I read this before for a college class and always wanted to revisit it. So when the Bout of Books 14 read-a-thon came around, I saw it as the opportune time to give this story a go.
“The Wife of His Youth” is a short story about a man whose wife found him after searching for 25 years after slavery was abolished. They were married while living in the south during slavery. She was a slave but her husband was a free man. The people she worked for planned to sell her husband so she helped him escape. She didn’t know where he went but since gaining her freedom after the Civil War, she has been searching for him.
The story’s main focus is on the divide within the Black community. The man is light-skinned and is a member of a prestigious organization in his community that’s prejudiced against dark-skinned Blacks. He was considering to marry a well-connected, young light-skinned woman within the organization when his wife, who is darker and older, shows up.
I had trouble putting my thoughts together for this one. Being a short story, this was a quick read but very thought provoking. It was first published as part of a short story collection, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, in the fall of 1899. Though published 116 years ago, the issues explored are still prevalent today.
From the beginning of the story, we are made aware of the divide within this Black community. The story is set in a community called Groveland shortly after the Civil War. In this community is an organization commonly called the Blue Vein Society, which consists of individuals who are deemed of high intellect and social standing. All the members are African American and light complexioned, hence the organization’s name. Those who criticize it claim that only those who are white enough to show blue veins can claim membership. We aren’t told the true name of the organization but are assured that it’s “longer and more pretentious.”
As I read along, I kept thinking about race relations within the Black community today. Though there are some individuals who would like to trick themselves into believing that we’ve moved past these issues, I think it’s pretty damn easy to see that dissonance within the Black community is still an issue. (And when I say Black here, I’m referring to all African peoples around the globe whether they be in the U.S., Europe, Africa, Caribbean, Asia, or where ever.) Within the Black community today, those of a lighter complexion are still favored more than their darker peers, especially if the person’s hair and features have a texture and structure similar to Whites. Sometimes we (Black individuals) aren’t even aware that we show such favoritism.
Those who are darker with more Negro features are still criticized for their appearance and are hardly considered beautiful. Despite attempts to diversify images in mainstream media, the individuals commonly shown on TV and in magazines are those whose features closely resemble Whites. Even as more Black women today opt to keep their hair natural rather than treat it with chemicals to straighten the roots, the preference is for a soft, wavy hair rather than the thick, tight curls of natural Negro hair.
Such discord within the Black race has spread even further. There is also a lack of union due to economic differences and even regional differences. Those of the upper class look down on those of a lower economic status, similar to how those of free birth in this story shun those born into slavery. These days, it’s also not uncommon for Black people from various regions to harshly criticize each other as well — those from African countries and the Caribbean scorn Americans and vice versa. With such discord, I sometimes wonder if it’s possible for the Black race to come together as a whole and stick together. There are times when we’ve banded together to achieve certain goals or even to celebrate as one but eventually we go our separate ways and the issues within our race becomes a major problem again.
But in this story where discord within the race is the issue, Chesnutt is trying to tell his readers that the only way the Black community can move forward is by joining together without regard for skin tone. The resolution to the protagonist’s plight proves this so. The protagonist, Mr. Ryder, is an advocate of the Blue Vein Society. He upholds their values and enforces their laws, especially those that aren’t openly acknowledged. When the story begins, he’s organizing a ball, where he plans to propose to Molly Dixon, a young woman who recently moved to the area and is so pale that she was quickly inducted into the society. Mr. Ryder intends to use this ball to also “mark an epoch in the social history of Groveland.” Through the guests in attendance as well as the woman who will be honored, Mr. Ryder seeks to set an example for future generations.
“Self-preservation is the first law of nature.”
— he says, which I think Chesnutt includes to mislead both Mr. Ryder and his readers. Mr. Ryder says the quote above as he’s planning the ball, thinking of preserving the organization and keeping it exclusive to light-skinned Blacks. But though exclusivity can help survival, it can hurt it as well so I think Chesnutt included that line to allude to the fact that the only way for the Black community to survive and move forward is if they bond together, light and dark. Mr. Ryder’s acknowledgement of his wife, who he could have easily dismissed since she didn’t realize she had found her long-lost husband, is proof of that. His wife is described as “quite old; for her face was crossed and recrossed with a hundred wrinkles….And she was very black.” She was born into slavery. Mr. Ryder had obtained his freedom. Not only does their union symbolizes the race coming together as a whole and moving forward as such, it also symbolizes the present acknowledging the past.
Apart from the story’s message, I also liked its structure, especially how it opens: “Mr. Ryder was going to give a ball.” This sentence immediately piqued my interest and made me curious. It made me think of fairy tales. Actually, as the story continued, I kept seeing it as a sort of fairy tale. I guess I think so because of the preparations for the ball, the fact that Mr. Ryder is casted like a prince (the man who has his pick of women, a most eligible bachelor, and quite the catch), and that he intends to select the most beautiful woman of them all but instead chooses the one he had forgotten.
His wife suddenly appearing as if “summoned up from the past by the wave of a magician’s wand” adds to the fairy tale effect as well as the Tennyson poem, “Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere,” that Mr. Ryder considers using at the ball to describe Molly. I don’t know the entire poem but the bit that’s included makes me think of a fairy queen. I don’t know if it was Chesnutt’s intention to give the impression of a fairy tale in this story, but that’s what I got out of it. And, as I’m writing this review and thinking back to the story, I think that’s what he was going for. Besides, fairy tales teach lessons and urge the protagonist to look beyond illusions, and Chesnutt is trying to do the same here.
This is a great story and I highly recommend it. It’s a short, quick read that you can complete in under an hour if you have the time, and it will leave you with loads to think about. As I said in my Bout of Books update, “Reading it today, it gives a glimpse into race relations within the Black community in the past, while illuminating obstacles that the Black community haven’t yet overcome in the present.” Because of its endurance, I consider it a classic.
(Added to the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge.)
Quick facts about the author:
From my Norton Anthology of African American Literature:
- “Charles W. Chesnutt was the first African American writer of fiction to enlist the white-controlled publishing industry in the service of his social message.”
- His parents were both free persons of color and his paternal grandfather was a White slave owner. [Wikipedia]
- He could have passed as White but opted not to. [Wikipedia]
- He was a legal stenographer.
Read the story for free in The Atlantic:
- 21 Days of Chesnutt | Day 9: “The Wife of His Youth” (2.18.2015) (chesnuttlibrary.wordpress.com)
- My Response to Reading on Charles W. Chesnutt (mypigmentsvoice.wordpress.com)