"I will gladly share with them my richer heritage": schoolteachers in Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy and Charles Chesnutt's Mandy Oxendine.
Harper's and Chesnutt's portrayals of schoolteacher figures as nearly white complicates the implications of their texts. By combining the figure of a black schoolteacher with a mulatto character, both writers highlight the tension between communal duty and personal ambition, the very conflict that self-uplift ideology posed to middle-class African Americans. Because the mixed-race figure has the option to pass as white and abandon collective interests entirely, he or she functions as the ultimate symbol of this friction. The choice to become a schoolteacher, a symbol of black leadership, serves as the decisive moment in choosing between these paths. Thus, the merging of teacher and mulatto figure ignites a mediative exploration of self and communal desire. For Harper the pairing initiates a moral polemic to demonstrate that the purpose of self-improvement is to contribute to community advancement. Chesnutt, on the other hand, challenges this notion of an interdependent community in which individual and shared interests intersect in a uniformly negotiable terrain. Indeed, Chesnutt disputes the very idea of a knowable monolithic black community whose needs can be assessed and gratified by paradigmatic black leaders.
Harper's and Chesnutt's depiction of mulatto figures as teachers reflects the legacy of education as an integral part of black resistance and self-help movements in the nineteenth century. In an essay entitled "A Factor in Human Progress," (2) Harper characterized the role of education within community service movements:
The education of the intellect and the training of the morals should go hand-in-hand. The devising brain and the feeling heart should never be divorced, and the question worth asking is not simply, What will education do for us? But, what will it help us to do for others? (Brighter 276)
When Harper published this essay in the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review in 1885, many African Americans were increasingly looking to education to solve the problems of African American communities. With the failure of Reconstruction, the increasingly hostile atmosphere of exploitative work conditions, disenfranchisement, segregation, and growing violence led many blacks to look to internal development in the form of various mutual-aid societies, businessmen's organizations, fraternal societies, women's clubs, and church-sponsored social support groups to improve the condition of African American communities. (3) However, as John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., have put it, "Negroes could be certain of an improved status only in the field of education ..." (239).
Harper's and Chesnutt's notion of education as a primary means of both self and communal advancement reflects this sentiment. In Iola Leroy, the advantages of a western education allow the title-character to transform from a white pro-slavery advocate to a black community leader. The daughter of a Southern slaveholder, Iola discovers that her mother was her father's slave and that at his sudden death she too has been sold into slavery. Rescued by Union forces at the urgings of a former slave, Iola soon identifies herself as colored and dedicates herself to the uplift of black people. Though she becomes a nurse for the Union, she vows, "'I intend, when this conflict is over, to cast my lot with the freedmen as a helper, teacher, and friend'" (88). It is as a teacher that Iola initiates her role as a black community activist, speaking at black salons on methods of improving communities through education. Though Chesnutt's protagonist, Lowry, has different motives for becoming a teacher, his own educational experience is indicative of the popular belief that education would be the key to defeating the ignorance imposed by racial prejudice. After spending his early years in the "midst of intellectual stagnation" in a poor and disenfranchised community of black and mixed-race people, Lowry attends a freedmen's school where, under the guidance of a Northern teacher, he develops a "burning desire for a better education, a broader culture and higher life," leading him on to college (Mandy 28). Though Lowry accepts his first job as a teacher not for the sake of racial uplift, but instead because of a pressing need to earn a living, he is a product of educational initiatives that allow him to reimagine his life possibilities despite the racial oppression encircling him.
The conviction that education could help one to transcend the effects of racial exclusion was central to racial uplift's focus on social and political betterment for African Americans. The historical ban on education for black slaves in most slave states had left education forever tied to the definition of freedom for many African Americans. In fact, this concept of education was an extension of black educational movements that predated the Civil War. (4) Daniel Alexander Payne, a graduate of black private education, established a school for adult slaves and free black children in 1828 (Jones-Wilson 347-48). In addition, as early as 1833 a black school managed by an African American woman had existed, unknown to the slave regime, in Savannah, Georgia. By 1860, at least 5 percent of slaves were literate (Anderson 7, 16). Later, the freedmen's pursuit of education during Reconstruction was a remarkable illustration of the immutable link between education and the quest for liberty. At the end of the war, many black people erected schools and raised money to pay teachers' salaries. In fact, by 1870, blacks had spent more than $1 million, independent of outside support, on education, laying the foundation for universal public education (Foner 43-44). While they appreciated the aid of white benevolent societies, philanthropists, the Freedmen's Bureau, and state governments, blacks were already organizing schools before any of these groups became involved (Anderson 5-7).
The historic intersection between education and the protest for civil liberty defined education as a vital phase of political agitation for many African Americans. As James D. Anderson has pointed out, many black educators believed that "education could help raise the freed people to an appreciation of their historic responsibility to develop a better society and that any significant reorganization of the southern political economy was indissolubly linked to their education" (Anderson 28). Within this context, black schooling also meant a redefinition of the role of schoolteachers. If education was to be an integral part of black political advancement, then schoolteachers would be the vanguard of this movement. Implicit in this understanding of education was a belief that black schoolteachers had a responsibility not only to help blacks help themselves, but also to help them become part of the cycle of community uplift to help others.
