Sunday, May 16, 2010

Term Paper 2

The Wife of His Youth: Reconnecting The African-American Family

The Post-Bellum period was a time of adjustment in American history. The Civil War divided the nation, but another effect of the Civil War was that African-American families were divided and displaced as well. Combine the effects of the Civil War with the institution of slavery, the African-American family was fractured in many ways: literal separation of families was a common occurrence; an inherent hierarchy between the house slaves and field slaves existed; the mixing of races created intra-racial bias between lighter skinned and darker skinned blacks; as well as other various influences that fractured the African-American family structure. The family has long been regarded as a source of strength among human beings. It is customary to apply the general term family to describe a collective group of people, which transcends blood ties and refers to the group as a whole. Therefore, for the survival and prosperity of African-Americans in the Post-Bellum period it was imperative that the family be reconstructed and reconnected. Charles W. Chesnutt’s story “The Wife of His Youth” is an attempt to reconnect the African-American family. The struggle and conflict of the story is one that Karl Marx would state as a class struggle. The acknowledgement of the slave marriage between the central characters Mr. Ryder and Liza Jane is a symbolic unity of the African-American family and all disparate facets of African-American culture and conquering of the class struggle. Charles Duncan states, regarding Chesnutt’s fictional works, that “his fictions, especially the works collected in “The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, repeatedly concentrate in the individual families struggling to preserve or, more often, to remake themselves in the turbulent end-of-the-century American milieu” (1). Chesnutt accomplishes this familial unity in multiple ways. One such way you can perceive this feat in “The Wife of His Youth” is that in this narrative he constructs an elite social circle of lighter skinned blacks called the Blue Vein society, which can be considered a metaphorical disconnect of Afro-American culture within the family. The art of storytelling is another medium in which Chesnutt unifies the African-American family. In “The Wife of His Youth” storytelling is a pivotal motif because it connects the teller and listener of the story to the story itself. Essentially the story serves as a self-identification process and an acknowledgment of the past. Finally, one can examine Chesnutt’s motives for writing, his attitudes toward race, and the place and time in which he wrote to aid in further analysis.

The Blue Vein society is an elite social group of light skinned blacks -- nearly white -- who considered their purpose “was to establish and maintain correct social standards among a people whose social condition presented almost unlimited room for improvement” (147). The term “among a people” is an exclusionary reference to mean the “people” of the group as those with lighter skin, which referencing their skin tone being their “social condition.” Solely those belonging to this group are the ones who have “unlimited room for improvement,” as opposed to the excluded darker skinned brethren’s room for improvement being limited, if any room exists at all. A Marxist critique can interpret this as a class struggle. Regarding the aforementioned quoted sentence, Lorne Fienberg writes “Chesnutt evokes the ongoing process of judging the social elite in a single dazzling sentence which itself enacts the process of crossing over the Blue Vein’ lines of exclusion” (4). In the narrator’s description of the Blue Veins, Chesnutt sets up a need that both lighter skinned and darker skinned blacks need to come together in order to rejoin the disconnected African-American family.

Mr. Ryder is considered “the dean of the Blue Veins” (147). The story begins with his intentions to host a ball in honor of Molly Dixon, at which he planned to propose to her. By all intents and purposes Ms. Dixon is literally the belle of the ball. She has very light skin, even “whiter” than Mr. Ryder. The union of Mr. Ryder and Ms. Dixon is a favorable one, especially from the prospects of Mr. Ryder. At this point in the story Mr. Ryder aspirations are to be close to white as possible as gleaned from his inner thoughts: “I have no race prejudice…but we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black” (148-149). He continues to theorize that, “the one doesn’t want us yet, but may take us in time. The other would welcome us, but it would be for us a backward step” (149). Here the reader observes a blatant disconnect in the African-American family. Although one may be of mixed race, according to social prejudices and the laws of the state at that time, a person is considered non-white if he possess even an eighth of “Negro blood.”

Ms. Molly Dixon, who is the proposed future wife of Mr. Ryder, is the polar opposite of Mr. Ryder’s past wife Liza Jane: As fair as Ms. Dixon is Liza Jane is dark; as educated as Mrs. Dixon is Liza Jane is ignorant; as young as Ms. Dixon is Liza Jane is old; as articulate as Ms. Dixon is Liza Jane converses in dialect. Liza Jane is described as “old,” “her face was crossed and recrossed with a hundred wrinkles,” her hair is depicted as “short gray wool,” “ she was very black, -- so black that her toothless gums, revealed when she opened her mouth to speak, were not red, but blue” (150). In Mr. Ryder’s life, Liza Jane represents the acknowledgment of the past as Ms. Dixon represents aspirations of the future. Therefore, Mr. Ryder’s decision to acknowledge his slave marriage to Liza Jane, especially since he was not required by any decree of law or circumstance, is a reconnection of the Afro-American family to acknowledge the past and moving on toward the future as an interconnected family unit.

