The ‘Masks’ of Dunbar and Chesnutt
By Zahir Small
The nation of the United States is composed of people from all corners of the world. Many of these people seek to define themselves as Americans while preserving their cultural traditions; therefore identity is a prevailing theme in American Literature. In order to adapt to society, many individuals wear ‘masks’. The ‘mask’ is a figurative representation of interchangeable identity. During the post Civil War era, the United States was still a relatively young country that sought to identify itself as viable, cohesive nation. This search for identity was recognizable among the nation’s citizens, especially those of color. Due to the failures of Reconstruction, many freedmen and other blacks desperately desired equality and identified themselves as African-American citizens. However, in order to adapt to a prejudicial society that viewed them as inferior, many African-Americans wore ‘masks’. Central to this theme of ‘masks’ are the African-American authors Charles Chesnutt and Paul Dunbar, both of whom seemed to overtly wear a ‘mask’ of subservience and complacency by penning nostalgic plantation themed literature, however they covertly exhibited a subversive opposition to the oppressive and unjust American society.
In the aftermath of a devastating Civil War that bitterly divided the nation, the defeated Southern states tried to preserve their old way of life by enacting black codes. This preserved the social hierarchy, within which the freed slaves were kept subservient and denied equal rights. Some white authors such as Joel Chandler Harris wrote plantation tales that reverted to the nostalgic days of slavery, where everyone knew their place in society, in an attempt to provide stability to an unsettled nation. Chesnutt mimicked these plantation tales and authored his own ‘conjure’ tales which seemed like fantasies to many whites, but were actually an integral aspect of black culture.
Chesnutt’s mimicking of Harris’ stories is symbolic of the ‘mask’ he begins to wear as he takes on what was considered a white genre of nineteenth century American plantation literature. These ‘conjure’ tales were much more than fantasy and could still be realistic as literary critic Howells revealed, “they are new and fresh and strong, as life always is, and fable never is” (266). Another aspect of the many masks of Chesnutt is that he had to approach both the writing genre and the subject matter as an outsider. In order to learn more of the somewhat alien slave culture, he worked amongst many newly freed slaves. This reveals an inherent duality because since he was black and had experience in working with former slaves, he was not a complete outsider to the subject matter, but also an insider. Howells credits the realistic aspects of Chesnutt’s ‘conjure’ tales to his uncanny ability to capture the feeling of slave life through scientific objective observations.
Accordingly, Chesnutt had to ‘mask’ himself even within the African American race he identified with. Many of his works were criticized by blacks who claimed that his tales reinforced the negative stereotypes associated with slavery. Chesnutt was the son of free blacks and therefore did not have direct experience with slavery. He was a mulatto and could have passed for white. Therefore, there was a constant struggle for him to adapt to both white and black cultures. However, according to standards of society, only one drop of ‘black’ blood is required for an individual to be considered black. In fact, although he wrote as an African American, many editors masked his racial identity. Additionally, a majority of the educated population consisted of whites who did not want to read about demands for justice and racial equality. It is evident that among the many different masks Chesnutt had to adorn was a ‘mask’ of subservience in order to get his stories published. He yearned to write about realism pertaining to cultural differences and even hierarchy in the African American culture. However, Howells asserted that “as far as his race is concerned…it does not greatly matter whether Mr. Chesnutt invented [his character’s] motives, or found them…among his distant cousins of Southern cabins” (266). Essentially, Chesnutt’s mixed racial identity does not diminish the realistic aspects of his stories. Despite the racial issues, many of Chesnutt’s ‘conjure’ tales, unlike the tales of Harris, indicated subversive inclinations. For example, Chesnutt’s use of proper dialect reveals a mastery of English and grammar. This type of speech was more commonplace among smug, cultured white men. However, Chesnutt, a black man, exhibited a mastery of this speech by employing the use of erudite diction in his stories.
The short story “The Goophered Grapevine” was set in the Old South and includes the dignified prose and distinguished dialogue of the white narrator Tom juxtaposed to the uncultured black dialect of the former slave Julius. This story “[sentimentalized] the plantation system of the antebellum South” (Andrews 126) and “displayed an unusually intimate knowledge of black southern folk culture” (Andrews 126). The character of Julius is characterized as shrewd, a trait “which was not altogether African” (Chesnutt 130). This revelation is standard in a society that viewed blacks as inferior as Julius’ shrewdness is attributed to his not being completely black.
Nonetheless, this shrewdness represents the covert power of Julius. He tries to use his wit and local knowledge to outwit Tom and convince him not to buy the vineyard. In the story itself, Julius tells a conjure tale. However, at the end of the story, Tom buys the vineyard and gives Julius a job, thereby preserving the balance of power where the strong white man takes care of the weak, hapless black man; notwithstanding this, there is a small moral victory for Julius. He evokes guilt in Tom and as a result Tom offers him the job to compensate him. Chesnutt’s character, Julius, wears a ‘mask’ of subservience, however underneath there was an individual subversive identity. This can be likened to Chesnutt himself. On the surface his somewhat complacent ‘conjure’ story satisfied the white majority, but he is able to achieve a small moral victory in getting works published where he, like Julius, “recalls the past not to celebrate it but to exploit white people’s sentimentality about it” (Andrews 127). Chesnutt’s achievements as an African American author resulted in future works where he sheds these ‘masks’. Later in his life, he was able to write realism works that told of the plight of light-skinned, mixed people and others that called for racial equality and justice for blacks.
