Charles Chesnutt was a turn of the century author whose work primarily dealt with Pre- and Post Civil War Society in the South. His stories and essays explore the topics of race, the slave culture, and white culture both before and after the Civil War and the relationships that existed between white and black people during each time period.
A large selection of Chesnutt's short stories are a compilation of slave folk lore and superstition. He uses the medium of a neutral observer. In most of his stories this is a northern man and his wife who have moved to the rural south and bought some property, a large former plantation. On this land there are several men and women who worked the land as slaves and are now free but are still employed on the same property.
One particular elderly man, Julius, who was a child before the Civil War, is a storehouse of myth, legend, and history of plantation life. With this northern couple, he shares his knowledge of conjure women, ghost stories and all sorts of supernatural events that occurred on the plantation. The stories are amusing, informative but belie an undercurrent of tragedy as each one describes, in an almost off-hand way, the injustices committed against the African slave. It's an effective method of getting a serious message across in an entertaining format.
Other short stories are centered around the newly freed black person and their ability to assimilate into a reality that has only begun to exist. This is also true for the white people but, in Chesnutt's stories, to a lesser degree since the white people he describes still own property and possess wealth and status. Historically this isn't precisely true. The Civil War destroyed the finances of many white families and caused wide-spread poverty among them, hence the massive migration of both races to the western territories to attain some kind of living.
The third type of story and, in my opinion, the most fascinating is the topic of race. What constitutes race? Because of the interbreeding, for lack of a better term, I can't call it marrying, between white slave owners and black slaves, a biracial class of people came into existence. Some of these people were more apparently of mixed race but others were not. More than a few of Chesnutt's stories center around people who "looked white" but were actually "black". In these stories these "secretly biracial" people pass themselves off as white in order to gain the privileged status and opportunities afforded only to white people.
These stories show the tension and psychological predisposition to view someone in a degraded manner only by the knowledge that someone belongs to an "inferior" race. Two stories in particular probe this subject.
In the novel, The House Behind the Cedars, a white man falls in love with his business partner's beautiful fair, creamy-skinned sister and becomes engaged to her. Through a series of coincidences he discovers that their mother is a freed slave. Shocked, the man cannot bring himself to become "tainted" by marrying a "black" woman and deserts her.
The other is a short story about a man about to marry a woman he deeply loves. He receives an anonymous letter accusing the woman of having black ancestors. He begs her to tell him the truth. She refuses and even though they marry, the man is haunted by the possibility that his wife is not truly white.
Chesnutt shows the reader that even inside of the black community, stations and caste systems grew. After the war, lighter skinned black people separated themselves from darker-skinned ones and created their own intermediary class. The lighter skinned Africans were more prosperous and privileged than darker-skinned ones, even though they themselves were still segregated from white people. This group eventually assimilated into the white race and now no longer exists.
Chesnutt's particular fascination with this last group of people is no doubt due to the fact that even though both his parents descended from slaves, they also descended from slave owners. He insisted on classifying himself as black when in fact he looks white. (See photo below).
Not many people read Chesnutt's essays and fiction today and his style of writing is rather quaint and sentimental at times. Even so, they are a valuable contribution to a significant epoch in American history and are worth reading.