What is the Blue Vein Society in The Wife of His Youth?
The narrator tells us the following:
The original Blue Veins were a little society of colored persons organized in a certain Northern city shortly after the war. Its purpose was to establish and maintain correct social standards among a people whose social condition presented almost unlimited room for improvement. By accident, combined perhaps with some natural affinity, the society consisted of individuals who were, generally speaking, more white than black.
The story is set not very long after the Civil War, approximately twenty-five years, and individuals of mixed race are in a somewhat unique social position. Many of these individuals appear to be more white than black, but they feel themselves to be neither white nor black. The Blue Vein Society was evidently created in order to work out and make public the social norms for this particular group. Many, like the protagonist, Mr. Ryder, feel that the
Fate [of mixed-race individuals] lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black. The one doesn’t want [them] yet, but may take [them] in time. The other would welcome [them], but it would be for [them] a backward step. "With malice towards none, with charity for all," [they feel they] must do the best [they] can for [them]selves and those who are to follow [them].
Thus, the members of the Blue Vein Society do not feel at home in either group, being neither white nor black. With the creation of their society, they can come together as their own group, finding some strength and meaning in their shared struggles and victories, doing the best they can for themselves and their children, as Mr. Ryder says.
The Blue Vein Society was one of several exclusive social clubs formed by upwardly-mobile African Americans whose skin was light enough to allow them to pass as white. The "blue vein" test was one of several that some light-skinned African Americans used to distance themselves from those who were darker. The "paper-bag test" was a test in which one's skin color was compared to a paper bag. Only those who were the same color as the bag or lighter could gain membership to the group they were trying to join.
Though it is possible that members of the society found solace in their mutual sense of not quite belonging to either the black community or the white one, very often these societies were designed to establish light-skinned people as separate from and better than those who were darker. This was a belief carried over from slavery, when, on some plantations, lighter-skinned slaves (often the offspring of masters) were granted favor (e.g., the old clothes of mistresses and masters and easier jobs working as house servants) over those who were darker.
The desire to maintain proximity to whiteness, both as a result of the internalization of racism, which taught black people to believe that whites were better by virtue of skin color, as well as the hope to "pass" as white to gain equal treatment and social privileges greatly influenced the choices of people like Mr. Ryder, who initially disowned his darker-skinned wife in favor of an easier, more privileged life.
In Charles Chesnutt's story "The Wife of His Youth," written in 1898, the issue of race is central to the story. The protagonist, Mr. Ryder, is a light-complexioned African-American man who belongs to a society known informally as the Blue Vein Society. They are called this because people say that only those individuals whose skin is light enough to see their blue veins are allowed into the society. This then suggests that African-Americans who have darker complexions would not be allowed entry. The ideal the society aspired to was a lighter skinned, more educated, cultured African-American individual, therefore they excluded darker skinned people. In writing about such a society, Chesnutt brings attention to the challenges of African-Americans after the Civil War and the end of slavery--how they fit into society, how they were treated, and the perception of light and dark skinned individuals.