Chesnutt was America's first successful black novelist. This book was written in 1901, and is based on an actual race riot that broke out in North Carolina a few years earlier. It's not nonfiction; it's a dramatization based on events leading up to and during the riot.
Really good book. Chesnutt's style is perfect for his theme—it reminds me a lot of Baldwin, in that sense. Stark, straightforward realism is a sharp tool for opening up and exposing racism in society. What Chesnutt does here, primarily, is to tell the stories of two families—one white, one black—who actually share an unacknowledged bond of blood (the wives/mothers are half-sisters). The parallels are really telling. Chesnutt is at his best when he's simply describing the thoughts or actions of his characters. There's a really great moment, for example, after the white sister discovers that her father did indeed marry the mother of her half-sister, and that as such she's entitled to a large portion of his estate. She mulls all this over in her mind, trying honestly and logically to decide whether a black woman can be entitled to a large sum of money from a white man's estate. Which is absurd (and realistic) enough. But then for one brief moment, the larger picture occurs to her:
If the woman had been white,—but the woman had not been white, and the same rule of moral conduct did not, could not, in the very nature of things, apply, as between white people! For, if this were not so, slavery had been, not merely an economic mistake, but a great crime against humanity. If it had been such a crime, as for a moment she dimly perceived it might have been, then through the long centuries there had been piled up a catalogue of wrong and outrage which, if the law of compensation be a law of nature, must some time, somewhere, in some way, be atoned for.
Eventually, of course, she snaps out of it and decides to keep hidden the secret of her sister's lineage and inheritance.
The characters in the book are compelling, especially the black ones. As I said, the parallels are often really revealing. Black characters have a full range of thought and emotion, as they rarely seem to get even from today's white writers. There's a real honesty to Chesnutt's writing, I think. At around the same time, I was reading To Kill a Mockingbird, which deals with some of the same issues from a white perspective. It's also very well written and honest, but the black characters just don't get the same breadth that they get here.
I have to add this other quote, by the way, which really goes to the heart of the perceptions governing American race relations: "The qualities which in a white man would win the applause of the world would in a negro be taken as the marks of savagery."
I don't mean to make it sound like an essay-form treatise on race or anything, though. It's written as a thriller, complete with cliff-hangers and intrigue and the lot. And it reads pretty well, even just on that level. From the very beginning of the book, I really enjoyed his writing style. I love the language and rhetoric of that period, and he was obviously a master of it. That he's not more widely known is, I think, a testament to the fact that we haven't fully recovered from racism. It was interesting to finish this book just after James Cameron passed away, and the anniversary of the Soweto Uprising.