“You are mistaken, sir, in imagining me hostile to the negro...On the contrary, I am friendly to his best interests. I give him employment; I pay taxes for schools to educate him, and for court-houses and jails to keep him in order. I merely object to being governed by an inferior and servile race.”
Major Carteret speaks this quote in answer to the question of the place of African Americans in the post-Reconstruction South. This quote illustrates the overarching tension of the novel. Carteret, and those that think as he does, seek to create a new white supremacy after the dissolution of slavery. A new generation in the African American community, represented by characters such as the Millers, demonstrates to Chesnutt’s audience that African Americans can advance beyond the hardships of slavery into a prosperous American middle class.
Looking at these two men with the American eye, the differences would perhaps be the more striking, or at least the more immediately apparent, for the first was white and the second black, or, more correctly speaking, brown...but both his swarthy complexion and his curly hair revealed what has been described in the laws of some of our states as a “visible admixture” of African blood.
Chesnutt’s work, including The Marrow of Tradition, often explores the complexity of mixed race people in the South. During Chesnutt’s time, being of mixed race had both social and legal consequences. Socially, the mixed race person carried the unstated tradition of slave/slave-owner relationships that was often characterized as a sign of white masculine domination but that Chesnutt describes in terms of cowardice. Chesnutt turns this mark of shame into a promise of future coexistence between white and black races in the US South. The reference to the “visible admixture” of blood is a reference to the legal definition of the mixed race person in which a legal definition included those of at least one-eighth part African American. Inclusion of this legal definition is meant to highlight the complexity of identification for those of mixed race. Chesnutt himself was of mixed race and could have passed for white, though he self-identified as African American.
“I’ve proved a match for two husbands, and am not afraid of any man that walks the earth, black or white, by day or night...Whoever attempts to rob me will do so at his own peril.”
This quote, spoken by Polly Ochiltree, is a commentary on white female independence and sexuality in Southern culture. This issue is important to Chesnutt because it influences his interpretation of lynching. Ochiltree is a complex character; she is a caring aunt to Olivia and Tom, but a harsh, cold, and calculating woman to several of the novel’s older male characters. Her nephew robs Ochiltree’s cedar chest containing her life’s savings, symbolic of her feminine character and sexuality, but the crime is attributed to Sandy, a black man. This leads to a dark irony within the novel -- Ochiltree is a fierce older woman who dominated her husbands and who no other Southern man would have, yet her murder, sexuality, and femininity is used to condemn a black man of a crime he did not commit. Chesnutt here suggests that this unjust irony is the chief component of the act of lynching, an act of violence that undermines societal values and cohesion.
“I got ter keep my eyes open an’ keep up wid w’at’s happenin’. Ef dere’s gwine ter be anudder flood ‘roun here, I wants ter git in de ark wid de w’ite folks, -- I may haf ter be anudder Ham, an’ sta’t de cullud race all over ag’in.”
Jerry, Mammy Jane’s nephew employed by Major Carteret, speaks this quote. Both Jerry and Mammy Jane represent a segment of the black population that deflected any notions of African American progress in favor of a survival mode dependent on white patronage. Chesnutt sees this mode of living as unfruitful and degrading to the African American community. Chesnutt considers Jerry a traitor to his race. Jerry’s mention of the Ham story is a reference to a racial legend tied to the story of Noah from the Book of Genesis. In this legend, Ham is depicted as a black man who fathered the black race after the flood. Ham was also cursed because he saw his father, Noah, naked. This curse was used to justify the enslavement and mistreatment of blacks.
Suspicion was at once directed toward the negroes, as it always is when an unexplained crime is committed in a Southern community. The suspicion was not entirely an illogical one. Having been, for generations, trained up to thriftlessness, theft, and immorality, against which only thirty years of very limited opportunity can by offset, during which brief period they have been denied in large measure the healthful social stimulus and sympathy which holds most men in the path of rectitude, colored people might reasonably be expected to commit at least a share of crime proportionate to their numbers.
The first sentence in this quote illustrates the unjust conclusions of white society. These conclusions -- that black men are responsible for every reprehensible crime committed against white people -- are an expression of the white anxiety that Chesnutt depicts in many of the novel’s characters. The second sentence in this quote is an ironic twist of logic. In several cases, the behavior of the black community is explained away by the white community as the result of an inferior race’s small chance to succeed in society. Chesnutt turns this logic against the white community by suggesting the very oppression of blacks causes the unjust conclusions of the white community. This way of explaining away certain behavior is, in fact, the same expression of white anxiety that causes the white community to blame and punish the black community through mob violence.
