The Issue of Colorism in The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line by Charles W. Chesnutt

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Colorism is defined as a form of prejudice typically from members of the same race in which people are treated based on their social economic status from cultural implications related to skin color. Within the idea of “race”, various groups of people compete with one another. Throughout the book, “The Wife of His Youth” by Charles W. Chesnutt one can learn that the idea of racism existed, and that race continues to evolve throughout history. In the literary piece, the main character, Mr. Ryder, a highly idolized man in his society referred to as the Blue Veins Society. The Blue Vein Society was an organization of colored persons to establish and maintain correct social standards among individuals who were apart of the lower social economic status. The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899) examines color prejudice among African Americans as well as between the races in a manner of reminiscent of George W. Cable. Charles W. Chesnutt born on June 20, 1858 of free black parents of Cleveland, Ohio. The family eventually moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1866 to run a grocery store. Chesnutt’s time and education in the South, and return to the North, provided Chesnutt with a personal experience of the rise and fall of reconstruction and the evolution of segregation. He became an eager reader and keen observer of the people and the socio-political era which was reflected in his future writings.

By exploring Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth”, readers perceive how one’s socioeconomic status was a reason for passing for White and hiding the truth about one’s counterparts of a darker complexion. Charles Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth” features a highly respected man of the Blue Veins Society in a Midwestern city, who is also Mr. Ryder, the protagonist. He is preparing to marry another mulatto woman with a lighter complexion, when a much darker woman comes to him in search for her husband, whom she has not seen in 25 years. The story has been interpreted as an analysis of race relations, not between blacks and whites but within the black community, exploring its own color, class and prejudices. Mr. Ryder dreams of becoming white but ultimately seems to accept the fact of being black and the full history of African Americans in the United States. However, the ending of the story, has been called ambiguous and leaves questions unanswered. Being that this literary piece is a short story, this was a quick read. However, it was 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 (1899). Though published several years ago, the issues conveyed in the piece are still prevalent today. Reading along in the story, thoughts of race relations within the black community today began to come up. Such discord within the black community has spread even further. Not only to mention the lack of union due to socioeconomic differences amongst one another. But in this story, where discord in race is the issue, Chesnutt is trying to inform his readers the black community can only move forward by joining together regardless of the skin tone prejudice that exists.

Critical examinations of Chesnutt analyze characters, tone, structure, and the historical context. In many occasions, critics discussed the ways in which Chesnutt subverts societal prejudice assumptions created through segregation. Reviews of Chesnutt’s literary piece were positive. After receiving several compliments from those who supported him and in various newspaper reviews, he wrote to editor Walter Hines Page. One later review from critic William Dean Howells praised Chesnutt. Howell was impressed with the main character’s characteristics. During the 20th century, “The Wife of His Youth” became Chesnutt’s most favorable collection short story. In my opinion, Chesnutt’s literary piece conveyed how things were during that time period. Chesnutt’s work was remarkable, Chesnutt explored the complex social and cultural lives of middle-class blacks in the North. Charles Chesnutt’s collection of nine short stories were the first black fiction to attract the public attention of the white literary world. He scrutinizes the psychological and sociological effects of the Jim Crow laws on black, white, and mixed-race communities. Chesnutt writes regarding the black’s search for identity in the volatile period between the Civil War and the turn of the century. His characters of the story are mulatto, the rising black middle-class, and the freed slaves. His themes depict the tensions of interracial living which are still prevalent today. Chesnutt’s purpose in his literary work is to present a perspective of racial tensions and social issues confronting Southern whites and blacks. Chesnutt’s literary work is well-known in which it manifested the social conflicts present during their time.

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