The Chesnutt Files

The Atlantic, which recently freed up its archives, is pointing readers toward a handful of stories by Charles W. Chesnutt, “the first African-American novelist to be published on a national scale.” One of the featured stories, “The Wife of His Youth,” has a very formulaic turn at the end, but it’s an interesting study of passing. The story’s hero, Mr. Ryder, is a member of the Blue Veins, a society of light-skinned black gentry. He’s hosting a ball in advance of his marriage:

“I have no race prejudice,” he would say, “but we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black. The one 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. ‘With malice towards none, with charity for all,’ we must do the best we can for ourselves and those who are to follow us. Self-preservation is the first law of nature.”

His ball would serve by its exclusiveness to counteract leveling tendencies, and his marriage with Mrs. Dixon would help to further the upward process of absorption he had been wishing and waiting for.

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