Although he assumed the identity as an African American, Chesnutt’s mixed racial identity lead to the attribution of his literary achievements to his non-African heritage; conversely, “Paul Dunbar was the only man of pure African blood and of American civilization to feel the Negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically” (Howells 264). Dunbar was the son of former slaves and at a young age, he took a keen interest in literature. He gained insight from listening to stories told by his parents. This is significant since oratory communication is an important aspect in African American culture. In fact, the African American culture developed from communion amongst black slaves who passed down stories from generation to generation through oral and musical communication, since many were not educated. Many African Americans including Dunbar and Chesnutt were most likely influenced by oral stories and musical expression. Much of Dunbar’s writing included rhythm, humor, appeal, and sometimes music. Dunbar’s fascination with literature started at an early age as he had published pieces prior to graduating high school. Howells celebrated Dunbar’s literary prowess asserting that “however gifted his race had proven itself in music, in oratory, in several of the other arts, here was the first instance of an American Negro who had evinced innate distinction in literature” (Howells 264). Dunbar published books, essays, and poetry; unfortunately, to his dismay, the public seemed fascinated only with his dialect poetry which was among his most celebrated work, specifically “dialect poetry depicting a romanticized plantation life of southern blacks” (Williams 162). Again, in order to appease the white majority, African American authors such as Dunbar and Chesnutt used settings from the past when society was structured and stable.
Akin to the ‘mask’ adorned by Chesnutt, Dunbar overtly wears a ‘mask’ of subservience. Therefore, similar to Chesnutt, he was accused of sustaining the negative stereotypes of African Americans in this type of poetry. However, underneath his nostalgic themed literature, there is evidence of protest against injustice and inequality: “much of his poetry reflects protest elements seen in his essays” (Williams 164). In the poem “We Wear the Mask”, Dunbar gives insight into the theme of ‘masks’. This piece was a non dialect poem that reveals Dunbar’s artistic diversity and mastery of language: “there are…moments of innovation and poetic insight to indicate that Dunbar was more than just an imitative versifier” (Williams 164). The first line which says “we wear the mask that grins and lies” (Dunbar174) is significantly symbolic of the overt ‘mask’ of complacency and subservience. The reader gains insight into the significant characters such as the simple plantation workers, like Julius, whose obedience and forced submission ‘masks’ their inner desire for liberation.
In many ways, both Dunbar and Chesnutt were connected to their characters as they also sought to assert their individual artistic freedom in their literature, but were forced into their place by an oppressive and racist society. In the dialect poem entitled “An Ante-Bellum Sermon”, the speaker is an old time preacher that covertly calls for revolutionary freedom through his spiritual sermon. While it seems that the preacher was referring to freedom from the shackles of slavery since the sermon was evidently set in the past, at the conclusion of the sermon he refers to the blessed day when blacks are “reco’nised ez [citizens]” (Dunbar 174). However, in order to preserve his and the author’s own ‘mask’ of overt subservience, the preacher does not finish the word citizens. He is afraid of a possible rebuttal and losing his ‘masked’ role as a complacent pastor. Dunbar leaves it to readers to recognize the truth and invokes thought into his audience.
Additionally, the speaker exposes the different levels of ‘masks’ present in society. Not only do blacks wear ‘masks’, but whites as well. The institution of slavery was justified through use of the bible; however there is an inherent disparity with this because human enslavement disobeys the principles of the bible. Ironically, the pastor uses this same bible to speak of liberation. Many whites ‘masked’ themselves by foolishly thinking that the slaves were happy and satisfied alike to how many post-Civil War whites believed African Americans were complacent and content. Similar to the character of the pastor in his poem, Dunbar temporary sheds the ‘mask’ of subservience and complacency to reveal that there will be a day of deliverance whereby the oppressed blacks gain equal citizenship.
The achievements of Chesnutt and Dunbar are celebrated because of their individual determination. They were able to flourish as literary geniuses in an oppressive society, and more significantly, their works transcended time and thus they became canonized authors in American literature. Analogous to this theme of ‘masks’ is Dubois’ revelation, during the Modern period, of the veil and ‘double consciousness’: “the Negro is…born with a veil, and gifted with a second-sight in this American world….which leads him no true self-consciousness” (Dubois 946). This is noteworthy because it reveals the lasting impact of Chesnutt and Dunbar on future African American authors. Although America is the land of liberty and opportunity, individuals who were deprived of their civil rights were forced to wear ‘masks’ in order to survive. Externally, many seemed complacent, however internally their souls burned with desire to gain equal citizenship. The inherent prevailing prejudices within society stigmatized blacks. They were unfairly stereotyped as inferior and therefore presumably unable to be considered as cultured or erudite. Chesnutt and Dunbar admonished this stereotype through their revolutionary literary works.
Andrews, W. “Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858-1932)”. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. 4th ed. Vol. 2. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002. 126.
Chesnutt, C. “The Goophered Grapevine”. Paul Lauter. 127-136.
Dubois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk”. Paul Lauter. 945-965.
Dunbar, P. “An Ante-Bellum Sermon”. Paul Lauter. 172-174.
---. “We Wear the Mask”. Paul Lauter. 174.
Howells, W. “Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt’s Stories”. Paul Lauter. 265-267.
---. “Paul Laurence Dunbar”. Paul Lauter. 263-265.
Williams, K. “Paul Laurence Dunbar”. Paul Lauter. 162.
© Zahir Small