Friday, October 18, 2013

#BookReview: The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chestnutt

We’ll probably never know how many blacks become white after the Civil War due to passing. For those unfamiliar with what passing is, it's when a person from one racial group assumes the identity of another racial group, generally because they have a skin tone or features that allow them to do so. Though the subject of passing is later tackled in Nella Larsen’s 1929 Passing and 1948’s Lost Boundaries, Charles W. Chestnutt was one of the first to address it with 1900’s The House Behind the Cedars.

The story opens with the return of John Warwick to the town in North Carolina where he was formerly known as mulatto. Having lived in South Carolina for some years, where the laws governing who is and is not white are less stringent, John is no longer the same person he was when he left his mother and sister behind in their small community. Now an upstanding, white attorney, he’s returned to Patesville to convince his mother to allow his sister, Rena, to return to Clarence, South Carolina with him, where she might also pass and ascend to a higher racial and social class.

Charles W. Chestnutt
As Rena takes her place in society, she catches the eye of George Tryon, a client of John’s. Caught up in a whirlwind romance with him, Rena can’t help but to wonder if he would still love her if he knew that she was really black. Though John has no problem with passing, it becomes a source of frustration for Rena. She wants to believe that George will love her regardless and is tempted to confess to him, but to do so would out her brother.

It’s been said that Chestnutt based The House on family members. Given his appearance, he would have been a candidate to pass, but chose to identify as black.  He doesn't fault though who choose to pass.  However, it would seem that the message he sends with this story is that while passing for white can indeed move you higher up on the ladder of success, it comes with a price and ultimately it’s up to an individual to determine how much he or she is willing to pay.








320pp
Published: 1900


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