As the nation observes Black History Month, the U.S. Postal Service is issuing the 31st stamp in its coveted Black Heritage series.
This year's honoree is pioneering author Charles W. Chesnutt, whose work addressed a broad range of African-American experiences during the post-Civil War period known as the Reconstruction era.
Chesnutt achieved a major breakthrough when his short story "The Goophered Grapevine" appeared in the August 1887 issue of Atlantic Monthly. He was proud to be published in such a prestigious publication, and was one of few African-American writers to have done so at that time.
Written partly in dialect, "The Goophered Grapevine" tells two stories: The first, narrated by a white northerner who becomes a gentleman farmer in North Carolina, frames a longer narrative by "Uncle" Julius McAdoo, an ex-slave who entertains and subtly instructs his listeners with tales of voodoo. "The Goophered Grapevine" and other stories using the identical framing device were collected in The Conjure Woman, published in 1899. A faint whiff of authorial ridicule clings to Chesnutt's white narrator, who is stolid, condescending, and perhaps a bit obtuse-but far from wrong when, commenting on Julius's tales, he remarks, "Some of these stories are quaintly humorous; others wildly extravagant ... while others ... disclose many a tragic incident of the darker side of slavery."
Probing the Color Line
Today Chesnutt is recognized as a major innovator and singular voice among turn-of-the-century literary realists who probed the color line in American life.
Other books by Chesnutt include The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (also published in 1899). His first published novel, The House Behind the Cedars (1900), detailed the frustrated efforts of an accomplished but naive young woman to pass for white. Another novel, The Marrow of Tradition (1901), inspired by a race riot that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, presents a panoramic survey of race relations in the fictional town of Wellington.
Describing this work at the time it was composed, Chesnutt wrote: "The book is not a study in pessimism, for it is the writer's belief that the forces of progress will in the end prevail, and that in time a remedy may be found for every social ill."
In The Colonel's Dream (1905), the last of his novels to be published during his lifetime, Chesnutt attacked the failures of Reconstruction, which, he argued, threatened to consign many black people to conditions as bad as they had been during the years of slavery. His other writings include essays, poems, a biography of Frederick Douglass, and several unpublished works. Chesnutt was politically active and frequently spoke out against racial discrimination.
In 1928, Chesnutt received the Spingarn Medal, awarded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for "distinguished service" to the aspirations of African Americans. In giving him the award, the NAACP cited Chesnutt's "pioneer work as a literary artist depicting the life and struggles of Americans of Negro descent." In recent years, his work has attracted growing interest.
Chesnutt was born on June 20, 1858, in Cleveland, Ohio. His father served in the Union Army during the Civil War and subsequently brought his wife and children to Fayetteville, North Carolina, which became the major setting of Chesnutt's fiction. He received a fairly solid general education, but taught himself shorthand, ancient languages, and other subjects.
As a very young man, he taught school briefly and then served as principal of a normal school for African Americans in Fayetteville. Subsequently, Chesnutt settled in his birthplace, Cleveland. After becoming established there, he sent for his wife, Susan, whom he had married in 1878, and his children, who had remained in Fayetteville. He got work in a law office and studied law, passing the Ohio bar examination in 1887; he became a wealthy man operating a court stenographic service.Chesnutt died at his home in Cleveland on November 15, 1932.
The Charles W. Chesnutt stamp will go on sale January 31 at local post offices nationwide, on the Postal Service's web site www.usps.com, and by calling 1-800-STAMP-24.