Chesnutt, Slavery, Jim Crow, and Madness (Group 2)

The slides discuss Chesnutt’s complex relationship to Plantation Tales.  The tales offered him a respectable path into publication in prestigious magazines such as The Atlantic, but Chesnutt also subverted the typical racial messaging of the genre.  “The Doll,” unlike “Po’ Sandy” and “Dave’s Neckliss,” is not a Plantation Tale.  What do you make of the Barber’s powerful impulse to murder and the long account of his thoughts?  Does the story see black “madness” in the same way as Chesnutt’s plantation tales, an inevitable product of brutally racist system?  A different way?  Is there a passage that influenced your thinking on the matter?  As always, let us know your thoughts in a paragraph or two.

5 thoughts on “Chesnutt, Slavery, Jim Crow, and Madness (Group 2)

  1. Carl Langaker

    What I find interesting about this piece is that there are no statements from the narrator labelling the situation as being either good or bad, yet it is overwhelmingly supportive of the barber’s predicament, and critical of the racist system propagated by the colonel. One way in which this is achieved is firstly by the distinction between the colonel’s diction compared to the barber and the judge (as Liz discusses in her post) – the colonel uses slurs and is informal, while the barber is clear and well thought out in his speech. However, for me, it is the way in which the narrator simply shows the clear injustice plaguing the barber, without directly saying that it is massively unjust – for instance, he writes “Prominent among a struggling people, as yet scarcely beyond the threshold of citizenship, he had long been looked upon, and become accustomed to regard himself, as a representative man, by whose failure or success his race would be tested” (410). I believe that it is important to bear in mind the societal view of race issues at the time that this piece was published – being directly critical of the oppressive aspects of society was likely very controversial, so the author rather forces the reader to acknowledge the horror of the situation, and sympathize with the barber, purely by illustrating the stark injustice of the situation. By showing that the barber is an honest and hard-working man who has broken through the ceiling that limits and discriminates black people at the time, he becomes an automatic protagonist-like character, who garners the reader’s support. In contrast, the colonel is presented as rude, racist, and bigoted, making him more of an antagonist character. The framing here of these two opposing characters acts as a strong social commentary about the injustices of racism and slavery.

  2. Annabella Twomey

    “… but he knew full well that should he lose the shop no colored man would succeed him; a center of industry, a medium of friendly contact with white men, would be lost to his people…Their fates were all, in a measure, dependent upon the proprietor of the shop….For what white man, while the memory of this tragic event should last, would trust his throat beneath a Negro’s razor?” (411).

    This passage struck me because I feel as though it most succinctly displays the racial messaging of this era. I also feel as though it slightly relates to Michael point and third description of madness, in that there is a world where a barber is forced to shave the beard of a white man who killed his father and remain calm simply to prove a theory. Though the barber has the immediate impulse to kill, he also tracks his train of thought in a detailed, thorough way. The notion of white privilege shines through as the barber must truly think about how his actions would affect ALL black people, those working at his shop, and the general perception of black people having an industry/business and working with white people. When his entire race and culture is generalized and discriminated against (as it still is today), he recognizes that he cannot view his actions as wholly personal and perhaps he views that avenging his father would actually further reverse the progress, or just the respect, that his father was simply after. I think “The Doll” portrays madness in a different, and almost more disturbing, way because as Andreya and Michael point out, even when the barber is meticulously thinking out his options and weighing the pros and cons, each lead to the worst possible outcome for himself, his daughter, his family, and the progress of African-Americans. This is the same idea in the slides that madness was almost inevitable in various situations for black people because of how racism caused the odds to always be stacked against them.

  3. Andreya Zvonar

    The Barber’s impulse to murder and his ultimate decision not to suggest that violence cannot be met with violence. I find that Chesnutt’s “The Doll”, despite subverting the typical racial messaging of the genre, does not in fact pose any solution. Ultimately, it suggests that no matter how justified one’s revenge might be, blacks cannot seek it (vengeance) on others. While this is not a racist message, neither is it an optimistic one. In the end, nothing is done to combat injustice. This is evident when one sees the nonchalance with which the colonel speaks. Take his final line (and the final line of dialogue): “I never had a better shave in my life. And I proved my theory. The barber is the son of the n- I shot” (415). In this final moment, the colonel sees the barber as nothing more than a phenomenon that needs proving. I find this thought process very disturbing.

    As for the Black ‘madness’ of “The Doll”, I enjoyed the way in which Michael Taylor portrayed the various interpretations. Of the three, I find the third to fall in line with my thoughts. That which is so mad is the system in which justice does not exist. Even vengeance, the most crude form of justice, is not an option for blacks.

