What is the author's message about the relationship between race and identity?
The author's message seems to center around the idea that race is not the most important part of one's identity; one's character is of far greater importance. Mr. Ryder hosts a ball during which he intends to propose to Mrs. Molly Dixon, a match that "would help to further the upward process of absorption he had been wishing and waiting for." He has feelings for her, to be sure, but part of the reason he desires the marriage is because it will help him continue his ascent within "Blue Vein" society and increase his status.
Then, Liza Jane arrives, "so black that her toothless gums . . . were not red, but blue." She is sure her husband has been looking for her, just as she has been looking for him since the Civil War ended when slavery was abolished. Ryder suggests that he is dead, but she feels certain she has received signs that he is not. Ryder suggests that he could be remarried, but she says, "He wouldn' marry no yuther 'ooman 'tel he foun' out 'bout me. I knows it." Ryder suggests that, perhaps, he has "outgrown [her]" and might no longer want to be found, but Liza Jane says that "Sam ain' dat kin' er man. He wuz good ter me." She is so convinced of her husband's loyalty and love that she cannot imagine any situation in which he might have stopped looking for and caring about her. When Ryder tells the story at the ball, he says the following:
Such devotion and confidence are rare even among women. There are many who would have searched a year, some who would have waited five years, a few who might have hoped ten years; but for twenty-five years this woman has retained her affection for and her faith in a man she has not seen or heard of in all that time.
He is clearly moved by Liza Jane's behavior and steadfastness and how she has made it her life's goal to find her husband once more. His "blue vein" friends are touched by the story, and even Mrs. Dixon says that this man ought to acknowledge his wife, confirming the decision Ryder has already made. Regardless of her dark complexion, her low status, her lack of education, and her inability to assist him socially, he has realized that her loyalty, love, and character trump everything else. What is most important about her identity is this devotion, and, ultimately, whether or not he shares that devotion and loyalty is the most important aspect of his own identity.
Although Charles W. Chesnett wrote “The Wife of His Youth,” in 1898, its message about race and identity is still relevant today. The protagonist, Mr. Ryder, left his identity of a young free Black man when he escaped the night before he was to be sold. Even though he was a free man, the owner of the house at which he worked was going to sell him off. Not only did he leave the life of a field hand, he also left behind his wife. Over a period of 35 years, he changed his inner identity based on his outward appearance. He explains that his appearance assisted his upward rise in culture, employment, and class because he was white enough for his “blue veins” to show through his skin. He never looked back, except in his dreams, to the time when he was a piece of property. That is until his still uncultured Black wife, who searched for him for thirty-five years, appears at his door asking his assistance in finding her husband. Mr. Ryder explains to her that her husband could be dead or remarried. She replies that he would not do that; she knows he would look for her. Her timing is uncanny because it is the night that Mr. Ryder planned to ask another, whiter woman, to marry him, which he felt would bring him more class and culture. When he realizes that he is the Black cook’s husband, he has to make a decision. Should he be true to the wife he left thirty-five years ago, or should he propose to the cultured woman he met recently? What would be the best for him who worked so hard to be socially mobile in an upward direction?
He tells the story of the woman’s visit at a dinner party for people from his Blue Vein club. He does so without revealing who the characters are, and asks them what the man should do. As he tells the story, some of the women present are moved to tears when just prior to the dinner they were seen laughing at the old Black cook who visited Mr. Ryder.
How did race play into Mr. Ryder’s identity? He believed that the whiter he became the more class he would have until he met his Black identity in the form of his first wife. She showed that true character transcends race, as she remained loyal to him for years believing that he would do the same for her.