The years of slavery in the USA provoked a lot of social problems and contradictions which were not resolved even after the years of the Civil War. During the period of slavery, it was typical to speak about the opposition between ‘whites’ and ‘blacks.’ The end of slavery resulted in revealing a new conflict which was the opposition between ‘blacks’ and ‘whiter blacks’ or ‘mulattos.’
Thus, to understand the specifics of American society in the second half of the 19th century, it is necessary to concentrate on the problem of oppression among African Americans. The concept of oppression is closely associated with the history of Americans. According to Frederick Douglass, “Oppression makes a wise man mad” (Douglass 462). The Founding Fathers opposed the oppressive actions realized by the British rulers against the Americans.
Tyranny made Americans fight and against injustice and state the principles of freedom. However, oppression becomes the tool used by the Americans against ‘blacks.’ As a result, oppression penetrated the African American society as the opposition between ‘blacks’ and ‘whiter blacks.’ This problem is discussed in the short story “The Wife of His Youth” written by the African American author Charles Chesnutt.
Although the slavery abolishment aimed to reduce the opposition between races in the country and state the principles of equality, discrimination and oppression became the part of the African American society which was divided into classes according to the pattern used by ‘white’ Americans.
Oppression can make a wise man angry and active to oppose the tyranny as well as crueler about the other persons. Suffering from oppression during the long years of slavery, African Americans intended to become the equal members of the ‘white’ society. That is why domination and segregation became the particular features of their racial group.
The skin color was discussed as the most important quality to consider the person as belonging to this or that social category. From this point, Douglass’ statement related to the Americans whose “fathers were wise men” is also relevant to discuss the aspects of oppression among the African Americans who became “mad” to seek for differences in themselves (Douglass 462).
In his story “The Wife of His Youth,” Charles Chesnutt vividly depicts the division of the African American society into classes according to the tones of the skin color. Not all the ‘black’ people are equally ‘black’ that is why oppression can be the part of the society which initially opposed to any injustice and inequality. The long period of opposition was not finished with the end of the Civil War.
The protagonist of “The Wife of His Youth” is Mr. Ryder, the African American whose skin is lighter than the skin of the other ‘blacks’ because of his mixed-race origin.
It is rather difficult to state strictly the advantages of being the ‘mulatto,’ but Mr. Ryder’s skin color becomes his ticket to the upper society of the Northern African Americans who live the life similar to the lifestyle of the ‘whites.’ At the beginning of the short story, Chesnutt states that “Mr. Ryder might aptly be called the dean of the Blue Veins” (Chesnutt 624).
The Blue Veins society is the group of persons who can discuss themselves as deserving of belonging to the upper social groups because of their lighter skin color. According to Chesnutt, “combined perhaps with some natural affinity, the society consisted of individuals who were, generally speaking, more white than black” (Chesnutt 624).
And the main purpose or task of the society is to set the definite social standards for people who can “improve” (Chesnutt 624).
From this perspective, the African American members of the society admit the fact that the blood of a white man in their veins can guarantee the room for improvement in opposition to the other ‘black’ African Americans’ situation. It is possible to speak about the mixed race as the most important reason for oppression among African Americans.
The distance between the African American representatives of different social classes is observed with references to Chesnutt’s description of appearances and behaviors of Mr. Ryder and Liza Jane. If Mr. Ryder is at the highest social stage among the African Americans because of the color of his skin, Liza Jane has not such a right because of her obvious ‘blackness.’
According to Chesnutt, Liza Jane “was very black, – so black that her toothless gums, revealed when she opened her mouth to speak, were not red, but blue” (Chesnutt 627). The difference between Mr. Ryder and Liza Jane is also significant because of the education and knowledge received.
The lighter skin provided Mr. Ryder with the opportunities to start the new life, different from the life of an uneducated slave. Thus, in spite of the similar past, the present life of Mr. Ryder and Liza Jane have few similarities.
Belonging to the Blue Veins society, Mr. Ryder protects himself from further oppression and any discrimination. On the contrary, those African Americans who are really ‘black’ become discriminated in the society of the other, ‘whiter’ African Americans. As a result, the years of oppression for slaves ended in their intention to take the highest social position and to use every opportunity to be discussed as equal to ‘whites.’
Thus, the lightest tone of the skin is the best chance to stress on equality and on the right to have the same freedoms as any ‘white’ American has. Following the story of Mr. Ryder, the reader learns the aspects of this man’s life, and it is possible to conclude that the current position of Mr. Ryder within the African American society is his opportunity to overcome the oppression experienced previously.
It is possible because, according to Douglass, oppression can make people do different and rather violent or unexpected things to cope with the situation of submission successfully (Douglass 462).
The problem is in the fact that when ‘mulattos’ accentuate their mixed race, difference, and resemblance to ‘white’ people, the situation begets the division into dominating ‘whiter blacks’ and oppressed ‘darker blacks.’ As a result, those African Americans who are not so ‘black’ as the other ones are inclined to feel definite prejudice about the rest ‘blacks’ who cannot belong to the elite of the Blue Veins society.
The controversial nature of mulattos’ dominating behaviors is explained in Mr. Ryder’s words. In spite of the fact, Mr. Ryder states that he has “no race prejudice,” his further words reflect another idea which is rather opposite (Chesnutt 627). Thus, the accent is made on integrating into the society of the white race as equals. Mr. Ryder states that the white race “doesn’t want us yet, but may take us in time.
