Chesnutt uses mixed race characters, those who have both black and white ancestry, as physical representation of the conflict between black and white society. In his own life, Chesnutt characterized this as his descent from a “ragged tree.” Janet Miller is the best example of this mixed race character. Janet’s father was from the white aristocracy, while her mother was a slave and servant. Janet feels personally torn by affection for her white half-sister, but she also regards herself as black and submits to the segregation of the time. This dual identity also confronts Olivia Carteret who comes to recognize Janet as her sister even though she cannot bring herself to recognize her as her equal. Janet’s angry compassion for her white sister in the novel’s climax is representative of the hope of reconciliation that Chesnutt believed was possible between the races.
The mixed race individual symbolizes the inevitable union of the races. The individual, in their personhood, becomes the site of tension as they attempt to live in two worlds, neither of which fully recognizes them as their own. The Millers, educated and brought up in the white world, find that they live a separate existence from their poor, uneducated neighbors. The white world, however, does not welcome them either because they lack “purity.”
Race and Domestic Life
Chesnutt’s novel is unique because it is one of the first realist novels to depict race in terms of both black and white domestic life. For modern readers, these depictions often seem contradictory. White families in the novel take black servants into their homes; for both the family and the servant these domestic ties become strong and familial. The Carteret’s relationship with Mammy Jane is the best example. Mammy Jane, having nursed both Olivia Carteret, her mother, and now Olivia’s child, feels a loyalty to the family that goes far beyond a servant/employer relationship. The Carteret family returns that same familial bond, though it is with limitations.
This seems contradictory, however, to the public opinions of segregation and white supremacy stated by the same families that take these servants into their homes. These black servants are welcome only as long as they follow the strict rules of segregation and inequality stipulated by the white ruling class. Domestic life, therefore, is contingent on political life in regards to race.
The Morality of the African American Community
Chesnutt wrote The Marrow of Tradition as a foil to the stereotypes of the violent, sexualized, ignorant black man and the corrupted, immoral black female. Throughout the novel, Chesnutt alludes to actual news stories carried in the nation’s most respectable newspapers of African American men and women accused of heinous crimes which were likely exaggerated or simply false. These stereotypes, Chesnutt suggests, even influenced policy towards African Americans in Northern states that had previously been sympathetic to the plights of the Southern black community.
In order to recast the black community in a positive light, Chesnutt created African American characters who believed in progressivism, middle-class values, and the work of democracy to create a great and unified nation. This community and its expressed values contrast with the blind hatred of white supremacist groups who perpetrate violence for no reason than to reinforce their own positions of power.
The Crisis of Lynching
Chesnutt’s novel is, in part, a didactic argument against the evils of mob violence and the spectacle of lynching. Chesnutt does a brilliant job of characterizing the moral reasoning that the white supremacist leaders participate in to justify the practice. These supremacist leaders use lynching to reinforce the conventions of racial purity. Lynching becomes the accepted means of carrying out this justice. In addition, the act of lynching is not meant to punish a single person, but to represent the idea of violence and purity to an entire community. It is a method of intimidation, not justice.
According to Chesnutt, lynching is an evil practice not only because it is carried out unlawfully against persons who often were not responsible for any crime, but also because it is used as a violent spectacle to intimidate and deny the lawful pursuit of justice. Lynching, therefore, goes beyond an unlawful form of vigilante justice by suppressing the values of democracy and rights. By participating in lynching, these white supremacists were subverting the democratic values of the United States.
The Complexity of Money, Class, and Race
Chesnutt realistically portrays the complexities caused by issues of money, class, and race. Chesnutt creates a post-Reconstruction world in which the norms of class have been overturned. The Carterets represent the old Southern guard -- dignified white Southern people with money and land. They are the former ruling class and much of the Carterets’ hate towards African Americans is the result of feelings of displacement by a rising black middle class. The character of McBane further magnifies this displacement. A former slave driver, McBane was not considered respectable until he made money after the war and even his money cannot buy him into Wellington society. Chesnutt’s novel seeks to describe how the forces of democratic rule and capitalism upended Southern society after the Civil War. Economic anxiety was not a “negro problem,” but it was, instead, the problem of a changing economic world.
The Marrow of Tradition explores a masculine hysteria represented by the violence of race riots in the South. The feelings of displacement of the white community of Wellington are largely that of male displacement. Carteret, McBane, and Belmont are responding to the political and economic threats that the rising black middle class presents to them. In their “revolution,” they make plans to throw out all of the middle class black persons who were taking business from white merchants and professionals.
This masculine disenfranchisement hides behind the accusations of black sexual assault. This encompasses sexual assault perpetrated by black men on white women as well as that perpetrated by white men on black women. For the Southern male, there was no greater affront to Southern masculinity than an attack by a black man on a white woman; this is the reason that Sandy is almost lynched and burned for a crime that he did not commit. The idea of a crime against a white woman is enough to cause hysteria and violence. For white males, their ability to dominate the black females in their service sexually is another form of expressing this masculine anxiety. Chesnutt subverts this power by creating a weak male figure in Olivia Carteret’s father. He does not take Julia as a show of his power but, instead, as a sign of his weakness.
The Irony of Freedom
Chesnutt sees an irony in the freedom that African Americans gained after the Civil War. On the one hand, this freedom allowed the black community to begin an ascent into the middle class and into democratic society. Chesnutt sees this rise as inevitable, even though he was unable to see it fully realized when the novel was published in 1901. The irony is that this freedom also places a great deal of strain and violence upon the African American community. By being allowed to rise in status, this status also carries with it a greater chance of violence from those that the African American community is displacing in the social and economic spheres of the South. Whether this strain and violence is worse than slavery is doubtful, but Chesnutt does seek to show that the freedom gained by the Southern black community is the same freedom that places African Americans under the threat of lynching. Chesnutt proposes a different kind of freedom based on an acceptance on the part of the white community, and an angry compassion on the part of the black community. Janet and Olivia’s tumultuous reconcilement at the end of the novel demonstrates this model of freedom.
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...