Because of this interpretation of education as a means of community empowerment, African American teachers were often viewed as community leaders. In Iola Leroy, the fact that the nearly white title-character has lived most of her life as white is secondary to her dedication to serve the black community as a black teacher. This view of teachers as community leaders is indicative of the political implications of being both black and a teacher in the nineteenth century. By taking the initiative to establish schools despite white opposition, risking their own safety in the name of education, many black schoolteachers demonstrated their commitment to black progress and defined themselves as community activists. While many black educators assumed the dual initiative of teaching moral and liberal education, with the hope of preparing African Americans for equal participation as citizens and future black leaders, they also aided freedmen in legal disputes, worked in mutual-aid societies and black churches, and drafted appeals to the Freedmen's Bureau, state officials, and Congress. In fact, teaching often lead to holding political office. At least 70 black teachers served in state legislatures during the Reconstruction Era (Foner 44).
While Harper and Chesnutt were writing their respective novels, many black teachers were continuing their work as community activists in the South after Southern redemption. Between 1880 and 1900, though the number of Southern black children of school age increased 25 percent, the proportion attending public schools fell as planters gained control over the laboring classes and demanded child labor. Nevertheless, black educators continued to teach (Anderson 23). The Sabbath school tradition, which Harper portrays in Iola Leroy, was a system of weekend, night, and Sunday schools established long before the Civil War. These schools continued to grow after the redemption and lasted well into the twentieth century as a source of black education that served those who were unable to attend traditional day schools. By 1885, the A. M. E. church alone reported having 200,000 children in Sunday schools for character development as well as liberal instruction (Anderson 13). In addition, black institutions of higher education set initiatives to produce more black teachers, and nearly one-third of the black college graduates during the era became teachers (Bullock 173).
Because black educators were hailed as leaders, to be a black teacher was more than a profession. It was to be a representative, a litmus test for the future of the race. Even outside black communities, black teachers were often viewed as specimens to gauge the potential of black Americans. Thomas J. Morgan, a white official in the American Home Baptist Mission Society, called African American teachers "models and examples of what their people can and ought to be" (Anderson 253-54). This statement demonstrates the massive responsibility of African American teachers not only in terms of their relation to the black community, but also their position as representatives in the eyes of whites.
This concept of black teachers made their pedagogies an intense site of debate about the future of the race, because their curricula supposedly reflected a model mission for all blacks. The controversy over liberal vs. industrial education offers an example of how teacher-training programs for blacks often became sites of contention over the best plan for the entire race. According to Anderson, industrial education and liberal education supporters felt that "no system of beliefs could be transmitted to the millions of black schoolchildren except through the ideas and behavior of black teachers" (111). Thus, the debate over these curricula turned many teacher-training programs into campaigns to infiltrate communities with a particular ideology through the influence of teachers and demonstrates the crucial role teachers played in linking to the larger framework of racial-uplift philosophy.
But while racial-uplift ideology encouraged black advancement and unity, paradoxically, it also underscored class differences among African Americans. As Kevin Gaines has pointed out, many elite blacks imagined black progress as members of the more privileged black classes serving as purveyors of civilization and uplift to the black masses. According to Gaines, while black elites hoped that the promotion of self-help through teachers, missionaries, and soldiers would challenge racial discrimination, the term self-help came to "signify the mere existence and stabilizing function of a 'civilized' black elite that had internalized the instrumental function of social control assigned to it." The promotion of racial uplift often framed black class stratification as evidence of progress. Thus, while the insistence on a "better class of blacks" challenged racial stereotypes, it also promoted them by characterizing the masses as degenerates whose salvation depended on the more privileged (Gaines 345-46).
Within this framework, black teachers would serve as an integral part of the class scale that self-help ideology relied on. Not surprisingly, the encounter between black teachers and the working classes was not entirely tension-free. As early as Reconstruction, though the initial black teaching work force included former slaves, many African American teachers were descendants of free blacks (Foner 44). In addition, many members of exclusive, affluent, mixed-race communities (those of visibly mixed-race heritage) also made up a portion of the teachers (Williamson 130). While this distinction suggests the unity between the free and freed, it is also indicative of growing class distinctions among blacks.
Though early self-uplift movements had encouraged the formulation of a racially unified community that included freedman, affluent free blacks, and those who had formerly been members of a separate caste, such as mixed-race communities in port cities, evident class stratification among these groups increased and condescension toward the freedman was not unheard of. In fact, a number of free black communities refused to have their children educated alongside the freedmen (Foner 44-45). While many affluent blacks as well as mixed-race people rushed to the aid of the freedmen to act as educators and political leaders, historical analyses of the relationship between many mixed-race leaders and blacks during the Reconstruction reveal the paternalism of this arrangement. Joel Williamson has described the alliance thus: "Faced with an outrightly hostile white population, North and South, and a grudging, parsimonious government, black people needed the help that sophisticated, resourceful, and aggressive mulattos could give them" (88). Thus, implicit in the act of assuming this responsibility of defining the needs of the black community was sometimes the presumption of superiority that discredited the ability of the freedmen to self-govern.
Both Harper and Chesnutt had first-hand knowledge of the expectations for black teachers as community leaders and the complex class distinctions that sometimes separated black teachers from their students. Harper began her career as a teacher at an African Methodist Episcopal school in Ohio; she was the first female teacher at the Union Seminary in 1850 (Foster 9). In addition, she delivered numerous lectures and published essays on the importance of education. She also helped establish educational programs. Chesnutt taught in rural schools outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, and by the age of 22 had become the principal of the Fayetteville Normal School (Andrews 3, 8). In fact, according to Charles Hackenberry (xvi-xvii), Chesnutt drew on his journals from his teaching years in the Macedonia school in developing Mandy Oxendine. Significantly, the experiences the two writers had as teachers showed them some of the cultural differences that class interjected into the black schoolroom. Both were well aware of the class differences between themselves and their students, and both felt somewhat alienated from their students. Harper was troubled by her inability to motivate her students in Little York, Pennsylvania. As Frances Smith Foster has noted, Harper's own education in an academy for elite blacks may not have equipped her to teach a group that William Still described in his book on the underground railroad as "fifty-three untrained little urchins" (qtd. in Foster 9). Similarly, despite his position within the community as principal of the school, Chesnutt described himself as living "in a place whose people do not enter into my train of thoughts and who indeed cannot understand or sympathize with them" (Journals 157). Hence, both Chesnutt and Harper contended with a sense of estrangement that complicated their teaching experiences.
