Short Story #283: The March of Progress by Charles Waddell Chestnutt

Title:  The March of Progress 

Author:  Charles Waddell Chestnutt


Image of Charles Waldell Chestnutt.  Source
The black community of Patesville find themselves at a moral quandary in determining who the next teacher should be.  The three school committee members represent different parts of the community including a barber, a blacksmith, cart driver.  The two applicants include Henrietta Noble, who had been teaching for fifteen years since Reconstruction.  She was a white woman from New England who had made her life in Patesville.  Unbeknownst to the town, she is also recovering from a costly illness and therefore needs the job more than ever.  The second candidate is Andrew Williams, a star student of Noble and who had gone onto college.  With degree in hand, Williams needs a job but is unlikely to be hired elsewhere.  The committee begins to deliberate who shall be hired.  One member explains that in the name of progress, it seems evident that Williams should be hired and that if their own community will privilege a white person over a black person, their future is problematic.  Furthermore, the opportunity for Noble to find work elsewhere is more likely than for Williams.  However, the poorest and least educated (at least in speech) provides a rich defense of Noble, explaining how Noble has been "slavin' fer us" and showed her dedication to the community.  In doing so, he wonders if the community would be showing the right example by discharging her so easily once someone of their own race had come along.  This inspires many to reflect about how important and kind Noble has been over the years.  With this, everyone is convinced that Noble should continued as the teacher and contact her with the news.  The news is so overwhelming and relieving in her that it triggers her illness and she passes away, leaving the school position open for Williams.  


The ending is a bit too neat but I find Chestnutt's stories fascinating in that he negotiates a middle ground to which is the benefit of everyone.  He identifies what may be self-destructive or divisive issues and how they can further erode or threaten the African American and white community.  But he also identifies pathways that allow for maximum fortune.  

Of course, there is a part of me that questions my valuing of Chestnutt as connected to my privilege.  I can see and discuss it as that but would others see him as selling out his community (at least in this story) to whites.  It's a curious question and not one I can answer but only raise.    

Short Story #283 out of 365
Rating:  3 (out of 5 stars)
Date Read:  9/15/2014
Source:  You can read the full text of this short story at this website.

For a full listing of all the short stories in this series, check out the category 365 Short Stories a year.

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