Saturday, August 19, 2006

My Full-Time Literature Journey Begins

By design, I feel I am being moved toward the literature and history of America written during the mid19th century. Part of that, I am certain, is due in part of the school’s curriculum. That I’ve had to take a history class documenting our country’s past up until the Civil War was no accident. And, that I’ve signed up for two American literature classes, one of which is modern, with my gutsy, Southern, blond advisor was calculated. Refreshing, her classes don’t just focus on the dead, white men of our literary past, but seems to incorporate at least the African, Latin, Native and feminine aspects of our American canon.

Last night I begin reading assignments in a collection published by the Houghton Mifflin Company called The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume C, Late Nineteenth Century 1865-1910. This collection includes works by Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, José Martí, Sarah Winnemucca, and Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton.

I read a short story by Charles W. Chestnutt, The Wife of His Youth, which is the story of a light-skinned, black man, Mr. Ryder, who has escaped his African past by becoming the upstanding representative of a group of equally light-skinned, African-Americans, nicknamed the Blue Veins by the darker-skinned blacks. The purpose of the Blue Veins was “to establish and maintain correct social standards among a people whose social condition presented almost unlimited room for improvement.” After twenty-five years, Mr. Ryder comes literally face-to-face with his slave past, as both of his masks confront one another in the mirror.

As with The Bondwoman’s Narrative and The Known World, Chestnutt appears to confront the duality of existence among African-Americans finding their way out of slavery and poverty, which they seem to have to achieve by denying the very essence of who they are. There is a view of the construction of the Black Middle-Class that needs to be revisited to better understand and confront the masks we currently don and the complex relationship African-Americans has with itself, which is rooted in the complicated institution of slavery.


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