Chesnutt, Slavery, Jim Crow, and Madness (Group 4)

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 4)

  1. Alexander Merrill

    I agree with my classmates that I see the barber’s thought process and logic as much more relatable and rational than the more extreme cases we see in Po’ Sandy and Dave’s Neckliss. I think anyone could have very similar thoughts and urges to the barber given his position. I find that his weighing of the benefits and consequences of his potential action here really emphasizes his rationality and control, which is the difference between his violent impulse and the black madness we see in the other stories. I find that the new version of black madness present in this story is in part caused by the concept described here: “It was by [the social consequences] mass rather than by their clearness that these restraining forces held the barber’s arm so long in check – it was society against self, civilization against the primitive instinct, typifying, more fully than the barber could realize, the great social problem involved in the future of his race.” I think this points to the racial dynamic and other consequences of slavery, as opposed to the lack of freedom that slavery itself entails, as the new cause of “black madness.” For example, the colonel’s unabashed and very public racist remarks and horrific story is met with no resistance at all. Not even his victim’s son can stand up against the colonel for his crime, as doing so would be deemed wrong on the barber’s part and, in his eyes, would likely negatively affect his life, his business, and his other employee’s lives, as well as the black race as a whole. This powerlessness in the face of injustice is the continued oppression at the root of “black madness,” even if its expression might be of a different form.

  2. Rachel Horowitz-Benoit

    I fully agree that I never saw Tom Taylor as a truly “mad” character. All of his murderous imaginings were tempered both by his following logical disavowal as well as providing the specific reasoning (telling the colonel in the moment how much he hates the him and that he is a murderer). Instead, Tom’s detailed interiority unbalances the colonel’s assertions of the primitive Black man. The colonel’s assumption that violence taught Black people their place is subverted by Tom’s rage, grief, and his own dedicated rise in the social ladder.

    In both the plantation tales we read, the the titular slaves escape reality by turning into inanimate objects. Slavery treated thinking, feeling people as property, or chattel; thus the only way to survive it (or not survive it, as was the case in both stories) was to literalize their readings as objects. In “The Doll,” we get a character who is allowed, in some degree, agency. As a free man and also as the unmediated protagonist of an omniscient narrator, as opposed to Julius’s mediated retellings, Tom is a complex character with a family and rich inner life who is shown making a difficult decision. Yet, he is symbolically powerless in this moment, like the doll hanging by a nail on the wall; despite the cruelty and danger of the colonel, the cost to Tom’s life and the lives he enriches is too great to follow through with killing him. Still, he is not the Black man who has learned his place, as the colonel implies. He is stopped only by distractions and his own accounting of what is important to him. His lack of social power in this moment is mediated by his complex inner dialogue. Significantly, unlike Dave and Sandy, he does not reach the peak of insane thought, which further indicates how much the former men’s madness (although the madness if also Tenie’s in Sandy’s case) is influenced by the cruel absurdity of slavery.

  3. Jacob Morton

    Although the world of the story is obviously centered around race, the “madness” that fuels the barber’s temporary impulse commit murder was not as racialized as I expected. It could be called “black madness” I suppose–but that doesn’t fully encapsulate it. As my classmates can attest to, devoid of the racial dynamic, the barber’s history with the colonel is objectively deplorable–his impulse even somewhat understandable. His anger towards the colonel is not explicitly fueled by a history of racial oppression–but rather a horrendous situation enabled by the inequities of the day. The barber is not solely angry at the colonel because he is white–nor even because of the highly offensive way in which he discusses Black folks. The barber is fueled by vengeance–one that can be uniquely and directly attributed to the colonel’s own past actions. These are not characters who are defined solely by their race–but rather live in a highly racialized world. The barber’s life is exhaustively impacted by his race simply because that is the reality of America. Accordingly, his foresight on the ramifications of the hypothetical homicide are steeped in racial awareness–whereas his fundamental motivations aren’t so much. There is one point where he seems motivated by the grueling political climate: “Only the day before, the barber had read, in the newspapers, the account of a ghastly lynching in a Southern state, where, to avenge a single provoked murder, eight Negroes had bit the dust and a woman had been burned at the stake for no other crime than that she was her husband’s wife. One stroke and there would be one less of those who thus wantonly played with human life!” This is one of the only moments where the barber justifies his actions in terms of a grander scheme–killing this colonel subtracts a violent racist from the world.

  4. Henry Mooers

    Based on the slides and readings, I interpret the concept of black ‘madness’ in a literary context, as one that arises from a sense of powerlessness once freedom has been attained.

    In certain aspects, I do not even feel as though the concept of black madness, especially as described in the slides, is an applicable one in the context of “The Doll”. The barber is a black business owner with a successful barbershop. Based on the story, both black and white individuals covet the store. In this sense, the barber possesses a certain power in that the success of his store gives him a level of financial freedom that may not have been afforded to his peers. In a certain aspect, I almost feel as though Chestnutt seeks to develop the character of the barber such that his audience at the time could render the thoughts of the barber rational.

    The barber makes an honest living, and was horrifically wronged by the colonel. Any human being with reasonable moral compass would see that. For me, at least, it was quite easy to sympathize with his situation, and understand his internal monologue, despite being somewhat violent. For me, it was rational that the barber felt the way that he did. I would imagine that most individuals in a similar position as he would have a similar thought process.

    This rationality would, however, go against the notion of ‘Madness’, which implies a level of irrationality. Ultimately, I feel as though chestnutt develops the theme of immensely justifiable frustration in the black community rather than one of ‘Madness’.

  5. Gordon Lewis

    To me, the final few pages of “The Doll” were the most demonstrative in terms of the thought process and mental state of the Barber. The setup almost reminded me of Poe’s short stories, where the main character/narrator is set up in some horrific situation they have no control over and are apathetic towards. Except, as we read on we discover that the Barber’s “madness” seems a lot more like justified anger towards this colonel. His internal struggle is markedly different from those of the other characters we have previously read about – instead of fighting off societal impulses and expectations for more base, innate desires like in “The Awakening”, “Vandover”, etc., the Barber’s “madness” is staved off by his considerations of the greater societal impacts his actions would have. His thoughts here about his fellow barbers and their families, hopes and aspirations, as well as his concern over the would-be fate of his daughter, eventually cause him not to act on his murderous impulses.

    The resolution at the end of “The Doll” reminds me a lot of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and the sort of subversions that took place in that book (“kill ’em with yeses”). The Barber is not insane for feeling the way he does about the colonel who murdered his father in cold blood – he is rightfully angry at the injustice.

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