When considering the roles of black teachers in the literature of the era, this larger historical framework illuminates the social and political implications of these portrayals. If teachers represented who black people should be, then to discuss the roles of black teachers was to debate the future course of the race. If teachers were political leaders, then the portrayal of black teachers would engage the tenor of black political economy. And, finally if teaching was a site of class tensions between middle-class and workingclass blacks, then portrayals of black teachers would confront the clash of values, commitments, objectives, and cultures that stratified black communities. By portraying schoolteachers as mulatto figures who by their very resemblance to whites represent the potential to abandon black social causes, Harper and Chesnutt reflect on the supposed duties of the black middle class in determining the political and social direction of the larger African American community.
As Carla Peterson has pointed out, Harper's portrayal of her title-character, Iola Leroy, offers a "narrative of African-American institutional history, particularly that of church and school" (Peterson 102). As a teacher, Iola's experience reflects that of many African American teachers during the Reconstruction. She establishes a school in the basement of a black church, and young and old travel from distant communities to learn. Indeed, she soon finds that she must turn some away due to overcrowding. In keeping with the pedagogy of many African American educators, Iola vows not only to offer her students liberal education, but also character training to make them good citizens. The narrator intimates how this kind of training could shape the values of black communities by infiltrating the home: "The school was beginning to lift up the home, for Iola was not satisfied to teach her children only the rudiments of knowledge. She had tried to lay the foundation of good character" (Iola 111). Significantly, though the text never refers to Iola as a teacher of industrial skills, she does not object to industrial education and agrees with a folk character who promotes a combination of liberal and practical education. In addition, Iola must contend with racially inspired violence against her school when white vigilantes burn it down.
Harper uses Iola's role as a school-teacher to initiate her rank within the community as a black leader, demonstrating intimate ties between school teaching and community activism. At a salon in which various leaders address black community issues, Iola is invited to speak, and she takes as her topic the theme of "The Education of Mothers." Throughout the novel, Iola insists on the importance of women's education. She not only counsels mothers, but she offers guidance for young girls, and delivers speeches to men and women about the future of the race. Iola later retires from her career as a public schoolteacher; marries another educated, nearly white mulatto who shares her dedication to racial uplift; and resumes her teaching career as a Sunday schoolteacher, emphasizing the important role of the Sabbath school tradition in an age of increasing child labor.
Harper's positioning of Iola as a schoolteacher and therefore race reformer offers a problematic situation in that Iola's only prior relation to blacks was as their mistress. When she considers the prospect of a teaching career while working as a nurse for the Union during the Civil War, she boasts that she was a favorite of the slave children on her father's plantation, demonstrating the only scheme in which she can configure her relation to black people. The dialect of many of the black folk characters is always quaint to Iola, but it is familiar to her only through memories of her plantation mammy. Indeed her limited interaction with the folk seems to make her ill-fitted to assume the role of community leader. But as Hazel Carby has noted (78), in the context of Harper's novel, Iola's Western education, her literacy and middle-class values, allows her to be a schoolteacher. Thus, her education and the class identification that it signifies become her passport to her role as a community leader. The promotion of Western cultural superiority in the text is difficult to refute, although other critics have pointed to Lucy, the darkskinned educator in the novel, by way of challenging this interpretation. (5)
Indeed, Harper's use of a middle-class, mixed-race character in the role of community leader has incited much controversy. Critics have been unforgiving of the seeming incongruity between the text's attention to the problems of the black masses and its reliance on a nearly white character as an example of black self-uplift. Barbara Christian has argued that Iola Leroy describes "a black middle class headed by mulattos who feel a grave responsibility of defining for the black race what is best for it" (206). Vashti Lewis adds that Harper is "guilty albeit unwittingly of the perpetuation of an image of black women in this country that suggests that those who have dark skin and whose hair is not straight are not only ugly but also never experience tragedy in their lives" (Lewis 322). Others, including Deborah McDowell (39), have attributed Harper's use of nearly white characters to her pandering to a white audience.