Storytelling was an essential part of African-American life. Slavery demanded an institutionalized illiteracy; therefore, story telling among the slaves was an important aspect to their culture in many ways. The narrative was used to teach, entertain, as well as aid those who chose to escape slavery. In “The Wife of His Youth” storytelling plays a key role in the plot development. Lorne Fienberg focuses on the art of storytelling in her literary evaluation of Charles Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth.” Fienberg concentrates on the narration of the tale analyzing the narrator’s tone and choice of words. Within the story an ex-slave character Liza Jane, contrasting the sophisticated tone of both the narrator and Mr. Ryder, tells another story. Mr. Ryder then retells the story to the Blue Veins, but in the retelling of the story he mimics the dialect “that came readily to his lips,” (153) as Chesnutt writes. The retelling of the story “had awakened a responsive thrill in many hearts” (153). The people present, who were of this elite social gathering, were all too familiar with this tale; they have an attachment to this tale, which they avoid acknowledging within themselves. This circle’s aspiration is to assimilate toward white culture and leave black culture behind. Fienberg argues that each retelling of the story is a “critical act of self-identification” (219). Her position is that the telling of the story is not an act of entertainment or passing time idly, but more of an acknowledgement of the past. I view the telling and retelling of the story as a shared suffering. Analyzing “The Wife of His Youth” the reader can perceive the narration as a coming together of black culture exemplified at the end by the acknowledgment of the marriage between Mr. Ryder and Liza Jane.

Charles Duncan suggest that the stories in Charles Chesnutt’s collection The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line represent Mr. Chesnutt’s attempts to ponder and revisit the American family’s ability to resist and transcend racial and social pressures. Duncan gives examples using three of the stories in Chesnutt’s collection illustrating that the families in the stories come close to achieving such a transcendence; however, “Chesnutt seems finally to conclude that the very cure for racial ills – an understanding of, or a coming to terms with, the past – constitutes a sort if poison pill” (281). Duncan further elaborates that the Chesnutt characters’ past sustains but at the same time overwhelms them as they attempt to create an identity construction for themselves, a sort of reformation and affirmation of assimilation.
Charles W. Chesnutt is considered a Negro intellectual in Post-Bellum America. He his one of the first Afro-American authors to get his works published, and the first African-American author to be published in a white reading journal. His reading audience was primarily white. Lynchings were prominent in the Southern states; racial prejudice was widespread. Such was the time and space Chesnutt occupied. Cynthia Lehman writes, “the period within which [Chesnutt] wrote was a critical time for African Americans as they had only recently received economic and political opportunities” (1). She continues to state, “Chestnutt believed that literature was the best means available to change people’s attitudes, because he could shape their interpretations and understanding of African Americans without the majority of his readers realizing his true intentions” (2). “The Wife of His Youth,” viewed in the manner of using literature as a means to shape interpretations, could suggest the acknowledgment of the slave marriage as a metaphor of reconnecting all the aspects of Afro-American culture. However, Ryan Jay Friedman thinks that Chesnutt’s views on race don’t necessarily translate to his fiction works. I disagree with Friedman’s assertion. I believe an author’s personal views will find its way into the author’s works.

Based on the views of Mr. Ryder and the Blue Vein society at the beginning of the story and their acknowledgement of the slave marriage by the end the reader can observe a transcendence. This transcendence is the reconnection of the African-American family. The art of storytelling aids in the transcendence, which leads to only one right conclusion. Mr. Ryder must acknowledge his first marriage. By acknowledging his first marriage, Mr. Ryder is acknowledging his past and bringing together disparate aspects of African-American cultures. Being a pioneer in the nascent genre of African-American literature, Charles W. Chesnutt is using literature as an influence of culture. During his life America was reconstructing itself as a nation. The general perceptions of African-Americans among whites were a low one. Intra-racial prejudice existed among blacks as well. Chesnutt believed African-American culture needed to come together during this time in American history. The marriage in “The Wife of His Youth” is symbolic of African-American culture uniting as one.

Works Cited
Chesnutt, Charles W. “The Wife of His Youth.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature: Volume C, Late Ninteenth Century: 1965-1910. Fifth Edition. Weir, Suzanne Phelps. MA & NY: Houghton Mifflin Company 2006. 147-154

Duncan, Charles. “Telling Genealogy: Notions of the Family in The Wife of His Youth.” Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt. Ed. Joseph R. McElrath Jr. New York, NY: G.K. Hall & Co., 1999. 281-296

Fienberg, Lorne. “Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Wife of His Youth: The Unveiling of the black storyteller.” ATQ; September 1990, Volume 4 Issue 3, pp. 219-236.

Lehman, Cynthia L. “The Social and Political Views if Charles Chesnutt: Reflections on His Major Writings.” Journal of Black Studies; January 1996, Volume 26. No. 3, pp. 274-286.

Works Referenced
Friedman, Ryan Jay. “Between Absorption and Extinction: Charles Chesnutt and Biopolitical Racism.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture and Theory 63.4 (2007): 39-62