Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Progression of Student to Teacher in the Post-Civil War South and in Charles Chesnutt’s “The Bouquet”

The denial of formal education for slaves forced their stories to survive purely in oral form. These stories were “[m]ore than a mere description of the circumstances that they found themselves in,” and “always had survival and a quest for power as major themes (Perlstein). These oral stories were not without meaning; on the contrary, they were full of lessons. These themes are obviously in response to their lived realities. While “African folktales were entertaining to the enslaver, [ ]they were also a source of information and strategy for the enslaved” (Monaghan). The tales of Brer Rabbit “[t]hough one of the smallest and weakest animals in the forest, [he] was also one of the swiftest. He could outsmart the bigger and stronger animals by using his wit” (Monaghan). The passing of these stories from one generation to the next allowed the “listeners / students” to become the “tellers / teachers.”

It was a rarity for slaves to be taught by a “loving mistress” or for them to try to obtain knowledge via their own means. One of the most interesting points in Frederic Douglass’ biography is that he bribed children to teach him to write. Once this decision was out of the hands of white slave owners and in the hands and hearts of the newly freed former slaves their true desires became known. To use Georgia as an example, “[l]egislation passed in 1829 had made it a crime to teach slaves to read, and legislation and white attitudes discouraged literacy within Georgia's small free black community. Yet when schools for freedpeople opened in early 1865, they were crowded to overflowing. Within a year of black freedom, at least 8,000 former slaves were attending schools in Georgia; eight years later, black schools struggled to contain nearly 20,000 students”(Butchart). This education enabled a previously only oral history to become a written one.

Chesnutt’s writing embodies the transition of the student becoming the teacher in his short story The Bouquet. Mrs. Myrover, as an invalid, represents old regime—physically paralyzed but still alive / present. She (and the pre-Civil war South) “were “too old, and had suffered too deeply from war, in body and mind and estate, ever to reconcile herself to the changed order of things following the return of peace; and, with an unsound yet perfectly explainable logic, she visited some of her displeasure upon those who had profited most, though passively, by her losses” (Chesnutt 281). Though not monetarily, blacks could now receive an invaluable profit—an education. The receipt of this education was not free and “was not Northern charity, for the total cost of the Bureau, seventeen million dollars, was more than covered by a heavy tax on cotton, which by 1869 had yielded over sixty-eight million dollars” (Morison 18-20). Therefore, the Negros had prepaid for their education with their work in, and any job related to cotton, which would encompass almost the entire South.

In Chesnutt’s story the roses are a metaphor of Sophy’s knowledge. Sophy’s right to an education equals “the first buds of spring, and, when these appeared, [Sophy] had awaited impatiently their gradual unfolding. But not until her teacher’s death had they become full-blown roses” (Chesnutt 282). Miss Myover’s death transitions Sophy from the role of student /listener to the role of teacher / teller. Sophy embodies not only the ability for a Black voice to be heard, but a Black woman’s voice. This voice is now educated in the written word and will be able to make her voice heard in not only oral, but now written story. Sophy represents the hope of education as advancement of blacks and women. “[T]eachers…might be said rather to represent the new order of thing in which labor was in time to become honorable, and men were, after a somewhat longer time, to depend, for their place in society, upon themselves rather than upon their ancestors” (Chesnutt 270). Miss Myrover job search represents all non-White, males. As “Miss Myrover looked over the field of employment, never very wide for women in the South, and found it occupied. The only available position she could be supposed prepared to fill, and which she could take without distinct loss of caste, was that of a teacher, and there was no vacancy except in one of the colored schools. Even teaching was a doubtful experiment; it was not what she would have preferred, but it was the best that could be done” (Chesnutt 272). After being taught by Miss Myrover, Sophy will have the skills to obtain a job, also.

Both Sophy and Miss Myrover are representatives of a hopeful new generation. While “Sophy’s mother was a poor widow, who went out washing and scrubbing for a living,” Mrs. Myrover is a racist invalid (Chesnutt 275). Both of the women have recognized the power of education and the change it can bring to their worlds. Sophy’s feelings toward Miss Myrover are described as “devotion,” “admiration,” and “worship” because “to Sophy her beauty was almost divine—who had come to teach her” (Chesnutt 275-6). Miss Myover’s beauty does not lie in her features but in her actions. Sophy is grateful for the teaching and Miss Myover’s is merely the vessel. Miss Myrover also experienced the joy of teaching: “And though she was a woman of sentiment and capable of deep feeling, her training had been such that she hardly expected to find in those of darker hue than herself the same susceptibility—varying in degree, perhaps, but yet the same in kind—that gave to her own life the alternations of feeling that made it most worth living” (Chesnutt 278-9).

Sophy now has the ability to “write her own story.” after reading the cemetery sign “thanks to Miss Myrover’s painstaking instruction, could read this sign very distinctly. In fact, she had often read it before. For Sophy was a child who loved beauty, in a blind, groping sort of way, and sometimes stood by the fence of the cemetery and looked through at the green mounds and shaded walks and blooming flowers within, and wished that she might walk among them” Sophy’s stories will be identifiable to a new audience and generation like “the African in slavery, the Brer Rabbit tales became a source of identity. The African, in his lowly condition, felt a certain kinship to the rabbit (Monaghan).

Just as Sophy was the natural receptacle of knowledge from Miss Myrover, so too would Sophy educate the masses. She is the ancestor of the Harlem Renaissance and rap. She is the voice of the previously unheard. She is writing her story with black ink on a white page.

Annotated Bibliography

Chesnutt, Charles. The Wife of His Youth.

Palmer, R. Roderick, (1957). Colonial Statues and Present Day Obstacles Restricting Negro Education. In The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 26, No. 4. pp. 525–529.

Perlstein, Joshua. From Remus to Rap: A History in Theory and Practice of the African-American Storytelling Tradition

Morison, Samuel Eliot and Henry Steele Commager, The Growth of the American Republic (2 vols.: New York: 1942) II, pp. 18-20.

Monaghan, E. J. (2005). Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.

Webber, Thomas. (1978). Deep Like Rivers: Education in the Slave Quarter Community 1831-1865. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Woodson, C.G. (1915). The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861: A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Butchart, Ronald E. Freedmen's Education during Reconstruction. The New Georgia Encyclopedia.

15th Amendment United states Constitution

The 15th amendment, ratified February 3, 1870 states that “. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

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