But by portraying a mulatto figure as a teacher, Harper dramatizes the conflict between personal advancement and self-sacrifice through the mulatto figure's choice to be white or black, to abandon black social causes or to use her advantages to benefit the black community. The wide disparity between Iola's racial and class status and that of the black masses illustrates the growing class tensions within black communities of the era. By framing her mulatto character as a teacher, someone who supposedly reflected a model for unified African American progress, and as one who had also occupied the extremes of social strata, Harper attempts to diminish this friction. Having been black and white, slave and free, rich and poor, Iola's life journey integrates the experiences of the exceedingly privileged as well as the severely degraded to demonstrate the necessity of a unified effort toward black advancement. Harper harnesses the significance of black schoolteachers as models for African American advancement while also depicting the re-identification of Iola's class position to pose her activism as an inclusive example to all African Americans. (6)
By portraying a mulatto figure as a teacher, Chesnutt also evokes the issue of community service versus personal interest. However, Chesnutt revises this twofold elective framework by exploring how a complex web of difference shapes the protagonist's choices. The very differences that make Iola capable of becoming a dedicated community leader make Lowry ill-suited as a representative for rural blacks. By illustrating how class, color, and educational boundaries merge to form a cultural breach that separates the teacher and the town, Chesnutt challenges the responsibility and indeed the adequacy of black middle-class teachers as community activists for the working-class black majority. Chesnutt offers a teacher who is neither a devoted community activist nor a white-identified person alienated from the black community. Lowry is an accepted member of a black community and is dispassionate about that community's interests. His self-absorbed posture is best captured in the novel's central narrative, in which he obtains a teaching job at the Sandy Run Colored School not for the sake of racial uplift but, rather, in pursuit of his childhood sweetheart, the nearly white title-character Mandy Oxendine. Upon discovering that she has relocated to this rural town in North Carolina, Lowry plans to follow her and arranges to take a position as a teacher to support himself while there. When he arrives, he discovers to his dismay that Mandy is living as white and, thus, his being known as the colored teacher makes it difficult for him to have any contact with her. In addition, Mandy is being pursued by a white aristocrat, Utley, whom she is determined to marry, though she wants to keep Lowry as a second choice. When Utley is killed in an attempt to rape Mandy, the novel becomes a murder mystery. Mandy is arrested, and to save her Lowry confesses to the crime. Within hours the teacher has a lynch rope around his neck. Finally, in a rapid succession of events, they are both rescued, and they run away together, though the narrator tells us it is unknown whether they lived as black or white.
Chesnutt's thorough delineation of Lowry's complex views on class and race reveals the complicated intersections between the two, challenging the binary framework embedded in the choice to be black or white in Harper's text. Lowry's feelings about racial identity are mediated by his craving for class status. He has grown up among blacks and other mixed-race people, and though he feels no intense commitment to the uplift of blacks, he has had no real inclination permanently to pass as white either, though he passes occasionally. But Lowry's reason for declining to pass conflicts with Iola's self-sacrificial convictions. He chooses not to pass permanently, not because he thinks it is morally wrong, but because it suggests that he is ashamed of a slave ancestry, and he proudly maintains that he has none. As the narrator puts it,
He [Lowry] was not responsible for his drop of dark blood. He had come by it honestly, for his father and mother, who were both of his own class, had been lawfully wedded. He had never been a slave, nor so far as tradition told of his ancestry had he ever had a slave ancestor. (46)
Lowry's association of shame with the slave past is a striking departure from Iola's mission to reclaim that past and repair the family ties that it severed. His pride in his remoteness from slavery points to his acute resentment of the conflation of race and class. But unlike Iola, who attempts to extend her middle-class values to the masses to correct this conflation, Lowry's desire to achieve personal class mobility unrestricted by racial identity shapes the core of his character, particularly his intense ambition. He dreams of fame, though the narrator never divulges in what capacity he hopes to achieve recognition. But Lowry also discerns that whiteness alone does not ensure class status. As an aspiring young man, he concludes that, if he did accomplish anything great, people would discover his origins, and if not then it was "merely a choice of mud-puddles, whether he should be a white tadpole or a black one" (46). Thus, Lowry's choice not to pass is also influenced by his recognition that to be poor and white is little better than to be black. This awareness of the complicated class boundaries that intersect with racial ones displaces the relinquishing of whiteness as the ultimate sacrifice.
Whereas Iola's education allows her to assume the role of schoolteacher and thus community leader, Lowry's education sparks his preference for personal advancement over community progress. As he pursues higher education, Lowry reads of great nations that expired, civilizations that decayed, philosophies and religious systems that faded, and he concludes that there was "little an individual could accomplish compared with the achievements of the [human] race" (29). Ironically, Lowry's education is the product of freedmen's school initiatives and white Northern philanthropy in support of black colleges, but rather than making Lowry a community leader, education inspires in him class aspirations that revolve around a desire for wealth and opportunity. This narrative revision foregrounds the economics of Iola's and Lowry's social positions. As a person who has lived most of her life as a wealthy white woman, Iola has privileges to renounce, thus allowing her to perform acts of self-sacrifice. In contrast, segregation and meager resources have shaped Lowry's life, and he uses this one kernel of philanthropic benevolence to gain a foothold on financial independence and social mobility. For Lowry, immediate practical issues, such as how he will gain subsistence, are crucial. Lowry's interpretation of his liberal education in support of personal motives illustrates the privilege embedded in the synoptical perspective that Iola adopts.
Through Lowry's relationship with Mandy, Chesnutt elucidates the teacher's preoccupation with personal achievement and his growing indifference toward the black community. In contrast to Harper's neat pairing of two mulatto figures drawn to each other through their commitment to racial advancement, Chesnutt offers a pair united by the pursuit of social mobility. Like Lowry, Mandy seeks social advancement but believes her best opportunity is marriage to an aristocrat. Such a marriage would require her to pass as white, but passing poses no moral dilemma for Mandy, who despises visibly black people, whom she refers to as "'black, ugly and pore'" (23). Though Lowry gently scolds Mandy for such statements, he is so engrossed in his pursuit of her that her opinions matter little to him, and he even consents to pass as white when Mandy makes it clear that he must in order to be with her. As the scale shifts, the once-well-intentioned teacher becomes self-absorbed and neglectful of his primary duties as an instructor. The children become like shadows to him as he daydreams of Mandy. He dismisses school early to intercept her, and he even plots to escape lingering students after school to enable his secret interludes with her.
