Watching Donald Trump speak about the violent white-supremacist rally that took place in Charlottesville last summer was a surreal experience. Not the first press conference where he referred to neo-Nazi protestors as “very fine people.” I mean the second time, when he repudiated those fine people. “Racism,” he intoned, clearly reading from a teleprompter, “is evil … white supremacists and other hate groups are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” Nobody could mistake his droning boredom for actual investment in the words he was speaking: his attempt to embrace the decorous discourse of liberal tolerance was baldly hypocritical.
As the summer ended and the fall semester began at U.C. Berkeley, where I study literature, far-right agitators descended along with the cool weather. A succession of activists and pundits—Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, and their ilk—made their way to campus. They brought the far-right protestors and threats of violence along with them, all the while invoking the language of tolerance and free speech. Berkeley’s former chancellor Nicholas Dirks even cited the campus community’s “values of tolerance” in defending Yiannopoulos’s appearance. The myriad ways in which people were deploying the word tolerance managed to drain the already-insufficient term of its content. All that was left was am empty concept that could accommodate any agenda. It was more clear than ever that the language of tolerance had become ineffective, just a mask behind which antipluralist demagogues could hide.
Admitting that Trump and the far right are capable of surprising me makes me feel unforgivably naive. At this point, to be surprised feels like a luxury, and I find myself bored with the chorus of outraged liberal critics who sound the alarm every time Trump breaks another democratic norm. But it’s worth inquiring why white supremacy continues to surprise us when white-race hatred is such an intractable aspect of American society. And how our shock perpetuates that violence.
In Charlottesville’s aftermath, I turned to Charles Chesnutt’s 1901 novel, The Marrow of Tradition. In his novel, Chesnutt—an impossibly industrious author, activist, lawyer, and educator—looks back at the wreckage of post-Reconstruction racial politics and attempts to answer these questions via historical fiction. Marrow is, among other things, an examination of how the genteel language of tolerance obscures and enables antiblack violence. In his focus on historical calamity—the Wilmington massacre narrowly and the collapse of Reconstruction more broadly—Chesnutt uses the form of the novel to examine how our shared language reinforces white supremacy’s grip on American society.
Even after Reconstruction’s end, the Fusion Party—a coalition of Republican-affiliated blacks and white Populists—had achieved dominance in North Carolina’s state government and set about systematically dismantling white Democratic power. In the 1898 state elections, Democratic leaders retaliated against black political power with a campaign for white-supremacist government. Wilmington, North Carolina, loomed large in the white imagination as a symbol of dreaded “Negro rule.” It featured a biracial municipal government and a prosperous black community. And when, despite the targeted racial propaganda, Fusionists prevailed in Wilmington’s elections, white supremacists rebelled. On November 10, 1898, Democrat-aligned vigilantes killed hundreds of black citizens, drove hundreds more from their homes, and removed the city’s Fusionist leaders from power. Chesnutt followed the episode with mounting disappointment. Writing to his publisher friend Walter Hines Page the day after the coup, he called it “an outbreak of pure, malignant and altogether indefensible race prejudice, which makes me feel personally humiliated, and ashamed for the country and [North Carolina].”
The Marrow of Tradition is set in the fictional Southern town of Wellington, and the novel tells the story of a white cabal’s plot to ethnically cleanse Wellington’s black population. The characters are drawn from across the town’s racial and class categories. The protagonist is William Miller, a black doctor who has returned to Wellington to practice medicine along with his wife, Janet, the illegitimate black daughter of a prominent white businessman. The Millers represent Chesnutt’s own status as a member of the so-called talented tenth, or bourgeois black leadership class. William and Janet find their white doubles in Major Carteret, a prejudiced newspaper editor who spearheads the antiblack campaign, and his wife, Olivia, Janet’s embittered half sister. A host of minor characters both black and white expand the novel’s purview beyond the cultivated upper classes. The vengeful Josh Green, a black drifter seeking revenge for his father’s death at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, is the most crucial of these minor characters. He has his own double in Captain McBane, the poor white upstart and Klan member who murdered Green’s father. Carteret’s loyal servant Jerry cuts a subservient figure, as does his maid Jane.
Chesnutt’s complex character system yields incessant mirroring and doubling, suggesting some troubling similarities between the black and white members of Wellington’s genteel elite. Most crucially, elites of both races deploy the rhetoric of patrician refinement and tolerance. Early in the novel, Major Carteret awaits a crucial surgery upon his newborn child when he gets news that Miller will be participating in the operation. Turning to a white doctor with “the suave courtesy which was part of his inheritance,” he appeals to their shared whiteness to convince the doctor to dismiss Miller. When the doctor responds that he is a gentleman before he is a white man, Carteret responds curtly: “The terms should be synonymous.” When, during a cabal meeting, Carteret advocates for tolerance toward William Miller on account of his being “a very good sort of Negro,” McBane retorts that “no nigger has any business [in Wellington] when a white man wants him gone.” Carteret rejects this “brutal characterization of their motives,” for it “robbed the enterprise of all its poetry, and put a solemn act of revolution upon the plane of a mere vulgar theft of power.”
McBane’s bald declaration of racial hatred, its vulgarity, is an unwitting critique of the role gentlemanly refinement plays in obscuring the intents of white supremacy. Carteret—a suave newspaperman and skilled propagandist—knows that a certain amount of what his coconspirator General Belmont calls “diplomacy” is necessary to convince as wide an audience as possible of the legitimacy of their goals. No matter how refined an upper-class white racist’s rhetoric might be, their underlying logic is the same: “No nigger domination,” as McBane blurts out during one of the cabal’s meetings. In that moment, McBane is stating a political commitment and neither Carteret nor Belmont has any problem toasting in agreement. But Carteret and Belmont are immeasurably more dangerous than McBane, because they have mastered a public discourse of genteel tolerance behind which their ugly intentions masquerade.
As Carteret’s double, William Miller adopts a similar concern for refinement—though in his mouth that concern registers as naive rather than diabolical. When he takes a train from Philadelphia back to Wellington, the conductor forces him to sit in the colored car upon passing into Virginia. Miller finds himself among a raucous group of black farmers. He isn’t as offended at being made to sit in the colored car as he is at the collapse of social distinction between himself and black laborers: their “dirty” and “malodorous” bodies offend his bourgeois sense of decorum. “Surely, if a classification of passengers on trains was at all desirable,” Miller opines, “it might be made upon some more logical and considerate basis than a mere arbitrary, tactless … drawing of a color line.” The language here fascinates me. Miller’s offense is not drawn from his sense of egalitarianism or equality. What grates is racism’s insufficient sense of refinement in drawing social distinctions. Later, when a black opinion editor publishes an article condemning white racism, Miller objects—on the basis that it would disturb the white elite’s charitable disposition toward blacks: “It could do no good, and was calculated to arouse the animosity of those whose friendship, whose tolerance, at least, was necessary and almost indispensable to the colored people.” We begin to see that Miller’s idea of tolerance depends upon a mutual understanding between two sides of Wellington’s elite. Above all, he values a kind of gentleman’s agreement that maintains the social order in exchange for stability. Tactfulness of tongue is key.
Placed next to the harsh racial realism of Josh Green, the black drifter, Miller’s appeal to tolerance looks unbearably guileless. Green is a social outcast who, like McBane, has little use for the Southern elite’s delicate racial rhetoric, nor the social order that it upholds. When we first meet him, he is climbing down from the side of a train car, “a great black figure … stretching and shaking himself with a free gesture.” He has ridden upon the train rather than inside it, and Chesnutt’s imagery—the magisterial proportions of Green’s, and the “free gesture” that characterizes his physical presence in the world—establishes him as a character who has not been pushed to society’s margins. Rather, he has chosen to linger there, warily eyeing the society that conspired to kill his father.
His skepticism extends to the scripts his more genteel brethren use to talk about race. When Carteret’s uprising finally erupts and Green vows to defend the black community, Miller warns Green to “put away these murderous fancies … The Bible says that we should ‘forgive our enemies, bless them that curse us, and do good to them that despitefully use us.’ ” Green’s reply, rendered in dialect that approximates Southern black English, is blunt: “But it ’pears ter me dat dis fergitfulness an fergiveniss is might one-sided. De w’ite folks don’ forgive nothin’ de niggers does … De niggers is be’n train’ ter fergiveniss; an’ fer fear dey might fergit how ter forgive, de w’ite folks gives ’em somethin’ new ev’y now an’ den, ter practice on … Don’ talk ter me ’bout dese w’ite folks,—I knows ’em, I does!”
Familiar as he is with white-race hatred’s depths, Green refuses to cloak the reality of the situation in Miller’s decorous Christian language of forgiveness and tolerance. He recognizes that the language of a properly Christian outlook obscures and enables systemic brutality against Wellington’s black population. His likening of forgiveness to a white supremacist pedagogical tool points out the fact that Miller’s indebtedness to Christian propriety is a learned outlook used to perpetuate the subjugation of black people.
As the uprising proceeds, Green is vindicated: McBane’s bloodthirsty vision supplants Carteret’s poetic revolution, resulting in a campaign of wholesale racial extermination. With the Captain at its head, a white mob begins to slaughter black women and children. All Carteret can do is look on in disbelief that “any white man in town would be dastard enough to commit such a deed intentionally.” Meanwhile, Miller’s trust in white people’s tolerance is rewarded with the death of his only son. Jerry’s loyalty to his boss ends with him burning to death inside the black-owned newspaper. The conflation of whiteness and patrician refinement comes undone—and the fiction of a discerning tolerance unravels along with it.
Chesnutt’s novel was not well received in its day. White critics who had previously applauded his collection of folktales The Conjure Woman decried The Marrow of Tradition as a bitter and deranged affair. William Dean Howells, a literary critic who had championed Chesnutt’s prior work, regretted that Marrow had “more justice than mercy in it.” I suspect that their reaction had to do with the incisiveness of Chesnutt’s insight into the rhetoric of race. He identified the hypocrisy that shadows the language of tolerance. He demonstrated how it camouflages white supremacist violence and therefore allows race hatred to burst out into American politics. And, perhaps even more damningly, he perceived how those of us who too readily invest our trust in that language have a hand in perpetuating the racist order that kills us.
Ismail Muhammad is a writer and critic living in Oakland, where he’s a staff writer for the Millions and contributing editor at ZYZZYVA. His writing has appeared in Slate, the Los Angeles Review of Books, New Republic, The Nation, and other publications. He’s currently working on a novel about the Great Migration and queer archives of black history.