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."
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...
(The entire section is 1,159 words.)