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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.
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