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Chesnutt Charles Waddell
(18581932)

Chesnutt Charles Waddell (18581932)

Charles Waddell Chesnutt was an African-American author, essayist and political activist, best known for his novels and short stories exploring complex issues of racial and social identity.

Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Andrew Chesnutt and Ann Maria (Sampson) Chesnutt, both "free persons of color" from Fayetteville, North Carolina. His parents offered to sell him into slavery, but the potential buyer could not come up with more than $23 to pay for him. His paternal grandfather was a white slaveholder and, based on his appearance, Chesnutt likely had other white ancestors. As Chesnutt was of mixed race, he could pass with relative ease for a white man, although he never chose to do so. Under the one drop rule in the South, Chesnutt was considered "legally" black.

After the Civil War, the family returned to Fayetteville, where they ran a grocery store. It failed because of Andrew Chesnutt's poor business practices and the struggling economy of the South. Charles entered school at the age of eight. At age 16, he became a student-teacher to help support his family following his mother's death.

Chesnutt continued to study and teach, eventually becoming assistant principal of the normal school in Fayetteville. In 1878, he married Susan Perry and moved to New York City. He hoped to escape the prejudice and poverty of the South and wanted to pursue a literary career. After six months, the Chesnutts moved back to Cleveland, where he studied for and passed the bar exam in 1887. Chesnutt had learned stenography as a young man in North Carolina, and he established what became a lucrative legal stenography business in Cleveland.

Chesnutt began writing stories which were accepted by top-ranked national magazines including The Atlantic Monthly, which published his first short story, The Goophered Grapevine, in August 1887. His first book was a collection of short stories entitled The Conjure Woman, published in 1899. This featured black characters who spoke in dialect, as was popular in much southern literature at the time.

Chesnutt's stories were more complex than those of many of his contemporaries. He wrote about characters' dealing with difficult issues of miscegenation, "passing", illegitimacy, racial identities and social place throughout his career. The issues were especially pressing in the social volatility of Reconstruction and late 19th century society, as whites in the South tried to press all people with any African ancestry into one lower caste. At the same time, there was often distance and competition between families who had long been free persons of color, especially if educated and people of property, and newly freed slaves.

Chesnutt continued writing short stories, and also completed a biography of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He also wrote several novels and appeared on the lecture circuit. Although Chesnutt's stories met with critical acclaim, poor sales of his novels doomed his hopes of a self-supporting literary career. His last novel was published in 1905. In 1906, his play Mrs. Darcys Daughter was produced, but it was also a commercial failure. Between 1906 and his death in 1932, Chesnutt wrote and published little, except for a few short stories and essays.

Among the era's literary writers, Chesnutt was well-respected. In 1905, Chesnutt was invited to Mark Twains 70th birthday party in New York City.

Starting in 1901, Chesnutt again devoted himself to his stenography business and, increasingly, to social and political activism. He served on the General Committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Working with W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, he became one of the early 20th century's most prominent activists and commentators. Chesnutt contributed some short stories and essays to the NAACP's official magazine, The Crisis, founded in 1910. He did not receive compensation for the publication of these pieces. He wrote a strong essay protesting the southern states' moves to disfranchise blacks at the turn of the century.

In 1917, Chesnutt protested and successfully shut down showings in Ohio of the controversial film Birth of a Nation, which the NAACP officially protested across the nation.

Chesnutt died on November 15, 1932 at the age of 74 and was interred in Cleveland's Lake View Cemetery.


USA, 2008, Charles Waddell Chesnutt

USA, 2008.01.31, Cleveland. Charles W. Chesnutt

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