Last Updated on July 29, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 320
A man named Mr. Ryder, a popular man and a leader within the Blue Vein Society (a group of African Americans with such light skin that the color of their veins is visible), plans to hold a ball, during which he will ask Mrs. Molly Dixon, a widow, to be...
(The entire section contains 1159 words.)
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A man named Mr. Ryder, a popular man and a leader within the Blue Vein Society (a group of African Americans with such light skin that the color of their veins is visible), plans to hold a ball, during which he will ask Mrs. Molly Dixon, a widow, to be his bride. He is, apparently, a "mulatto": someone with one white parent and one black. Mrs. Dixon is even lighter-skinned than he. Mr. Ryder has high hopes for their life together, believing that their marriage will help people like them to come closer to being accepted by whites. However, in the day leading up to the ball, a small, old, "very black" woman arrives at his door. She asks after Mr. Ryder, and her speech betrays a lack of education: she is the veritable opposite of Mrs. Dixon. She introduces herself and explains that she's been looking for her husband (from her years enslaved) for decades, as she's sure he's still alive. She asks for his help in finding this man, showing him an old picture.
That night, the ball is beautiful. Mr. Ryder stands to make a toast, and he speaks on the "fidelity and devotion" of women. He tells the story of this woman and her search, and then he presents a hypothetical (which is really his own story about searching for her briefly after the war and, being unable to find her, moving north to make his way in the world). He asks the company what this hypothetical man should do, even if he'd set his heart upon another, even if this first wife was quite old and very dark and would prevent him from continuing his progress toward acceptance by whites. They all agree that this man should acknowledge her as his wife, and Mr. Ryder thanks them. He then brings out Liza Jane, the little old woman, to present as "the wife of [his] youth."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 839
The story begins with a description of the Blue Vein Society, a social club of mixed-blood African Americans living in the North after the Civil War. While membership criteria were ostensibly based on a person’s social standing, everyone in Groveland, Ohio, knows that only those persons whose skin is light enough to show blue veins are asked to join. Mr. Ryder, a single, light-skinned man who has achieved a respected position in the railroad company over twenty-five years, is called “the dean of the Blue Veins.” Possessing impeccable manners, a passion for British poetry, and a tastefully furnished and comfortable house, Ryder has arrived at the height of social standing and is ready to ask the beautiful, educated, and accomplished widow, Mrs. Molly Dixon from Washington, D.C., to marry him.
Not only is Ryder attracted to this young woman, but he also sees such a marriage as his social responsibility to “lighten” the race—the only means available for mixed-race people to assimilate into the larger white society. He explains that he is not prejudiced toward those of darker complexion, but that he regards mixed-blood people as unique: “Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black. The one doesn’t want us yet, but may take us in time. The other would welcome us, but it would be for us a backward step.” The joining of two such respected and accomplished mulattoes as Ryder and Molly Dixon is, for Ryder, a serious social and political obligation.
To honor Dixon, Ryder decides to give a ball in her honor; this will give him an opportunity to propose to her and also allow him to host an event that will mark a new epoch in the social history of Groveland. Only the best people—those with the best standing, manners, and complexion—will be invited. Critical of the growing laxity in social matters among even members of his own set, he wants to demonstrate to the community the standards that he considers proper to maintain.
On the day of Ryder’s great ball, he relaxes on his porch as he debates which passage of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s love poetry about fair damsels would most honor Dixon. An old black woman wearing a blue calico dress and a red shawl, who looks like a bit of old plantation life, approaches Ryder and identifies herself as Liza Jane, a former slave from Missouri. Before the Civil War she was married to a free-born mulatto named Sam Taylor, who was indentured to her master and nearing the end of his commitment. Her unprincipled master was so desperate for money that he planned to sell Taylor, although he did not legally own him. When the woman discovered her master’s plan, she urged her husband to flee to freedom. Taylor promised to return for his wife, but her angry master sold her down the river and she never saw Taylor again. For twenty-five years, however, she has been looking for him: first all over the South—from New Orleans to Atlanta to Charleston—and now in the North. Liza Jane asks for Ryder’s help in locating her long-lost husband.
After listening patiently and patronizingly to the old woman while examining her old daguerreotype portrait of her missing husband, Ryder tells her that he cannot help her. He promises to look into the matter, then goes upstairs to his bedroom and stands for a long time, gazing thoughtfully at his own reflection in a mirror.
That evening, Ryder’s home is filled with the most prestigious of Groveland’s African American citizens—teachers, doctors, lawyers, editors, and army officers. Although they are considered “colored,” most of them would not attract even a casual glance because of any marked difference from white people. When Ryder finally stands to deliver his toast to Dixon, he does not quote Tennyson. Instead, he recounts his afternoon visit with the old black woman. Then, to the surprise of his guests, he poses a hypothetical question: What would any of them do if they were the young man for whom Liza Jane was looking? What if this young mulatto man had made his way in the world from his humble beginnings, had educated himself, had established himself in his community, had achieved a high social position, and had become a different person than he had been when he married as a young man? Discovering that his wife—who is older than he, uneducated, dark-skinned, and lowly—what would any of them have done? Would they have claimed their spouse?
After an uncomfortable silence, Dixon states, “He should have acknowledged her.” It is then that Ryder, turning to his afternoon visitor, who is now neatly dressed in gray, and wearing the white cap of an elderly woman, announces to the elite Blue Vein Society, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the woman, and I am the man, whose story I have told you. Permit me to introduce to you the wife of my youth.”