Charles Chesnutt

In the early 90s, an Ohio State University professor surprised many with the publication of his book entitled Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black. While the title sounds like tabloid sensationalism, Gregory Howard Williams’ memoir is, in fact, “a moving story of growing up on both sides of the nation’s racial thicket.” Williams, past dean of OSU’s College of Law, tells “the affecting and absorbing story of his most unusual youth. Born to a white mother and a black father who passed for white, Williams was raised as white in Virginia until he was 10, when his mother left.”

Williams’ tale is reminiscent of the life of Charles W. Chesnutt. As Sylvia Lyons Render points out in her introduction to The Short Fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt, because of his fair complexion, Chesnutt could have “passed” for white; instead “he chose to remain identified as an Afro-American and sought to remove rather than to avoid various forms of discrimination.” Born just three years prior to the secession of the south from the union known as the United States of America and the creation of the Confederate States of America, Chesnutt lived at a time when passing for white would have ensured an easier life for him and his family. Instead, he “merits recognition as one of the first black American fiction writers to receive serious critical attention and acclaim for portraying blacks realistically and sensitively, shunning condescending characterizations and nostalgia for antebellum days of slavery in the South.”

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