Of Prophecy and Pessimism at the Nadir
This chapter examines the uses of the unfulfilled in the writings of Charles W. Chesnutt and Sutton E. Griggs. While both authors sought politically progressive ends, Chesnutt and Griggs deployed different strategies to navigate the discourses of “pessimism” and “optimism” that marked turn-of-the-twentieth-century debates about the future of the race. Whereas Griggs believed that bringing about a better future for black Americans required representing this future in the present, Chesnutt staged its failure in order to realize a future that might not fail. Specifically, in The Colonel’s Dream, Chesnutt addresses the nation’s failures to approximate the democratic ideal. He thus anticipates the twenty-first-century debate between Afro-pessimism and black optimism. By intensifying the pessimism in Afro-pessimism, Chesnutt insists that forecasting the failed future is necessary for realizing any better tomorrow. Accordingly, he clarifies the links between Afro-pessimism and black optimism, revealing these not as opposites but as critical coproducers.
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