He liked to believe that the race antagonism which hampered his progress and that of his people was a mere temporary thing, the outcome of former conditions, and bound to disappear in time, and that when a colored man should demonstrate to the community in which he lived that he possessed character and power, that community would find a way in which to enlist his services for the public good.
Chesnutt’s book illustrates the changing social conditions for the black community in the post-Reconstruction South. Just as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written to gain white Northern support for the abolition of slavery, Chesnutt is writing to a white Northern audience to convince them that the black community is becoming a valuable part of Southern society and must be protected from unjust practices such as lynching. Chesnutt sought to give a fictional example of a family, the Millers, that has overcome the hardships of slavery and its legacy and are moving into the middle class. The Millers are more American than Southern. Thus, their economic and social plight is intimately connected to the well-being of the entire Union.
The article...denied that most lynchings were for the offense most generally charged as their justification, and declared that, even as those seemingly traced to this cause, many were not for crimes at all, but for voluntary acts which might naturally be expected to follow from the miscegenation laws by which it was sought...and, for the purpose of maintaining a fanciful purity of race....
Chesnutt’s argument against lynching hinged upon two points: the first is that lynchings were most often carried out not because of a specific crime but because of a perceived offense to Southern white culture. This is demonstrated in the novel by Sandy’s unjust arrest and near lynching for a rape that did not happen and a death that was questionably called a murder. The second point that Chesnutt makes regarding lynchings is that they undermine the sense of justice of a democracy. According to Chesnutt, lynchings support a culture of slavery and oppression that was abolished during the Civil War. To ignore them, or to allow them to happen, the people of a nation undermined their own laws and democratic processes of justice. This is manifested in the riots in Wellington in which a group of white people attempts to overthrow the elected government in order to establish a new government based on racial purity.
...Janet would have worshiped this sister, even afar off, had she received even the slightest encouragement.
Chesnutt’s novel is a commentary on race relations and the Southern mind at the end of the nineteenth century told through the perspectives of three interconnected families, the Carterets, the Delameres, and the Millers. It can also be said that Chesnutt’s novel is told through a series of interconnected secrets. Each family harbors a secret in some way and each of these secrets is responsible for the novel’s outcome. In the case of Janet Miller, her secret is not just that she is a bastard child from the secret marriage of Olivia’s father to his former slave and servant, but that Janet harbors a secret love for her half-sister. These secrets are notable, according to Chesnutt, not just because they hold the keys to racial reconciliation but also because they have real, tangible consequences for the rights of property and social status. Thus, Janet’s secret is that she desires reconciliation, while the secrets of Janet’s past illuminate the methods of exploitation and social prejudice that produced oppression and injustice.
Tom Delamere...was easily the handsomest young man in Wellington. But no discriminating observer would have characterized his beauty as manly. It conveyed no impression of strength, but did possess a certain element, feline rather than feminine, which subtly negatived the idea of manliness.
In this passage, Chesnutt uses a pun to attack the dominance of white male culture in the post-Reconstruction South. Tom Delamere represents the descent of the white ruling class from its heights during the slave-owning antebellum days through Reconstruction. Chesnutt characterizes this as a loss of manhood and uses Tom’s physical traits as a symbol of this descent. The use of the word “manly” is also important. It is a pun meant to reference Alexander Manly, a newspaper editor in North Carolina who criticized lynching in an editorial that was widely believed to be a catalyst for the Wilmington race riots on which Chesnutt’s novel is based. Manly was threatened and run out of town for his opinion. Chesnutt fictionalizes this incident in the novel and uses the play on words to suggest the cowardice of white male culture.
One of the two died as the fool dieth. Which was it, or was it both?
This quote in one of the novel’s closing chapters is spoken by the omniscient narrator, as Josh Green and Captain McBane both die from each other’s hand. It is a reference to two lines of scripture from the Bible from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. This quote suggests a reversal of order. Captain McBane has been characterized in the novel as a cruel and conniving, though courageous, battle figure. Josh Green has been characterized as angry and hell-bent on revenge, though his cause seems just. In the end, Chesnutt suggests that their deaths do nothing to advance the cause of reconciliation and love. Therefore, they both die as fools. Their quests for power and revenge cause a reversal in their own fortunes.
The Marrow of Tradition Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Marrow of Tradition is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The book’s title comes from a line in a poem by Charles Lamb, a nineteenth century English writer. The book’s epigraph contains a few lines from the poem; “I like you and your book, ingenious Hone! / In whose capacious all-embracing leaves / The...