Chesnutt explicitly addresses contemporary social issues in his dramatization of the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898. The meetings of the cabal— Carteret, Belmont, and McBane— offer a window into the White supremacist political imagination. In chapter III, “The Editor at Work,” we witness a discussion about the situation in Wellington, according to these men, and their proposals for action. Carteret is working on an editorial arguing that African Americans are incapable of full engagement in civic life. Note the reasons he lists, ranging from a lack of formal education to “natural” inferiority. He is particularly concerned with the consequences of miscegenation or what at the time was referred to as “racial amalgamation”: interracial romance and social mixing.
The thumbnail sketches Chesnutt provides of the three men is also highly informative, not only in establishing their motives, but for what it can tell us about beliefs and attitudes in turn of the century America. Like virtually all of the novel’s characters, each of them is a “type”. McBane represents the “poor white,” an uneducated man who has managed to build a small fortune exploiting convict labor through the convict lease system. An overseer of slaves prior to the end of the Civil War (a suitable position for someone of his brutal nature) McBane is a parvenu, someone recently elevated in social status who has yet been accepted by his new peers. Belmont and Carteret harbor contempt for him not simply because he lacks manners, but because he possesses a degree of wealth which in their view properly belongs to those, like themselves, from a genteel background. There is a whole lexicon of slurs used to denote people such as McBane: redneck, white trash, lubber, cracker, etc.
Class distinctions exist even among those united under the banner of White supremacy. This last is an important aspect of racial formation in the United States. Historically, the subordination of Black people has been a kind of wage paid to working-class Whites. According to this racist logic, no matter how poor a White person is they are always superior to every African American, even the richest or most accomplished.
It is for this reason that McBane and the others embrace the fallacy that social equality between the races is necessarily a form of Black “domination,” as McBane says in his toast. It threatens the very foundations of the racially stratified social order of Jim Crow. Another significant aspect of this chapter lies with Jerry’s reactions as he eavesdrops on the meeting. Chesnutt presents Jerry as a comical figure, essentially a living embodiment of the blackface minstrel caricature.
In an earlier passage in chapter V, “A Journey Southward,” Dr. Miller reads a newspaper in the “Colored” car. Note not only some of the racial language of this chapter, which exceeds the Black/White binary to include “a Chinaman of the ordinary laundry type,” but Miller’s response to other Black passengers, who he finds “just as offensive” as the White rowdies at the other end of the train.
Again, class differences emerge within the larger racial schema of Jim Crow. It is also important to consider the article Miller is reading, which concerns “recently acquired islands” that have become part of the American imperium. The reference here is to the Spanish-American War and the conquest of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. At this time, millions of people of color had just become subject to US military and political power. The Philippine War and the occupation that followed were among the most brutal conflicts fought by the United States, featuring collective punishment, lynching, and torture by water-boarding. Notably some of the troops sent there had fairly recently fought in the Plains Wars, the last phase of the conquest of the American West. Many White soldiers viewed Filipinos as less than human and acted accordingly. Methods of pacification and social control developed in the colonies would find their way back to the US. “Negro” troops— “smoked Yankees” in a common phrase of the day— were also deployed.
The issue of US imperialism is raised again in chapter XXVII, “In Season and Out.” Here we learn that despite certain setbacks the cabal’s plans are effectively supported by a widespread “public sentiment… favorable to the views of the conspirators.” The link between American empire-building and Jim Crow is made explicit:
The nation was rushing forward with giant strides toward colossal wealth and world-domination…. The same argument that justified the conquest of an inferior nation could not be denied to those who sought the suppression of an inferior race.
What happens within the nation is exported and what transpires abroad comes home.
The above is a short commentary on a relatively narrow slice of Chesnutt’s novel. We could also consider the pivotal role of print culture in the story, in particular the infamous newspaper article, a plot element based directly on Alexander Manly’s editorial denouncing what Angela Davis has called “the myth of the Black rapist.”
In another meeting at the office of the Morning Chronicle, Carteret shares an article from the local Black-run newspaper arguing that many Black men lynched as punishment for raping White women in fact have been innocent. Their supposed crimes were actually “voluntary acts.” The implication is that Black and White people often violate miscegenation laws by willingly having sex, something “to which neither nature nor religion nor the laws of other states interposed any insurmountable barrier.” With the exception of Belmont, the cabal’s response to this assertion is virtually hysterical. Carteret objects forcefully, arguing that “unwritten laws” (i.e., tradition) prohibit such behavior. Further, he tacitly invokes a kind of Social Darwinism, stating that during the time it will take “this race of weaklings” to die off from “the stress of competition” the old rules should prevail. As ever, McBane, motivated largely by self-interest, is the bluntest, recommending the murder of the offending journalist and the destruction of his newspaper. The point here is that sex, love, and family are crucial sites of conflict regarding racial equality. Following up that notion, we could also examine the role of sentiment and empathy as responses to the violence of Jim Crow.