  4. Elizabeth Srulevich

    While “The Doll” is clearly not a Plantation Tale, it still subverts the typical racial messaging of the genre and era in general, especially in the way Chestnutt writes the characters of the Barber and Judge as opposed to the Colonel. The Barber and the Judge both speak with “proper” English. They’re well-reasoned and poised. The Colonel, on the other hand, is the only character who speaks in an exaggerated dialect or drawl, usually reserved for Black characters according to racist literary tropes. The Colonel is rash, rude, and white-hot with his obsession with the “Negro question.” It’s an interesting contrast to the measured and calculated disposition of the Barber, who remains calm in a situation (giving his father’s murderer a close shave after decades of fantasizing vengeance against him) that might make any “sane” individual go berserk. “The Doll” reminds me a bit of the Bellows painting from last week. Chestnutt constructs the Barber in the same powerful, elegant, slightly tragic way that Bellows constructed the Black boxer. Both the Barber and the Boxer ultimately win their respective fights, although the Boxer’s win is centered on primal aggression while the Barber’s “win” is centered on disengaging from primal aggression.

    That said, the madness in “The Doll” is concentrated in the Colonel — who shoots an innocent man for no reason and brags about the lack of consequence, who’s obsessed with this “Negro question” even when his professional “equal,” the Judge, is trying his hardest to change the subject, who sits through a close shave with the barber even when he has a suspicion (as is revealed at the end of the novel) that this is the son of the man he’d murdered years before.

  5. Michael Taylor

    To answer these questions about “The Doll,” we first must determine where, exactly, is madness in this story. I can come up with three possibilities, although these are by no means exhaustive. The first option is that madness is the barber Tom Taylor’s impulse to kill, and his choice not to act upon his impulse is a triumph of reason. As Chesnutt writes of the barber’s choice to stay his hand, “[i]f the razor went to its goal he would not be able to fulfil his promise to Daisy… His own father had died in defense of his daughter; he must live to protect his own” (412). Taylor feels the “primitive instinct” of rage against the white colonel but is able to seize upon his higher feelings of love for his daughter, understand the consequences of his impulse, and make a rational choice to act in his own best interest (411).

    A second possibility is that, conversely, the barber’s self-restraint is madness, given the vengeance he is due at the hands of overwhelming injustice. Taylor remembers “the zeal and enthusiasm” his father felt at “the dawn of liberty,” which to him seems, “in the light of later discouragement, so pathetic in retrospect” (408). Taylor understands that the dream of liberty, fairness, and justice is but an illusion under the oppression of Jim Crow. Indeed, the white colonel is not just the barber’s enemy, but “the enemy, too, of his race, sworn to degrade them, to teach them, if need be, with the torch and with the gun, that their place was at the white man’s feet, his heel upon their neck” (409). Under the denial of justice that the barber is subject to by white racism, to take justice into his own hands could actually be the sane thing to do. Doubly so, Chesnutt makes clear that the barber’s ultimate choice against it is in no way a triumph of reason, which the first option I proposed would imply, as “[i]t was by their mass rather than by their clearness that these restraining forces held the barber’s arm so long in check” (411). The barber’s hesitation might be the real madness of “The Doll,” as the doubts fostered by the falsehoods of society paralyze him just long enough for the colonel to live.

    A third possibility is that madness is not in the thoughts of the barber at all, but rather in the structure of a state that enables a white man to kill the father of the black barber, expect to survive the barber’s razor, and be protected in his expectation by the force of the state rendered through law and the courts. Indeed, what eventually stays the barber’s hand is the realization of his powerlessness before the state, that “[i]f he killed the colonel he himself could hardly escape, for he was black and not white, and this was North and not South, and personal vengeance was not accepted by the courts as a justification for murder” (412). If we were to remove that important element of state power, it seems that the barber’s rationality would align with impulse, rather than being in opposition like the first and second options I proposed necessitate: the barber’s impulse to kill the colonel may be in line with the reasoning of real justice – that is, justice not tainted by a corrupted system. What is in question is the conflict of “society against self… the great social problem involved in the future of [the barber’s] race” (411). If he chooses not to kill the colonel, he remains subject to the madness of injustice that allowed his father’s killer to live unpunished. If he chooses to kill the colonel, he will be subjected to a similar madness of injustice where he is torn from his daughter and punished for disobeying the system of white racism. Perhaps the false choices presented to Taylor reflect that intrinsic madness of a rigged society.

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