The other would welcome us, but it would be for us a backward step” (Chesnutt 627). From this point, the emphasis on the African American identity is “a backward step” for any ‘black’ man with light skin. In this situation, people of the mixed-race step forward, basing on the idea that “self-preservation is the first law of nature” (Chesnutt 627).
However, the attitudes and behaviors associated with self-preservation can result in discrimination against the other African Americans who are not allowed to join the society of the Blue Veins.
The difference between Mr. Ryder and Liza Jane is emphasized not only through the aspects of appearance but also with the help of highlighting differences in speech, diction, and word choice. These details contribute to speaking about the superiority of the mixed-race people about the ‘blacks’ because of the efforts of mulattos to become closer to the ‘white’ people.
However, organizing the meetings and balls for the African American elite, as it is described in Chesnutt’s work, the representatives of the mixed race are not inclined to submit or oppress the other ‘blacks.’ It is possible to pay attention to the issue of obvious discrimination within the society rather than direct oppression.
Nevertheless, Mr. Ryder, like any other representative of the mixed race, hesitates to determine his identity. Admitting the benefits of belonging to the ‘blue veins,’ Mr. Ryder remembers his origin. However, to make a significant decision to admit or not Liza Jane as the wife of his youth and as the equal to him, Mr. Ryder needs the approval of Ms. Dixon who holds the prominent position within the higher society (Chesnutt 627).
In spite of the fact Mr. Ryder returns to his origins and accentuates the African American identity, it is possible to focus on the role of the social status in the mixed-race society. Thus, the social status is the feature which makes African Americans similar to ‘whites.’
Charles Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth” depicts the increasing distance between mulattos and ‘blacks’ after the years of the Civil War. According to the short story, the skin color remains to be the most recognizable feature to speak about the person’s social status.
As a result, in spite of having the same identity of the African Americans, those ‘blacks’ who look like ‘whites’ have the chance to join the higher society which is opened only for the representatives of the white race.
The obvious difference in the appearance of the African Americans of the pure and mixed origin leads to the division of the African American society into two opposite camps about the social status, welfare, education, and perspectives for the future. Stressing on the lightness of the skin, mulattos also accentuate their superiority within the society.
Thus, after the Civil War, it was possible to observe the oppression of ‘blacks’ realized not only by the white race but also by the African Americans who could belong to the society of the Blue Veins. From this point, Frederick Douglass’ words about oppression can be interpreted within the large context of unfairness and inequality in American society caused by the superior behaviors of the upper classes’ representatives.
In his work “The Wife of His Youth,” Charles Chesnutt discusses the situation of the division within the African American society with references to the skin color which is close to the author because of his mixed race origin. Being discussed as the most respected and influential African American author, Charles Chesnutt paid much attention in his work to the problem of the social oppression among African Americans (Chesnutt 602-603).
In spite of the fact that Charles Chesnutt had the light skin, he did not share the opinions of the other mulattos about their right to take the superior positions within the society. As a result, the idea of finding an adequate solution to overcome the social prejudice and division typical for the African American society is reflected in the author’s works.
Being identified as the African American, Chesnutt observes the discrimination and prejudice against the ‘blacks’ and discusses the associated socially controversial issues in his short stories and novels. In reality, Chesnutt holds a higher social position than the numbers of the other African Americans because of the advantage of his skin color. Nevertheless, the author does not intend to belong to the white society to take the dominating positions.
On the contrary, Chesnutt reveals the ways in his works according to which it is possible to reduce the social and economic tensions between the ‘whiter’ and ‘blacker’ African Americans. As a result, Chesnutt writes about the oppression among the ‘blacks’ not as the representative of the superior mixed race, but as the African American for whom the problem of oppression and discrimination is urgent.
Focusing on the human dignity and respect for everyone in spite of his or her race, Chesnutt does not agree with the situation in the American society after the period of the Civil War (Chesnutt 602-603). That is why the author’s works are written to discuss the problem of the color line in detail. Mr. Ryder as the protagonist of “The Wife of His Youth” does not represent the ideas which are completely shared by the author.
It is possible to note that using the character of Mr. Ryder, Chesnutt considers possible explanations for the ‘whiter’ African Americans behaviors which can be discussed as oppressive about the other ‘blacks.’ Having overcome the years of slavery, all the African Americans are equal now to lead the life free from biases and discrimination.
Operating his own experience and observations, Chesnutt became the first African American author to speak about the similar issues openly (Chesnutt 603). However, it is possible to assume that the light skin color of the author allows him to be heard by the public.
Thus, Chesnutt’s life experience influenced his vision and viewpoints expressed in the works in a rather unexpected manner. Being the representative of the mulattos’ society and having the light skin, Chesnutt focuses on the color line problem and oppression against the ‘blacks’ as the issue which affects the whole African American community in spite of the peoples’ tones of skin color.
The developed conflict and opposition between the social classes only makes the question of resolving the ‘black’ people’s identity more complicated. That is why, all the social and economic aspects are discussed in Chesnutt’s stories.
“Charles Chesnutt”. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates and Nellie McKay. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. 602-636. Print.
Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates and Nellie McKay. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. 460-470. Print.