youth which attracted wide attention.  James Mc. Arthur, at that time connected with the Critic, later with Harper's, in talking one day with Mr. Page, learned of my race and requested leave to mention it as a matter of interest to the literary public.  Mr. Page demurred at first on the ground that such an announcement might be harmful to the success of my forthcoming book, but finally consented, and Mr. McArthur mentioned the fact in the Critic, referring to me as a "mulatto." [104]

From Charles W. Chesnutt: Selected Writings, ed. SallyAnn H. Ferguson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.