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A Defamer of His Race


A Defamer of His Race

[Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt, the writer of this review, speaks freely and forcibly of the man who has defamed his race. Mr. Chesnutt, who is himself allied by blood to the negro race, is also a writer of wide reputation. He knows his subject thoroughly and speaks not only with feeling, but with the facts at his finger-ends.—EDS. CRITIC.]

THE first thought that strikes the reader of this atrocious book * is, how did a reputable publishing house ever permit itself to become parties to its publication ? The answer probably is that the readers of the publishing house knew nothing about the colored race beyond what they read in the newspapers, and therefore took it for granted that a colored man, who claimed to be a lawyer and ex-member of a legislature, would know all about his own people. It seems never to have occurred to them that a man might be all that, and yet be unworthy of credit, nor do they seem to have inquired into the antecedents of the author of a book the value of which must rest almost solely upon the writer's character, for the book is almost wholly an expression of opinion, with no statistics to support it, but based entirely upon the claimed knowledge and experience of the writer. That a reputable publishing house should have issued such a book against any other considerable class of people without such preliminary investigation is incredible.

The present reviewer during a recent extended tour of the Southern States, under circumstances which threw him mainly among the better class of the colored people, has taken pains to ascertain as far as possible the past record of Mr. Thomas, and is obliged to say that he has not heard anywhere one good word concerning him. The writer has conversed with colored bishops, college professors, and others, men of substance and character, who have known this man during his variegated career, and they are all unanimous in the statement that the book faithfully represents the man. The only parallel example to this book was one written some years ago by a renegade Jew, in which all the worst slanders against this oppressed people were gathered from the obscure and musty folios of ancient libraries, and dished up in a paper-covered volume for the delectation of the nineteenth century. It must have been a satisfaction to the chosen people to note that within a year the author of the book was sent to the penitentiary for forgery, and that a year or two later the publishing house failed disastrously. This may have been a logical non sequitur, but it was poetic justice. Mr. Thomas may continue to escape this fate, but if it be any satisfaction to him to know that he has not a single friend or well-wisher among the whole eight or ten millions of his own people, he may rest content that such is emphatically the case.

So much for the man, if it be possible to separate the man from the book. The present reviewer once wrote a story in which a negro was transformed into a tree, and the tree sawed up into lumber, and built into a house, which was ever afterwards haunted by the spirit of the unfortunate victim of an untoward fate. The parallel between Thomas and this tree-man is obvious. He has transformed himself into white paper and black ink—he is a mulatto by blood—and has bound himself into a book. Nevertheless, it may be possible, by an effort, to consider the book as a separate thing.

In the first place, it is not a well-written book. That it has a certain amount of ability is beyond question; but it lacks consecutiveness. It would seem to have been compiled from a scrap-book, into which the author had pasted for twenty years or more every newspaper clipping that he had seen anywhere to the discredit of the colored race. A peculiarity of the book which

* "The American Negro." By William Hannibal Thomas. The Macmillan Company. $2.00.[back]
  bears out this view is his employment of the word "freedman," a term which is not now in common use as descriptive of the colored people, as it was twenty years ago. A full average generation has elapsed since the abolition of slavery, and fully three fourths of the colored people of the present day are free born, as a comparison of their numbers now and at the close of the civil war will demonstrate. Mr. Thomas has great fluency of language—a fondness for big words is supposed to be a trait of his race. A good command of a large vocabulary is a valuable accomplishment, and, if it be a race trait, one which may be judiciously cultivated to the enrichment of literature; but it is painfully apparent here and there that Mr. Thomas's thought has been swept away by the current of his own eloquence. One must sometimes fish long in this turbid pool to catch a minnow.

The negro has suffered a great deal, in the public estimation, from loose and hasty generalizations with reference to his intelligence, his morals, his physical characteristics, and his social efficiency. But not the worst things said about him by his most radical defamers, all put together, could surpass in untruthfulness and malignity the screed which this alleged reformer has put forth under his publisher's imprint. The slanders against the womanhood of his race are so vile as to confute themselves by their mere statement. There are several passages in the book, reflecting on the morals of colored youth, which ought to bar the volume from circulation in the United States mails. They are false on the face of them. No individual could possibly know that they were true, and they are utterly abhorrent to human nature and human experience. To believe them, one must read the negro out of the human family. If they are the fruit of this author's observation, one shudders to contemplate the depths of vice which he has fathomed.

His characterization of colored preachers is also unjust. That there are many such preachers who might be otherwise employed with more profit to society may well be admitted; but that there are among them many good men, faithful to their trust, earnestly striving to uplift their people, and with encouraging results, is apparent to any one who will take the trouble to inquire. The greatest preacher of America did not escape calumny, if he avoided sin. Human character is a compound of good and evil. For aught we know, Judas Iscariot was a very good apostle before he betrayed his Master; we know that Benedict Arnold was a gallant soldier who had served his country well before he betrayed her. But here the parallel between these men and this author fails, for what good thing Thomas had ever done for his people before he dealt them this traitorous blow is not of record among the traditions of his people, nor in the archives of the South Carolina Legislature of which he claims to have been a valuable member. That membership in that body should be set forward by a writer and accepted by a publisher as a certificate of moral character, is the most curious feature of this whole remarkable performance.

Among the glimmerings of reason which here and there may be found in this book, is the statement that the colored people are deprived of social stimulus because the white people will not associate or intermarry with them. Granted. But with what face could any one ask a race with any self-respect, any pride of its past, any hope for its future, to consort with such moral and mental degenerates as Thomas has sought in this book to make of his own people ?

The strongest argument against the negro suggested by this book is the existence of the book itself. As one of a race which has but just begun to win a hearing in the forum of letters, the author might have found a different theme. If the book were truthful, it would be without excuse as coming from such a source. But being false, as the book essentially is, it is all the more worthy of condemnation. That a man of color should write such a book is almost enough to make out his case against the negro.