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Written by Timothy Sexton
Deconstructing the Plantation Myth
The character of plantation owner Colonel Owens is the personification of an issue that quite relevant at the time and a pervasive theme throughout much of Chesnutt’s fiction. Thanks to characters like Uncle Remus and the popularity of dialect stories, much of white Northern America had come to believe an abominable myth that slavery life was not hellish; that, for many, it was actually preferable to freedom. Colonel Owens is so taken in by Grandison’s learned “masking” abilities to tell white people what they want to hear that even he has come to believe in the myth like so many Americans who at least had the justification of sheer ignorance.
The Overestimation of White Superiority and Black Inferiority
Another recurring motif of Chesnutt’s best work shows up in great wealth in the persons of plantation owner Owens and his property, Grandison. Chesnutt is a master at working the irony inherent in the firm belief of slave owners that they are smarter than blacks without even needing to try with the result being that this very overestimation of their own superiority allows the so-called inferior race to more easily manipulate. Owens remains firmly convinced that Grandison prefers being a slave to being free and when the escaped slave reappears on the plantation seeming to be a victim of the hardship of freedom, his inability to even consider that Grandison may be outwitting him allows him to love more than he ever thought possible.
Within African-American society, “passing” is a term that usually relates to skin pigmentation and the ability to “pass” for white among whites so as to enhance one’s potential for enjoying all the benefits available to whites and denied blacks. In this case, Grandison could never conceivably pass for a white man and so this theme relates to another form of passing: masking one’s true identity so as to become more “acceptable” to white society and thus enhance the ability to enjoy a better life while accepting that those benefits afforded whites are simply not even an issue.
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