Despite the teacher's apathy toward black community interests and his avid self-involvement, Chesnutt frames him within circumstances that figure him as an involuntary racial leader, parodying the coalescence of the teacher and racial activist roles. The whites immediately resent Lowry because they are bitter about the expense that black public education is costing their community, which is still recovering from the economic losses of the war. In addition, by offering the children an education, Lowry is disrupting the child labor force and probably lessening the probability that the children will become adult wage laborers. While the implications of Lowry's resistance to the white community's opposition figure him as a community leader, Lowry never consciously imagines himself as having any community responsibility.
Nonetheless, the black community's response to Lowry demonstrates their high regard for him as a distinguished addition to their community and potential leader. Though they sense a difference in color and culture between him and themselves and are "shy ... of this white young man who looked and bore himself so little like one of themselves," he is immediately asked to take a Sunday school class, demonstrating the community's confidence in Lowry's commitment to them beyond his employment in the classroom (10). They welcome him with much ceremony, and overwhelm him with their attempts to socialize with him. Even the town's most distinguished black citizen, Mr. Revels, offers one of his daughters and a dowry of land to him.
By portraying Lowry as maintaining a state of detached amusement in his contact with the rural blacks, notwithstanding their esteem for him, Chesnutt delineates the ideological gulf that divides the teacher from the folk community. Reflecting Lowry's consciousness, the narrator at times mocks everything from the folk's polite conversation to their cultural values, and ultimately the folk characters' everyday conduct becomes a distancing performance to Lowry. For example, when he arrives, his host Deacon Pate quickly delivers a speech on the purposes of education:
"... larnin, aftu all is jes sum'n ter git sump'n e'se wid--kin of a hook ter go fishin' wid. It'll he'p you to read de Bible and to understan' religion mo' an better, an t'll he'p you 'arn money fer ter buy chickns wid. Fer de ole style oer gitt'n chickns is mos' played out in dese days." (10)
Though Lowry finds Pate "witty," and sometimes even "shrewd," he also thinks he's "by no means profound enough to be worthy of record" (10).
Pate's speech suggests a surreptitious jibe at Chesnutt's longtime friend Booker T. Washington. (7) Despite their friendship, Chesnutt was somewhat ambivalent about Washington's support of industrial education for blacks. Moreover, in the context of Chesnutt's depiction of Lowry as a reluctant racial leader, this reference to Washington implies a resentment of the construction of supposedly representative racial leaders, a process that was heavily influenced by whites. (8) As the scene unfolds, Pate's attempt to initiate a dialogue deteriorates into unilateral expression and indifferent silence, demonstrating the fallacy of monolithic black thought. Through Lowry's assumed role of dispassionate observer, Chesnutt illustrates that there is no potential for an exchange of ideas between the men, confirming the depth of the cultural chasm between them.
Chesnutt's representation of the folk is distinct from Harper's. Though Harper represents the folk as in need of the services of a schoolteacher capable of instructing the masses about the duties and rights of citizenship and moral character, she also demonstrates their capacity for learning if given the chance. As Mary Elkins has noted (46), Harper's opening scene, which reveals the secret code used by the black community to communicate news of the war, discloses Harper's more complicated portrayal of the folk. By discussing the condition of eggs and fish, they convey whether the North or the South is winning the war. Chesnutt's representation of Pate's material understanding of the world deviates from Harper's depiction of the folk as using domestic items to disseminate information. Harper portrays the folk as capable not merely of shrewdness, but also of an abstract understanding of the world, as they adapt the elements of their domestic service to conceal their interest in political affairs. Their ability to connect the domestic items to abstract ideas suggests that they are capable of more than concern for immediate material advantages, but also moral and political ideas. Thus, Harper represents the folk as able to understand the moral and academic education that Iola will offer them. But Pate's inability to understand the world beyond its practical value distinguishes him as forever exiled from the intellectual space that Lowry occupies. Though Lowry hopes to receive practical rewards for his talents, he also eagerly experiences the "intoxication of learning," and thus Pate's empirical evaluation of education demonstrates the obstacles between two men (29).
Chesnutt compounds this sense of alienation between Lowry and the folk through the portrayal of Lowry's teaching experiences. His encounter with the children encapsulates the complicated social divisions that limit his potential to be a racial leader. Rather than offering speeches on moral development, Lowry responds to the children's morally questionable views with amusement and feigned agreement. His acquaintance with a particular student, Rose Amelia Sunday, captures the sense of detachment and condescension that defines his relationship with his pupils. A passionate child, Rose Amelia is romantically fixated on Lowry, who is unaware of her obsession and has no idea that Rose Amelia follows him religiously. Indeed, Lowry's routine inability to recognize Rose Amelia's presence beyond the classroom becomes the definitive statement of his impotence as a communal leader. When he does occasionally notice her, Lowry casts her as an entertaining environmental detail. He is amused by her appearance, which strikes him as a "contrast between the old wizened look of her ugly little face ... and the meager childish figure surrounded by it." This contrast leaves Lowry unable to determine her age, demonstrating his abbreviated understanding of her. This tendency to reduce Rose Amelia to shorthand is evident when she recites her name, "Mississippi Nova Scotia Rose Amelia Sunday," and he immediately shortens it in the school ledger without considering her preference (15). This pattern of dismissal culminates as Rose Amelia takes her life, believing that, by accusing Mandy of killing Utley, she has endangered Lowry. Though he is saddened, Lowry remains unaware of his role in her death. (9)
Although Lowry's incidental resistance to the traditional role of African American teachers seems to validate the configuration of class difference, it also challenges the paternal implications of such arrangements. Despite Lowry's indifference, he neither pities the folk nor assumes the responsibility of uplifting them. He accepts the distance between himself and the folk without interpreting it as their inability to take responsibility for themselves. In this sense, Chesnutt presents an alternative to the prevailing self-help doctrine that the future for black people would rely on middle-class blacks lending help to the working classes. (10)
The class differences that Chesnutt imagines as gaping cultural rifts between the teacher and the town, Harper envisions as ripe opportunities for improving the masses. Though it would be reductive to read Harper's and Chesnutt's literary contributions as mere extensions of their educational values, their works reflect their discordant experiences and offer insight into how they construct and justify the social choices that their protagonists make. Lowry's sense of difference between himself and a community only miles from where he grew up is better understood in light of the difference between Chesnutt's education and that of the nearby rural blacks that he would later teach. Similarly, Iola's sense of duty, expressed in her choice to become a teacher and leader among a community that she knows little about, is illuminated by Harper's immersion in the common political interests of slaves and free blacks during the antebellum era. Harper's essays and Chesnutt's journals offer reflections of how each writer's experiences as both teachers and students informed their representation of the self-help movement and the role of the school teacher within it.
