Recently, I just finished reading Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Future American” (1900) and The Quarry (1928) for a paper I am writing. As I read Chesnutt’s last novel, I started to think about a possible syllabus that would use Chesnutt as a focal point to explore “the race question” at the turn of the twentieth century. I have posted syllabi such as “African American Crime and Detective Fiction” and “The ‘Vanishing American’ in American Literature” on my blogs before. Feel free to take these syllabi and incorporate them into your own classroom, tweaking them as you see fit. If you do use these syllabi, please let me know how the class goes. I would like to hear from you in regards to what students thought and what types of discussions ensued.  


The syllabus below does not contain an exhaustive list of texts that could be included in this course. For example, it does not include Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Dixon, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, or others. However, these authors could, and should, be included in discussions of Chesnutt and his works. They could come in as supplementary readings in the same way that “The Future American” and “Post-Bellum–Pre-Harlem” would. With that said, in the comments below, tell me what suggestions you have for texts, critical or otherwise, that could be added to this course.

Note: Texts prior to 1912 are available in full with the links below. 

Charles W. Chesnutt and The Race Question at the Turn of the Twentieth Century 

Course Description: 

Charles W. Chesnutt’s lengthy career spanned the local color and regionalist movements of the late nineteenth century all the way to the close of the Harlem Renaissance at the end of the 1920s. As a result, his writings explored the “race question” at a time when activists such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois were arguing for their respective views regarding African American advancement, when white authors such as George Washington Cable and Mark Twain were exploring the role of African Americans in the body politic at the turn of the century, and when the ascendance of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Harlem Renaissance authors such as Nella Larsen began to gain attention from a wider audience. With all of these aspects, and more, Chesnutt serves for us as a locus to explore late nineteenth century and early twentieth century debates on racial uplift, race science, modernism, and regionalism amongst other items. As such, this class will explore a selection of Chesnutt’s works in relation to his predecessors and contemporaries to help us delve further into the issues surrounding the “color line” at the turn of the twentieth century.

 In Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race (2002), Dean McWilliams notes that “the critical lenses we have used to read Chesnutt have not always helped us to see the modernity of his work. The critical con-sensus has been that Chesnutt was a late-nineteenth-century realist who skillfully exploited the conventions of local-color fiction to convey a favorable image of the Negro. A significant dissenting minority has argued that Chesnutt’s reformist intentions were restricted to the cause of light-skinned mulattoes” (ix). Based off of this statement, this course will interrogate whether or not we should read Chesuntt merely as a “late-nineteenth-century realist” or as an author who, acutely aware of his surroundings, interrogated race science and the law in a more nuanced sense to enact social change.

Required Texts:

Course Requirements:
  1. In this seminar, regular and substantive class participation is required. A seminar is a place for collaboration and discussion on the assigned readings and scholarly texts. Come to class prepared to ask questions and discuss topics that spark debate. 
  2. Each student will be required to lead class discussion for one day during the semester. The purpose of this is to provide you with pedagogical practice in leading class discussions. You will have 30-45 to lead the class on your assigned day, and you may use handouts, articles, media, or any other pedagogical tool to aid in the discussion of the day’s reading. You will be graded on the following items: Organization, Originality, Relevance to the week’s reading(s), and Oral delivery.    
  3. Occasionally, there will be short (one to two page) written responses. The responses should follow MLA format and should focus on a specific concept or passage from the assigned reading(s). 
  4. At the end of the semester, there will be a 10-12 page research paper due. The paper will be this length because I want you to submit the paper to a conference for presentation. With that in mind, you will be required to submit an appropriate CFP along with the research paper. 
  5. The final exam will occur during finals week. It will consist of identifications, short responses, and a long essay.


As stated earlier, the list provided above is not a complete list of authors and texts that could be used for this course. In my class, I would have students present on Chesnutt’s essays, DuBois’s and Washington’s ideas, and on Harris’s and Dixon’s writings. These presentations would be assigned to coincide with specific readings. In that way, students will become exposed to more than what initially appears on the syllabus.
What thoughts do you have? What texts would you either add or tweak in this syllabus? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

1 Comment on “"Charles W. Chesnutt and The Race Question at the Turn of the TwentiethCentury" Syllabus

  1. Pingback: Charles Chesnutt and the Plantation Tradition | Interminable Rambling

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: