A few exegetical thought on “Racial Fictions and the Cultural Work of Genre in Charles W. Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars”
An initial direction I would like to explore is the relationship between art (however it may be defined: literature, music, painting, photography etc.) and public policy (as defined through legislation and litigation outcomes). To this end, a brief examination of The House Behind the Cedars by Rauterkus is a good place to begin. The two characters who open and close the book, Judge Straight (a white judge) and John Warwick (a “formerly black office boy turned white attorney” thanks to the differences between racial definition in North and South Carolina) talk of how “custom is stranger than law”, and that in many ways “custom is law”. That is to say that the cultural fictions that we create ultimately organize our reality. Rauterkus suggests that literary traditions -presumably through the impact they have on cultural norms- and their conventions can perform important cultural work.
Rauterkus points to Chesnutt’s use of genre, and how it can perform important social and metafictional work. The use of race melodrama, or as it is defined, ‘the generic formula of the tragic mulatta narrative’ is employed in a realistic manner in order to call attention to the problem of racial injustice, as is the use of tragic irony. This race melodrama (which bears similarities to RagTime in regard to the narrative surrounding Sarah and Coalhouse) is allied with the use of realism through description and narrative (once again, similar to RagTime). The insistence of the narrator that characters rely on “ocular logic” clashes with defined cultural/legal definitions and typologies of race, “Because race is not always visible, the white-skinned if socially/legally black person has the uncanny ability to manipulate the cultural fictions of race to change the way that identity is perceived, pointing to the very constructedness of racial classifications”.
The text works to weaken the authority of the one drop rule and its meaningfulness for the construction of cultural and self-identity. As Rauterkus points out, “That John and Rena can so easily pass for white calls into question the real significance of such a small trace of black blood. Thus the text asks the question: What is the importance of a single drop in the absence of any physiological features that we would recognize as black? Surely, it is only a racial fiction, and not some biological fact, that makes John and Rena black, when to the rest of the world they appear to be white. Perhaps more importantly, why should they not have the right to choose their own racial identities?”
Rauterkus moves toward previous (and some might say culturally seminal) works of literature, specifically Scott’s Ivanhoe demonstrating how the appropriation of the tournament by John speaks to how he views his identity. The tournament, the Anglo-Saxon competition for perfection and the paragon of chivalrous behavior, is laid claim to the white well-heeled people, who are physically separated in the grand stand from the poorer white and black folks who are in the bleachers. John, the recently defined white lawyer appropriates “a cultural narrative that is not his own, he interpolates himself into the historical timeline of whiteness—a European temporal frame that begins in ancient Greece and ends with modernity—and as a result, comes to view the newfangled technologies of the reenactment as improvements that index the degree to which “his race” has evolved. Pairing the discourses of aesthetic and biological evolution, then, John suggests that their revisions to the Ivanhoe legend constitute a cultural victory in the name of chivalry”. So John, through a process of appropriation has aligned himself with the ascendant group, rather than championing (as perhaps a chivalrous participant in a tournament might) his own, less culturally powerful group. The narrative perpetuated by the ascendant group (i.e. that ‘culture’, or ‘civilization’ began with the Ancient Greeks and can be traced through modernity) depicts one racial group, white, as the originators of all that is good and relevant within the world. Science, art, literature, law, mathematics, philosophy and many others all have roots, according to the narrative, in the white race. Similarly, chivalry has roots here also. This element plays a particularly important role in the South at the time of Chesnutt’s writing, and continues, albeit to a lesser extent today. Chivalry is something that is ‘owned’ by one subsection of society (the we;;-heeled whites) and something that may be observed by the remaining groups, but not participated in (this exclusion may be extended to women, also, as is evidenced in an intersectional moment between John and Mrs. Newberry). As chivalry may be considered a behavioral bedrock of society, according to the narrative, it impacts who may participate and who may not; who may set the rules and who may not; who may be punished and who may not. It is a device aimed at cultural separation. It is simultaneously a public and private show of dominance. Chivalry plays to the romantic elements of genre used by Chesnutt, but also references the harsh realities of contemporary social/racial positions.
In Darryl Hattenhauer’s words, the novel is a mixed-genre work in which the “sentimentalism and melodrama overlaying [the] text are underlaid by the thematic complexity of realism and tragedy”.
“The fullest and most compelling expression of this narrative strategy is the novel’s shift from its opening statement that “custom is law” to its closing corrective that “[c]ustom was tyranny. Love was the only law” (23, 194). In many respects, these two phrases encapsulate the two radically different views about race that are present in the novel. The first embodies the spirit of the one-drop rule, while the second clearly speaks to the power of sentiment. When Judge Straight asserts that “custom is law,” what he is truly saying is that racial fictions have real social and moral consequences. Put another way: “We make our customs lightly; once made, like our sins, they grip us in bands of steel; we become the creatures of our creations” (24). Yet by the end of the novel, Chesnutt reverses this perspective with the real take away of the novel, a truth that gains much of its potency from the tragedy that produces it: love is stronger than custom. In the final analysis, Chesnutt’s point is that love is the solution to the problem of racism.” This block quote has much contemporary relevance. It is both heartening and disappointing that a work of fiction from 1900 can pick out an issue whose answer continues to elude society today. Cultural custom has developed across centuries and been enshrined in law, which upon close examination often only offers a veneer of respectability. If love was the only law and is stronger than custom: Why did Rena die? Why did Sarah have to die? Why did Coalhouse have to die? Why was Mother so unhappy? Why was Father so unhappy? Love may be the solution to the problem of racism, but having been aware of the answer for the last 116 years, why has very little altered? Is the narrative too strong? Is it true that custom is tyranny and law? Are these the same things?
Finally, if Chesnutt’s use of genre (the underlying element of a familiar trope, such as melodrama, overlaid by uncomfortable realism, which when combined offer a nuanced view of society) in literature can call attention to the problem of racial injustice. How could/did this impact policy?