Research Publication Title

Cakewalking Justice: A Deconstructive Approach to Race and Law in The Marrow of Tradition

Major

English Literature

Faculty Mentor

Dr. Katie Simon

Keywords

charles chesnutt, the marrow of tradition, ethics, law, critical race theory, deconstruction, cakewalk, post-reconstruction

Abstract

This presentation offers an ethical consideration of race, performance, and legal justice in the post-Reconstruction South, using novelist Charles Chesnutt as a guide. Charles Chesnutt’s novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901) deconstructs justice as a systemic concept, rejecting the legal system as an avenue for African American justice. Through an examination of the often overlooked cakewalk scene, in which white Tom Delamere wins the cakewalk contest in blackface, I argue that Chesnutt recognizes race as a system and a construct contingent on performance. In this scene, and in blackface in general, blackness is maligned through its association with negative qualities, qualities posed as directly opposite to a whiteness imagined as superior. Chesnutt examines this understanding of blackness through the actions of a white character who can successfully put on the façade of blackness, and I argue that he ultimately reveals this racialized system as faulty, baseless, and unethical. Chesnutt uses this scene to build an argument regarding this constructed racial hierarchy and its systemic implications for the black Southerner. Moving beyond the cakewalk, Chesnutt elaborates on these consequences for the social and political position of black people living in the American South through an exploration of the justice system. Sandy Campbell (the object of Tom’s blackface performance) is accused of a crime that Tom actually committed while in blackface, while disguised as Sandy. Chesnutt explores his ethical question further as he considers the way in which the legal system, which acts in tandem with this constructed racial system, does not offer justice for black people. Chesnutt thus demonstrates my concept of “not injustice,” in which the necessary movement of society away from injustice is not itself a sufficient implementation of justice, an essential paradigm in the confrontation of institutional forms of oppression.

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Cakewalking Justice: A Deconstructive Approach to Race and Law in The Marrow of Tradition

This presentation offers an ethical consideration of race, performance, and legal justice in the post-Reconstruction South, using novelist Charles Chesnutt as a guide. Charles Chesnutt’s novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901) deconstructs justice as a systemic concept, rejecting the legal system as an avenue for African American justice. Through an examination of the often overlooked cakewalk scene, in which white Tom Delamere wins the cakewalk contest in blackface, I argue that Chesnutt recognizes race as a system and a construct contingent on performance. In this scene, and in blackface in general, blackness is maligned through its association with negative qualities, qualities posed as directly opposite to a whiteness imagined as superior. Chesnutt examines this understanding of blackness through the actions of a white character who can successfully put on the façade of blackness, and I argue that he ultimately reveals this racialized system as faulty, baseless, and unethical. Chesnutt uses this scene to build an argument regarding this constructed racial hierarchy and its systemic implications for the black Southerner. Moving beyond the cakewalk, Chesnutt elaborates on these consequences for the social and political position of black people living in the American South through an exploration of the justice system. Sandy Campbell (the object of Tom’s blackface performance) is accused of a crime that Tom actually committed while in blackface, while disguised as Sandy. Chesnutt explores his ethical question further as he considers the way in which the legal system, which acts in tandem with this constructed racial system, does not offer justice for black people. Chesnutt thus demonstrates my concept of “not injustice,” in which the necessary movement of society away from injustice is not itself a sufficient implementation of justice, an essential paradigm in the confrontation of institutional forms of oppression.