Harper's theory of teachers' roles in self-help movements is best captured in her 1885 essay "A Factor in Human Progress," in which she describes a black schoolteacher in the South who complains of a "lack of society" among a gossiping black community. Harper explains that, instead of complaining about her neighbors and shunning them, the schoolteacher should be educating them in conversation, parenting, and temperance. Harper offers this monologue describing what such a woman should resolve to do when faced with such neighbors:
These women can not improve me, but I will try to improve them. If they talk nothing but gossip, I will try to raise the tone of conversation.... I will study to teach these mothers how to take care of their little ones; I will learn something of the sophistries of strong drink, ... and teach them how intemperance adds to the burdens, waste and miseries of society, because I have had advantages that were denied them; as a friend and sister, I will gladly share with them my richer heritage ... for the best test of an education is not simply what we know, but what we do, and what we are. (Brighter 14-18)
Thus, Harper suggests that, rather than lamenting cultural differences, the teacher, through instruction, might narrow those differences. This educational model reflects the intimate ties between education and action and the notion of educational leadership as a propelling force for the cycle of uplift. Though Harper clearly outlines the leadership role that this teacher should assume beyond the classroom, her suggestion that the woman should study and learn about a community's needs demonstrates that Harper does not assume that the woman's education equips her with an understanding of the needs of all communities. Instead, education is a tool that allows her to seek out resources to learn about a particular community and apply the knowledge she gleans. Though Harper's relegation of intemperance and parental negligence to this community based on an account of their gossiping is reductive, she also recognizes the hypocrisy of this schoolteacher gossiping about the community's tendency to gossip. Thus, her criticism of the schoolteacher is also a critique of education for the purpose of pedantry.
In contrast, though Chesnutt's journals demonstrate a focus on the importance of education in combating ignorance, they also reveal an almost hostile attitude toward the uneducated black masses:
Well! Uneducated people are the most bigoted, superstitious, hardest headed people in the world! Those folks down stairs believe in ghost, luck, horse shoes ... and all other kinds of nonsense, and all the argument in the world couldn't get it out of them. It is useless to argue with such persons. All the eloquence of a Demostenes, the logic of Plato, the demonstrations of the most learned men in this world couldn't convince them of the falsity, the absurdity, the utter impossibility and unreasonableness of such things. Verily education is a great thing, and I would I could quote a quire or two of Mayhew's Universal Education on the subject, "Education lessens and dissipates the effects of ignorance." (Journals 81-82) (11)
While he professes the importance of education, the sense of impenetrable class differences emerges as Chesnutt points out that certain people are uneducable. Though it may seem odd that Chesnutt, a product of Southern free schools, would have such impressions of rural blacks, his own educational opportunities bore little resemblance to theirs. As Richard Brodhead has noted, Chesnutt's access to the Howard School of Fayetteville, North Carolina, a well-funded school initiated by blacks and the Freedman's Bureau and funded by Northern philanthropic support, offered him educational advantages that unsupported rural schools lacked the resources to provide. According to Brodhead, the educational advances to which Chesnutt and others who attended well-funded schools were exposed led to a growing, diversified class structure, with an emerging black intelligentsia at its helm. He points out that "doctors, lawyers, preachers, and especially educators--were taught in the new schools that arose with the end of slavery, and so were enabled by an education like Chesnutt's." However, Brodhead also notes that, though this education permitted many to become leaders in the effort to lift the black masses, it also produced a changing sense of social identity, leading people to "experience themselves as different from the masses" (16). This feeling of difference evident in Chestnut's journals elucidates the firm impression of cultural difference that Lowry experiences in his social transactions with the folk characters.
Hence, some of the differences in how each author approaches the role of schoolteachers, and issues of class within self-help movements, stem from chronological differences of the pre-Civil War era, in which Harper grew up, and the Reconstruction era in which Chesnutt came of age. While Chesnutt was receiving the educational advantages that Reconstruction allowed, Harper was already educating as she traveled the South as a full-time lecturer. Though Harper, like Chesnutt, had the advantage of a better education than did many of her peers, she also experienced the precarious situation of so-called free blacks in the North during the antebellum years. (12) When she came to adulthood in the midst of the controversy over the Compromise of 1850, Harper was living in Maryland, as a free black in a slave state at a time when the lines between slave and free could shift at any moment due to the Fugitive Slave Act. Not long after, Harper's family was forced by local officials to disband their elite school for blacks and sell their home. Unable to return to Maryland after 1853 due to a law forbidding free blacks from entering the state, Harper soon committed herself to the anti-slavery cause when a free black man was arrested and enslaved for entering Maryland (Foster 10).
Undoubtedly Harper's precarious existence as a free black person in the antebellum era helped to shape her sense of duty to the communal cause of African American freedom. The dubious distinctions between slave and free meant that, though there may have been class differences between the groups, their political interests were intimately connected, since black and slave were becoming increasingly interchangeable. Thus, though Harper may have had educational advantages, the vulnerability of her own freedom was inextricably linked to slavery, and her emphasis on the importance of the community reflects the sense of collective duty and sacrifice that the antislavery cause necessitated. By beginning Iola's trajectory within slavery Harper evokes this unifying African American experience to elicit a call for African American collective activism. Harper poses Iola's life as a microcosm of the collective history of African Americans, as she passes through slavery, Reconstruction, and often implicitly the redemption. Within this context, Harper's depiction of Iola's choice to become an African American schoolteacher poses Iola's sacrifice and community activism as an opportunity for all African Americans. Harper offers a narrative of African American progress, rendering the teacher figure as activist as the ultimate goal.
Harper's and Chesnutt's approaches to education also reflect the varying opportunities available to men and women at the turn of the century. Certainly by embracing self-help ideology, Harper could create a space for a black woman to assume a position of leadership. The role of teacher functions as a mediation between gender spheres, straddling the threshold of domestic and public roles. The political leadership embedded in the perception of the duties of black schoolteachers illuminates the wider political implications of black women assuming this role. If schoolteachers could be considered representatives of the race, this would allow black women to represent themselves within the larger political context. While Harper's male characters contribute and become community leaders through various occupations, including doctors, soldiers, preachers, and teachers, teaching becomes the primary outlet for women like Iola, Lucy, and earlier Harper heroines, such as Minnie of Minnie's Sacrifice and Annette of Trial and Triumph. Iola's brother Harry becomes the head of the school along with his wife Lucille, but Harry has also been an officer in a black Civil War regiment, demonstrating the multiple choices at his disposal. Harper emphasizes that Iola chooses teaching because of the social work that it involves, but she also demonstrates that the limited occupations open to Iola would otherwise preclude her from becoming a race leader and benefitting the black community.
While working at a store under a kind employer Iola states: " 'I am preparing to teach, and must spend my leisure time in study.... to be an expert accountant is not the best use to which I can put my life'" (203). Thus, teaching becomes the primary outlet for women to contribute to the self-help movement, and a way of positioning a public role for women not merely as a possible role, but as a duty of educated black women. Hence, Harper's emphasis on communal duty also reflects a desire for black women's political advancement.
These historical differences that emerge with the pairing of Chesnutt's rediscovered novel and Harper's wellknown Iola Leroy expand our understanding of Harper's representation of the black middle class and its role in relation to the working classes, as we envision Chesnutt's generation, one that grew up in the midst of increasing class differences, as a potential audience. Indeed, the pairing solves the riddle of Harper's return to a plot that she had already commenced in her earlier novel, Minnie's Sacrifice (1869), a plot that is also driven by slavery. (13) While Harper acknowledges the class differences of the post-war era, she uses the schoolteacher as a symbol of the black middle class to demonstrate how these differences might be points of connection rather than impediments between groups, calling attention to the unified resistance against slavery as a struggle that must extend to racial intolerance in the post-war era. In contrast, Chesnutt's representation of the schoolteacher posits class as more than a material difference that can be extended to others, but as a powerful idea that initiates a reconceptualization of self and community. Though the lines of race function as liquid boundaries that shift at will in both novels, the lines of class pose a more difficult terrain. The barriers between teachers and their communities can be surpassed only through carefully built bridges of educational uplift, as in Iola Leroy, or they may function as one-way channels, across which schoolteachers
(1.) Using Chesnutt's letters, Charles Hackenberry estimates that Mandy Oxendine may have been started in 1894 and been completed in 1896, though it possibly could have existed, in one form or another, as early as 1889 (xiv-xvii). According to William L. Andrews, however, the story was probably written in 1893 and revised in 1894 or 1895 before submission to the Atlantic Monthly, where it was rejected (145).
(2.) Harper's "A Factor in Human Progress" was originally published in African Methodist Episcopal Church Review 2 (1885): 14-18.
(3.) For a discussion of black self-help organizations after Reconstruction, see Meier 121-38.
(4.) For a thorough analysis of the relationship between freedom and education for African Americans before and after the Civil War, see Anderson.
(5.) Marilyn Elkins argues that there is no hierarchy of class or color among the women characters in Harper's work. In addition, John Ernest contends that Harper suggests education is a mutual effort, not just the socialization of one culture as defined by another.
