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

Every writer must struggle 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 depict the horrors of slavery had to contend with readers whose worldviews were colored by racism, as well as an entire section of the country eager to cover the past.

Charles Chestnut was one of those writers. Forced to work with skeptical publishers and within the confines of popular forms, Chesnutt nevertheless endeavored to bring to light the legacy of slavery.

His 1899 collection of stories, “The Woman’s Conspiracytook place on a plantation in the South and sold well. At first glance, the stories seemed to mimic other books set in the South written in a style called “local colorwhich emphasizes 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 at the time, with white authors such as Thomas NelsonPage and Joel Chandler Harris write stories that sentimentalize and soften the complex stories of the past.

Writer and editor Joel Chandler Harris published a magazine named after his famous character Uncle Remus.
Jay Paull/Getty Images

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 history of warfor example, Harris introduces the character 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 War,” like most local color tales of the South, appealed to readers invested in the lost cause of the old southa 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 and Harris’s have been “praised by the upper classes of the South,” while associations like United Daughters of the Confederacy regularly read these works during 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 whitewas 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 “Coping with Crisis: African-American Narrativesused the plantation setting to present a more authentic depiction of slavery.

Book cover with an old black man and two rabbits.
The cover of the first edition of “The Conjure Woman” by Charles Chesnutt.
Documenting the American South

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 sensitivities 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 editorChesnutt 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 the emerging historiography of Reconstruction who refused to recognize the agency of African Americans, and despite working within the form, Chesnutt did not present Julius as a buffoon who was happy to serve whites within it.

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. The poet Langston Hughes argued with his patron, Charlotte Osgood Masonwho saw African Americans as a link to the species’ primitive past and wanted his work to be devoid of political progressivism.

As Hughes wrote in his 1940 autobiography, “The great sea“, “I was only a black American – who had liked the surface of Africa and the rhythms of Africa – but I was not Africa. I was Chicago and Kansas City and Broadway and Harlem. And I was not 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 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 Winfreyhe explained how, while filming a sketch in blackface, “someone on set, who was white, laughed in such a way – I know the difference between people who laugh with me and who 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.

Man sitting on stage in front of red curtain.
Comedian Dave Chappelle wondered if the audience was laughing with him or at him.
Ricardo Savi/Getty Images

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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