“The Wife of His Youth” is an 1898 historical fiction short story by author Charles W. Chesnutt. Charles Chestnutt is the first African American writer to use folklore in series literature. He was born in Cleveland, Ohio on June 20, 1858, but spent most of his childhood in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Growing up in the south had a lasting impact on him, in that it furnished rich material for his fiction. Therefore, it is not surprising that Chestnutt’s characters, settings, scenes and institutions reflect North Carolina’s culture. As a creative writer blossoming in the 1880s, Chesnutt believed that he could use folklore to stem the tide of racist thinking depicted by the plantation school writers, such as Thomas Nelson Page and others, who wrote of slavery as a benevolent system. However, by 1905, Chestnutt realized that fiction was not the route to bring America around to treating African Americans with the same respect as whites. Consequently, with this realization Chestnutt became a fighter against discrimination with his voice. He made speeches and wrote essays against all kinds of discrimination (Young). In his short story “The Wife of His Youth”, Chesnutt combines the themes of racial identity and colorism to create the conflict at the center of the story.
The prose introduces the readers to a man called Mr. Ryder who has completely banished all traces of his slavery past from his mind. As a leading member of the “Blue Veins”, a society of exclusively mixed-race folks, it is obvious that he shares the group’s idealized conception of whiteness. While not being a founding member himself, he emerges as the society’s principal custodian of “standards” based entirely on skin color. Ryder’s pursuit of a racial ideal of whiteness, leads him to desire marrying Mrs. Dixon, a woman who is “whiter than he and better educated” (Chestnutt, 2). He contemplates that their marriage further guarantees his eventual “absorption by the white race”(Chestnutt, 3). Before he can realize his dream, however, Ryder is faced with a moral and psychological dilemma when the long-forgotten wife of his youth, a diminutive, “very black” woman, appears in search of her husband. Recognizing her as the woman he married down South before the war and before his personal transformation, Ryder debates whether to pursue his dream of absorption by the white race or to acknowledge and reclaim a repressed part of his past. At a lavish dinner party, intended to celebrate his proposal to Mrs. Dixon, he presents Liza Jane’s tale as a hypothetical situation to his fellow Blue Veins. As if collectively awakened from their pursuit of a false ideal, the dinner guests react with a “responsive thrill” to Ryder’s narration, unanimously joining Mrs. Dixon in affirming the husband’s responsibility to his past. Having evidently reached the same decision himself, Ryder happily accepts the group’s verdict and acknowledges Liza Jane as the wife of his youth. (citation)
This short story succeeds in highlighting to me the hidden discrimination within the black community. The group that called themselves Blue veins invariably comprises people of African descent who consider themselves superior to the darker-skinned and less educated members of their community. To this end, their belief that this literal and cultural approximation to whiteness was a mark of honor was quite disheartening to me as a reader. In my opinion, the existence of such a society and its ideals are rather regressive for a group of people that pride themselves to be educated folks. Noted novelist Catherine Keyser affirmed that this group possessed lurking prejudices about blackness and slavery due to the fact that they believed that being light skinned was somehow a requirement to be cultured, educated and closer to white (58-59). These insights by Keyser have impacted my view of the work greatly.
Despite this, the ending of the story left me quite surprised. Not only was the unexpected ending of the prose entertaining in a literary sense, it also showed some hope of the group’s acceptance for their past. I must agree with scholar Charles Duncan, in his work ‘Telling Genealogy: Notions of the Family in The Wife of His Youth’ (COPYRIGHT 2003), in which he analysed that the reunion of the long-separated couple is a reunion that symbolically fuses several polarities–the North and the South, the white and the black, the rich and the poor–by means of an apparently harmonious marriage.
“The Wife of His Youth” depicts the color prejudice that exists within the black community. Indeed, ‘colorism’ within racial and ethnic groups is a lot more prevalent than we are prepared to admit. Light-skin preference has been common practice in the black community for generations. Though being black requires us to respect our culture and heritage, it’s difficult not to be influenced by the perception that black women are often not accepted as being intelligent, desirable, and beautiful enough. Also, individuals within the black community have been called ‘Oreo Cookies’ because of the way they speak, where they live, and the people they choose to interact with