The Struggle To Accept Racial Identity And Heritage In The Post-antebellum South
Postbellum American literature was filled with stories of love, hope, and the ideas of freedom. Other topics that also emerged during that time were racial identity and interracial relations or marriages between blacks and whites. Charles W. Chesnutt and Kate Chopin both wrote about racial identity and interracial relationships, but they wrote them in different ways and outcomes. Due to both authors being raised around the same of the Civil War and having lived in the south, these authors wrote the truth about their own experiences and what they saw. By looking at Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth” and Kate Chopin’s “Désirée’s Baby”, two different sides of interracial relationships in the Post-Bellum south can be seen.
Charles W. Chesnutt was the son of free blacks who had left their native city of Fayetteville, N.C., prior to the American Civil War. Chesnutt was well educated and became a writer who centered his writings around stories about slavery. Although he was a fair skinned black man, he encouraged blacks of all shades to embrace their heritage. Because of his outstanding writing skills, and perhaps the fact that many readers were unaware that Chestnut was a black man at first, he became one of the first black fiction writers ever to be taken seriously by a white press. This idea of a black person staying true to their past is highly portrayed in Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth”.
In this story, Chesnutt presents the struggles of mixed-raced African Americans in the latter part of the 19th century as they sought to define their place in American Society. The main character, Mr. Ryder, is a light skinned black man who commonly is seen as white. Mr. Ryder is the president of the blue vein society, which is a group of people who are also mixed raced and considered “white” because of their manners and appearance. Many woman have tried to pursue him, but none of them have won him over until Ms. Dixon came to town. Molly Dixon is a fairly young widow of mixed race that Mr. Ryder falls eventually falls in love with and plans on proposing at the next Blue Vein society ball. However, Mr. Ryder is faced with some difficulties when an old, dark skinned woman by the name of Liza Jane shows up at his door looking for her husband, Sam Taylor, for the past 25 years. After Liza Jane explains that she helped her husband escape slavery and had been looking for him every since, it is clear to Mr. Ryder that he is in fact the husband that she has been looking for. At the ball, Mr. Ryder recounts the story of Liza Jane to the guest. Afterwards he asked the audience whether they think that the man in the story should have acknowledged the woman he has outgrown as his wife. All Mr. Ryder’s guests including Molly Dixon agree that the man should acknowledge his wife, upon which he leaves. After a moment he returns with Liza Jane and introduces her as “the wife of his youth”. Although Mr. Ryder does did not accept his race and heritage before Liza Jane arrived, he finally comes to a consensus and learns to do so. Kate Chopin writes a story with a different point of view in which race and heritage is not accepted.
In Kate Chopin’s “Désirée’s Baby”, Désiréewas found as a child by Monsieur Valmonde, a wealthy French Creole who owns a plantation in Louisiana. The Valmondes decided to raise Désirée as their daughter, doting on her because they were never able to have children of their own. One day, Désirée’s neighbor, Armand Aubigny, sees her standing by the gate and immediately falls in love. Despite protests from his wealthy family, Armand decides to marry the nameless, mysterious Désirée, whose family history is unknown. Désirée and Armand eventually get married and have a baby together. Their marriage, once so passionate and loving, turns bitter and resentful when the baby is revealed to be part African American. Armand accuses Désirée of being black. Distraught, she takes the baby and walks off into the wilderness, never to be seen again. Later, while burning Désirée’s things, Armand reads a scrap of one of his mother’s letters, in which she thanks God for keeping her secret that Armand is part black.
Both Chesnutt and Chopin’s stories are centered around interracial relationships and the struggle to accept one’s race and heritage. Although these stories have the same theme, they are written with two different outcomes that display the complexity of racial acceptance in society during the post-antebellum period in the south. Looking at these works, many comparisons can be made about America’s past through these stories. Even though these stories may not be historically accurate, they give the tone and ideas about America’s past and culture.
- ‘An Ante-Bellum Sermon by Dunbar.’ An Ante-Bellum Sermon by Dunbar. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2019.
- Chopin, Kate. The Awakening, With a Selection of Short Stories. New York: Bantam Classic , 2003.
- ARNER, ROBERT D. “Pride and Prejudice: Kate Chopin’s ‘Desiree’s Baby.’” The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 2, 1972, pp. 131–140. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26473994.
- Socken, June. “Charles Waddell Chesnutt and the Solution to the Race Problem.” Negro American Literature Forum, vol. 3, no. 2, 1969, pp. 52–56. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3041383.
- JONES, BERNIE D. Fathers of Conscience: Mixed-Race Inheritance in the Antebellum South. University of Georgia Press, 2009. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46n7r6.
- ‘An Ante-Bellum Sermon by Dunbar.’ An Ante-Bellum Sermon by Dunbar. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Feb. 2015.
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