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[443] The House Behind the Cedars – Charles W. Chesnutt

” For he had always been, in a figurative sense, a naturalized foreigner in the world of wide opportunity, and Rena was one of his compatriots, whom he was glad to welcome into the populous loneliness of his adopted country. ” (VII 45)

Published in 1900, The House Behind the Cedars focuses on passing, a social practice in which light-skinned African Americans would present themselves as whites. The novel begins with John Warwick’s return to his home to seek out his mother an younger sister. John Warwick was actually born John Walden; by some good chance he is of lighter skin and can pass as white. To further eradicate the vestige of his blackness, he changes his name to an old Anglo-Saxon one. He marries a southern white in South Carolina and on the strength of her family connection, he is admitted to the South Carolina bar. He becomes a prominent attorney as a white man.

‘You want to be a lawyer . . . You are aware, of course, that you are a Negro?’
‘I am white,’ replied the lad, turning back his sleeve and holding out his arm, ‘and I am free, as all my people were before me . . .’
‘You are black, my lad, and you are not free . . .’
‘A Negro is black; I am white, and not black.’ (XIII 113)

As a little boy, right off the bat John makes clear his sense of who he is racially. This dialogue is troubling because it says that being black is a liability; that blacks want to be white. (Remember this was 1900) When a business matter brings him within the proximity of his hometown, he feels compelled to visit his family. In his desire to rescue his sister from a “sordid existence” (19) and a life devoid of opportunity, we also see John Warwick’s apparent desire to be white (and thus disconnected from his family, his root, and his tradition) means something far different from what the words say. He would certainly not have opted to be white only; he wants opportunities and a level of life generally unavailable to blacks. The question that the novel addresses, therefore, is one of class and not simply race.

Such people were, for the most part, merely on the ragged edge of the white world, seldom rising above the level of overseers, or slave-catchers, or sheriff’s officers, who could usually be relied upon to resent the drop of black blood that tainted them, and with the zeal of the proselyte to visit their hatred of it upon the unfortunate blacks that fell into their hands. (XIII 79)

Rena is not as lucky passing as a white. Although she seamlessly makes entry into white social sphere and is soon engaged to a young aristocrat, George Tryon, the accidental revelation of her racial identity ruins her love and imminent marriage. Tron feels he has been a victim of a fraud in which “a negro gril had been foisted upon him for a white woman,” (96) and his courtship with her has been “an inpardonable sin against his race.” (86) As his love and yearning give way to anger and disgust, he rejects his betrothed and Rena falls gravely ill. The novel then takes a sentimental course to reach its tragic end.

The House Behind the Cedars is about a young woman who fights for love and opportunity against the ranked forces of a pernicious society poised on racism, against immemorial tradition, and against family pride. However sentimental it might read, it is a beautiful novel about someone, deep in the misery that her own race subjects her, fully realizes her racial consciousness. Rena is at first identified far more by reference to class and gender than to race, but her later obligation to further the well-being of her race shows that her compulsion stems from her realization of the connection between race and domesticity. Rena demonstrates a moral obligation thrust upon her by her realization that her racial identity is inescapable. The book might not resonate as much now as it did when it was published, but it’s significant in its cause all the same.

195 pp. Penguin Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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