(6.) By using a mulatto figure as her central character, Harper also confronted implications of other mulatto fiction, particularly that of William Dean Howells. Appearing a year before the publication of Iola Leroy, his An Imperative Duty (1891) revolves around a nearly white mulatto figure who discovers her African heritage, decides to become a black schoolteacher, and then reconsiders and chooses to live as white. Similar plots had emerged in mulatto fiction, such as Lydia Maria Child's A Romance of the Republic (1867), in which two nearly white heroines discover they are the descendants of slaves and continue to live as white, marry white men, and hide their antecedents from their children. Harper had spoken against what she felt were the degrading moral implications of this plot as early as 1869 in her endnote to Minnie's Sacrifice: "While some of the authors of the present day have been weaving their stories about white men marrying beautiful quadroon girls, who in so doing were lost to us socially, I conceived of one of that same class to whom I gave a higher holier destiny .... it is braver to suffer with one's own branch of the human race ... than to attempt to creep out of all identity ... for the sake of mere personal advantages" (91). Harper's criticism reflects the complicated social implications of these plots. While on the surface these heroines' choices to live as white suggest the insignificance of racial distinctions, this portrayal also implies that the race problem could be solved if blacks were absorbed into the white race, making one visibly white nation. Harper's revision of this plot in Minnie's Sacrifice and Iola Leroy illustrates her attempt to situate racism, not race, as the definitive problem to be solved. For comparisons of Iola Leroy and An Imperative Duty, see Birnbaum; Warren 66-70. For discussions of Howells's patronage of Chesnutt, see Nettels. For discussions of An Imperative Duty, see Wonham; Clymer.
(7.) According to Arlene Elder, despite his lifelong friendship with Booker T. Washington, Chesnutt agreed more with W. E. B. Du Bois's theories, which supported liberal education. While Chesnutt did not object to industrial education, he contended that there was no single plan that would solve the problems of all blacks, and that African Americans should also have the opportunity for liberal education and political advancement.
(8.) Though Washington was clearly in the minority among black educators in his support of industrial education for blacks, the consistency of manual education and the much needed wage labor in the South had contributed to Washington's preeminence as more than an educator--in fact, as the designated black leader. As James Anderson has noted, by 1881 many white Southerners began to recognize that, while the gains of black education could not be rescinded, perhaps black educational methods could be adapted to meet the need for manual labor in the South (31).
(9.) In his representation of Rose Amelia, Chesnutt shifts the role traditionally associated with the mixed-race character by making the black character one who is trapped in a body that doesn't fit her inner identity and who dies tragically as a result. Chesnutt portrays Rose Amelia as inhabiting a body that does not allow her to realize her aristocratic principles and bars her from fulfilling her hopeless love for Lowry: "Rose Amelia's soul was that of an aristocrat, which by some wanton freak of fate had been locked up in a chrysalis from which it could never emerge" (80). When she realizes that her attempt to have Mandy imprisoned to save Lowry from being accused of Utley's murder has forced Lowry to confess to the crime to save Mandy, Rose Amelia is emotionally shattered. She is found dead the following day, and the narrator ambiguously implies that she committed suicide to atone for her act which, she believed, would lead to Lowry's death. This narratological dislocation underscores color as a determinant of Lowry's role as a detached witness within the Sandy Run community. By substituting the black body as the site of conflicted identity that initiates an ill-fated trajectory, Chesnutt foregrounds the social mobility that Lowry's and Mandy's bodies facilitate. Though Harper's Iola Leroy could also be read as a revision of a tragic mulatto plot, Iola still has to confront the conflict between her white body and her theoretical blackness, and upon discovering her heritage she wishes herself dead. As Werner Sollors has pointed out (238), though this narrative structure is commonly associated with the notion of the "tragic mulatto," a diversity of plots developed around mixed-race characters. I am suggesting, however, that Chesnutt's evocation of a trajectory that leads to the mixed-race character's death responds to the variety of texts published throughout the century that included such narratives as Lydia Maria Child's "The Quadroons" (1842) and George Washington Cable's The Grandissimes (1879-80). Indeed, Chesnutt's later novel House Behind the Cedars (1900) depends upon this plot structure as well. For other discussions of the "tragic mulatto," and revisions of the trope, see Sollors; DuCille; Bost; Elfenbein; Zanger; Spillers; Yellin.
(10.) Just as class divides Lowry from this black community, racial identity makes him victim to the white community as Chesnutt reveals the complex network of borders within borders that Lowry straddles. In Chesnutt's novel the critical juncture is not the internal choice to become a teacher, or to be black or white, but rather the externally imposed exposure to the lynching block where the choice to live or die is not Lowry's own. Despite his disinterest in black communal causes, Lowry's discordant identity as both middle-class and black is briefly submerged as he is reduced to a symbol of racial injustice and violence. His rapid trajectory from schoolroom to lynching block suggests that the burden of race is not restricted to those who resolve to sacrifice their lives for racial advancement. In light of Harper's text and the general call for racial advancement through teachers and other racial leaders, this portrayal also suggests that personal experience with racism was trial enough, without assuming responsibility for the entire race.
(11.) As Richard Brodhead has noted, Chesnutt's journals exhibit ambivalence about the culture of rural Southern uneducated blacks. While Chesnutt is sometimes condescending, he later describes his interest in black popular culture. However, as Brodhead notes, Chesnutt often determined the value of black art forms by their relevance to Western standards. For more, see Brodhead's "Introduction" to The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt (23-24).
(12.) Harper attended the academy of her uncle, William Watkins, which focused on high academic standards, political leadership, and Christian service. Though her early education afforded her many opportunities, Harper's school days ended early, and at the age of thirteen she began work as a domestic (Foster, "Introduction" 6-8).
(13.) As Frances Smith Foster has noted in her "Introduction" to Minnie's Sacrifice, numerous similarities in plot structure, characterization, and themes emerge between the two novels (xxix).
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Cassandra Jackson received her Ph.D. from Emory University and is currently an assistant professor at Northeastern University, where she is writing a book about mulatto figures in nineteenth-century American fiction. Professor Jackson would like to thank Frances Smith Foster for her generous assistance with this article, William L. Andrews for directing her to Chesnutt's Mandy Oxendine, and the New England Board of Higher Education and Northeastern University for sponsoring her research.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2003|
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