Tuesday, February 24, 2015

"A Matter of Principle" by Charles W. Chesnutt, Library of America

Photo: Charles Chesnutt, at 40.  From his Wikipedia page. The reason I include his picture will be apparent when you read below.

I haven't read one of the short stories sent to me, for free, from the Library of America.  This is a service I recommend, and I've written about a few of the stories (Charles W. Chesnutt's "Baxter's Procrustes," one of my most-read blog entries, can be read here; another, Henry James's "Paste," can be read here).  I've fallen almost two years behind on these, as they're sent to an email I rarely check, and I have trouble finishing things (::cough::--novel-::cough::) besides.

These Library of America emails highlight a short story, short novel, article, or other piece of writing that the Library of America has collected in a volume of that author.  I own a couple of these, and can say that they are worth the price--though a high price it is.  I didn't say I could afford it; I just said each was worth it.  Anyway, these are high-quality and important stories, diary entries (soon I'll read Gideon Welles's diary entries about his first-hand knowledge of Lincoln's assassination) and other things.  They're short, often between five and twenty pages, so they don't take long to read.  Sign up for this service here.

The story of this blog entry, Week 264 (like I said, I'm several years behind) is Charles W. Chesnutt's "A Matter of Principle."  (The Library of America apparently loves Charles W. Chesnutt.)  You can read this story on your own here--but before you do, read the following disclaimer.  The story is about what, at the time, was called...Well, here's how the Library of America introduced the story, and its author:

Several of his stories and novels deal with the comic—and occasionally tragic—effects of the social confusion and legal complications that result from attempts to determine or avoid this “color line.” As a light-skinned African American, Chesnutt particularly reserved what he called “a very kindly irony” for those of his fellow Cleveland residents who were regarded as black by white society yet who presented themselves as superior to their darker neighbors. Or, as biographer William L. Andrews writes, Chesnutt satirized “an assimilationist philosophy among upwardly mobile, light-skinned Afro-Americans which implied ‘absorption’ into the white race as its goal.”
Why would Chesnutt write about this, and what exactly is it?  This explains it, from Chesnutt's Wikipedia page:

"Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Andrew Chesnutt and Ann Maria (née Sampson) Chesnutt, both "free persons of color" from Fayetteville, North Carolina. His paternal grandfather was known to be a white slaveholder and, based on his appearance, Chesnutt likely had other white ancestors. He claimed to be seven-eighths white, and identified as African American. Given his overwhelming European ancestry, Chesnutt could "pass" as a white man, although he never chose to do so. In the 19th century and in many southern states at the time of his birth, Chesnutt was considered legally white. Under the one drop rule later adopted into law by the 1920s in most of the South, he would have been classified as legally black because of having some known African ancestry."  Check out Chesnutt's Wikipedia page for other interesting things about an interesting guy during interesting times.  A talented and creative author could not make up the "one drop rule."

Back to my disclaimer: The story is all about race, which some people find iffy, and it contains language that is simply not acceptable today--more stinging in this story, to me, because it's used by African-Americans in judgment of other African-Americans.  Chesnutt's writing was written in a light-hearted way, and this story was meant to be seen that way when it was published in 1899.  It may not seem light-hearted to the reader today; or, at least, some of its words and tone may not.  So consider yourself forewarned.

Anyway, the bottom line for this blog entry is this.  I got to thinking that the main characters of this story, as well as the Congressman in it, and the story's author, Charles Chesnutt--and, say, Derek Jeter--would have had no problem at all walking into a southern restaurant, in the 50s, let's say, that had a sign saying it would not serve African-Americans.  Why?  Because they didn't look African-American.  But what does that even mean?  (This is the essential question behind Chesnutt's story.)  One could legally answer that question, apparently, by using the 1920s "one drop rule" of the South.  But, I mean, what does it mean, really, since one can't always tell, by sight, who is, and who is not, African-American?  If Chesnutt, or Derek Jeter, or countless others who don't look African-American, can walk into a restaurant that didn't serve African-Americans--and then get served--well, then, the whole racial divide is unnecessary and undefinable, isn't it?  If it's possible that you can serve an African-American, and not know it, then what's your problem, exactly?

Now fast-forward to today, to some states, like Arizona, where, by law, businesses don't have to serve any member of the lesbian, gay, trans-gendered community.  Or to Kansas, where, by law, business owners don't have to hire someone (or, they can fire someone) based solely on his sexual orientation.

(I know you can see where I'm going with this.)

It's the same thing, isn't it?  Can you always tell who's gay and who isn't?  Is anyone's gay-dar that perfect?  Isn't it possible that some gay men and women could walk into a bakery that won't serve gay people--and get served?  If so, then isn't the whole thing as unnecessary and undefinable as the situation above?  If a gay person who doesn't "look" or "act" like a gay person can walk into a restaurant that doesn't serve gay people--and then get served--then isn't it all ridiculous?  If it's possible that you can serve a gay person in a business you own, that you proudly exclaim doesn't serve gay people, and still not know that you're serving gay people, than what's your problem, exactly?

Doesn't sound reasonable or logical to me.

P.S.--This is why literature is important.  A story from 1899 will have relevance to racist America, 1930-1960 (rough estimate), and also have the exact same relevance to something happening today.

I'm just sayin'.

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