Thursday, March 29, 2007

Chesnutt and despair

"The Wife of His Youth" saddens me. Chesnutt, in the works we've read, have all brought strong and conflicting emotions out of me. But the most common emotion is an everpresent sadness, bordering on despair, an undercurrent I feel throughout the works we've read. But "The Wife of His Youth" affects me the most. First of all, the "Blue Vein" society is a rather sad organization. It is a society of outsiders. They know enough that they won't want to be black. That's not a mystery or too surprising.

What is most sad and frustrating is their intense shame and unfulfilled desire to be accepted by white people. The result is that mulattoes, and really most people of mixed racial heritage that live in a post-slavery or post-colonial society, live in a zone between the world of the black and the white. They are living spaces of liminality. Their very ambiguity and in-betweenness leaves them room for creativity and adaptation. This may be part of a reason why so many very influential artists of the late 19th and early 20th century were mulatto. But this very in betweenness is also what alienates them so totally. And this alienation is incredibly sad to me. Either, as a mulatto, you are trying to "pass" or you are "choosing" to ally yourself with blacks. It's an incredibly frustrating state that combines all of the greatest psycho-emotional problems that arise in a racist society: self hatred, alienation, isolation, and despair. Chesnutt captures these feelings wonderfully in the "Wife of His Youth". Especially the final scene where Mr. Ryder's wife first approaches him and tells her story. It is a searingly painful scene, and it ends on such an ambiguous and sad note. It is an awful reminder of the strength of so many black people who survived the horror that was slavery and of their devotion and strength after slavery to try and make something of their hard lives. Even the ending of the story where Ryder acknowledges his wife and introduces her to the Blue Veins, I can feel nothing but sadness that it took so long for her to find him and that she had to live so hard for so long.

No comments: