Charles Chesnutt’s 1899 The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line challenged the hard boundaries of race and class that shaped post-war America. He also shows that the longer we look at the absurdity of the “color line,” the more quickly it looks both ridiculous and brutal. This progressive realization of the brutality of race is suggested in the structure of the stories. The first story (“The Wife of His Youth”) is a rather nice tale of a slave who ran away, received an education, and after the war reached an elite station – even gaining membership in the “Blue Veins,” a society of elite blacks, many of whom were biracial. To escape slavery, this man had to leave his wife. During a party, this man recognizes his former wife – a very dark-skinned woman – and tells their story for the audience of elitist, skin-tone-conscious blacks. The final story in the collection, “The Web of Circumstance,” examines the same color line, reflected now in unequal applications of the legal system, by showing how a man’s life is destroyed by an unfair prosecution. In the end he is indiscriminately shot by his former boss, seeing him now only as “a desperate-looking negro, clad in filthy rags, and carrying in his hand a murderous bludgeon.” (266) And while the main character is strangely fated via the web of circumstances, we cannot escape the formal and informal applications of power at every step of the way (the courts, prisons, racial privileged, and property law) that explain his outcome. I am reminded of David Simon’s use of the concept of fate in The Wire, where post-industrial institutions control our lives and define out path. Chesnutt is not shy about his argument, which he presents in the final page. “Some times, we are told, when the cycle of years has rolled around, there is to be another golden age, when all men will dwell together in love and harmony, and when peace and righteousness shall prevail for a thousand years. God speed the day, and let not the shining threat of hope become so enmeshed in the web of circumstance that we lose sight of it; but give us here and there, and now and then, some little foretaste of this golden age, that we may the more patiently and hopefully await its coming!” (266) We can, perhaps, forgive Chesnutt’s passivity at the end. In the face of such domineering structures of power, what was possible? We now know, it took sustained struggle.
The rest of the stories hover between this brutality and pessimism and the more sentimental, but they all remind us how blurry the color line was, even under slavery and in the harsh legal separation of Jim Crow. Sometimes this blurring is caused by history, as in “The Sheriff’s Children,” about a sheriff who struggles to keep a black man safe from a Klan-like mob while he await’s trial. We learn at the end that the prisoner is his own son. As a slave owner, he impregnated one of his slaves and then sold her and her child to a speculator. Othertime it is blurred by the prejudices of biracial and middle class blacks. In “A Matter of Principle,” a rich member of the Blue Vein Society, Cicero Clayton, was excited by the prospect of a marriage between his daughter and a Congressman. When Clayton goes to meet the suitor at the train station he mistook him for a someone else and rejected the meeting because he was too dark. “If the Congressman had turned out to be brown, even dark brown, with fairly good hair, thought he might not have desired him as a son-in-law, yet he could have welcomed him as a guest. But even this softening of the blow was denied him, for the man in the waiting-room was palpably, aggressively black, with pronounced African features and woolly hair, without apparently a single drop of redeeming white blood.” (160-161) This honest internal monologue is contrasted with Clayton’s public proclamations, calling for the “Brotherhood of Man.” In “Uncle Wellington’s Wives,” a mulatto man leaves his wife (since his slave marriage was not legitimated after the war), goes north to pass as white. He marries a white woman, but eventually returns to his original wife and community finding a greater degree of acceptance there. Nevertheless, passing for Uncle Wellington was easy. Chesnutt often reminds us how flexible the line was.
I am conflicted about this. On the one hand it is important to remember how we can take on new identities and take actions that blur the lines that divide us. In these stories it is almost always unsatisfying. This freedom often comes at great cost. For Uncle Wellington it meant the disruption of his community and family and the betrayal of his wife. More importantly, “passing’ was only possible for some. If it is our physical characteristics, our bank account, our job, or gender that define our identity, crossing the line is more difficult and requires more destruction in its wake. Thus, without the destruction of race as a category, these acts can only be solitary, individual revolutions.
One story in this collection does suggest a bit more agency and is set in the days of slavery. “The Passing of Grandison” tells the story of a slaveowner’s son who tries to free one of his father’s slaves by taking him to the North and then Canada, giving him plenty of chances to run away. He seems to remain loyal, throughout, much to the frustration of the young man. Finally, Grandison, the slave, is left behind in Canada. He returns to the plantation. What seems at first glance to be evidence of irrational loyalty to a slave master turns out to be an elaborate ruse, when Grandison leaves for Canada a few weeks later with his entire family. His true loyalty was to his family, who he did not want to leave behind.
These fascinating and satisfying tales provide both the tragedy of racism and Jim Crow but also reveal the potential for transgression in the wake of institutionalized slavery.