Blood versus Environment

The Race Problem has been a lasting impediment deeply rooted in American history "which will probably continue to vex us as long as the Negro in this country exists in the public consciousness as something distinct from the ordinary citizen, and whose rights, privileges and opportunities are to be measured by some different standard from that applied to the rest of the community" (letter to Robert Anderson, September 18,1904). As a realistic solution, Chesnutt proposed giving Negroes Equal Rights, while recognizing racial intermixing, the joining of whites and blacks to produce ‘mulattoes’ (i.e. the merge of both races rendering them equal), as the ideal solution to eradicating racial prejudice in the Nation. However, the whites used biology to make a differentiation between the two races through blood by giving an abstract or social idea a concrete or biological form, which resulted in the birth of the Miscengenation Laws. These laws aimed to preserve property in the white race, prevent upward social mobility of blacks via marriage, and most of all, maintain the domineering power (derived from slavery) over the blacks in the name of national identity. Nevertheless, Chesnutt’s novel The House Behind the Cedars, advocates that a person’s race is determined by one’s environment and society, and not by blood or skin color. It is through the portrayal of the two main characters John Warwick and Rena Walden’s life that Chesnutt clearly illustrated the consequences encountered by the two young mulattoes as a result of crossing the colorline and trying to ‘pass as whites’ in Clarence, South Carolina.

John’s successful fate in comparison to his sister, Rena’s omnious fate as "whites," was partially due to the fact that South Carolina was a liberal state which made it easier to pass as "whites" there than in the conservative North Carolina state of John and Rena’s hometown. While John enjoyed the advantages of passing as a white person, it is Rena who suffered the punishments for impersonating a white person in Clarence. In Patesville, North Carolina, Rena Walden led a happy and satisfying African-American life until her brother unexpectedly showed up one day and lured her with the South Carolinian treasures belonging exclusively to white people, into joining him in Clarence. Succumbing to temptation, Rena was uprooted and immediately spoiled with the luxurious privileges of whites, which included falling in love with a white, rich, prominent man, George Tryon. To clear her conscious concerning her racial identity, Rena asked her lover, "Would you love me….if I were Albert’s nurse yonder?" to which George lovingly replied, "If you were Albert’s nurse….he should find another within a week, for within a week we should be married" (House Behind the Cedars, 59). With this confirmation from her lover and without giving a second thought for other interpretation of George’s response as alluding to low social class than with her skin color, Rena blindly sets the wedding date ignorant of the possibility that her lover was more racially prejudice than class discriminative.

However, the day George Tryon spotted her in Patesville, North Carolina and learned the truth about her blood –tainted with color, Rena Warwick’s clock struck midnight and her Cinderella fantasy ended. Even though outraged, Tryon was able to distinguish between John and Rena. This is evident when Mr. Tryon breaks the engagement off with Rena while reassuring his friend and Rena’s brother, "that I shall say nothing about this affair, and that I shall keep your secret as though it were my own. Personally, I shall never be able to think of you as other than a white man, as you may gather from the tone of this letter; and while I cannot marry your sister, I wish her every happiness" (103). Mr. Tryon’s fear, reflected in his letter and the withdrawal of his marriage proposal, illustrated that it was about bloods mixing more than skin color. The idea of blood mixing between two races added greater weight in Tryon’s eyes than the environment shaping John’s success in life. Specifically, Tryon was concerned with Rena’s tainted blood mixing with his family’s pure white blood. Thus, devastated to learn her fiance did find her African-American lineage worse than her belonging to a low class family, Rena remained in Patesville with her mother, where she is known under her black name, Rena Walden. In the end, Rena symbolized how a person stuck straddling the colorline, can lead to one’s death as her fate turned fatal with the chase by George Tryon (white) and Mr. Wain (black). Rena’s tragic ending due to her society’s expectations, reflected the fatal consequences of not committing herself to either convincingly pass as a white or completely accepting to be black.

Meanwhile, John’s destiny seems to pave a positive picture about crossing the colorline for educational, economical and social gains. It is Judge Straight who showed John that race was not entirely determined by blood but by one’s environment when he suggested, "you need not be black away from Patesville. You have the somewhat unusual privilege, it seems, of choosing between two races…As you have all the features of a white man, you would, at least in South Carolina, have simply to assume the place and exercise the privileges of a white man. You might, of course, do the same thing anywhere, as long as no one knew your origin" (115). Consequently, John Warwick, became a successful lawyer who married into a white, rich woman’s family, and later, inherited all the white property –beating the central fear of whites in keeping property out of the grasps of blacks.

In other words, John successfully moved upward in society as a distinguished white man into a prestigious house, "situated in the outskirts of the town…a fine plantation house, built in colonial times, with a stately colonnade, wide verandas, and long windows with Venetian blinds. It was painted white, and stood back several rods from the street, in a charming setting of palmettoes, magnolias, and flowering shrubs. Rena had always thought her mother’s house large, but now it seemed cramped and narrow, in comparison with this roomy mansion" (43) –another cultural sign of prosperity and whiteness not determined by skin color or blood. In fact, this illustrated the upward mobility possible of blacks and the snatching of white property right from underneath the white people’s noses:

the spreading antlers on the wall testified to a mighty hunter in some past generation. The property of Warwick’s wife’s ancestors –high-featured, proud men and women, dressed in the fashions of a bygone age—looked down from tarnished gilt frames…When [eating]off china, with silver knives and forks that had come down as heirlooms, escaping somehow the ravages and exigencies of the war time…[Rena] thought that her brother must be very wealthy, and she felt very proud of him and of her opportunity. (43) The main reason why the white race devised the "one-drop-rule" blood differentiation was to preserve their superiority, property and power over the newly freed blackmen. It was a way to breakdown ancestral heritage in a biological way just to keep the races separate and represent the "threatening clash and conjunction of difference" in wanting to preserve the social system where wealth was land and slaves before the Civil War (Saks, 42). Once slavery was abolished, the white people realized that the only way to ensure the black people would never supercede them in society, they needed a concrete racial barrier. Thus, the whites turned to the "one-drop-rule" knowing the former slaves were currently landless and would remain as such as long as no inter-racial marriages occurred, allowing them opportunities of upward mobility. Yet, as illustrated through John’s prosperous life in Clarence, the ‘one-drop" rule proved powerless in keeping property and wealth within the white race and separate from the ‘tainted’ race.

More over, the symbolism carried out to the physical house description level in the novel reinforces the power of environment and culture over the belief of blood and nature in determining a race black or white. For instance, in Patesville, "the house stood on a corner, around which the cedar hedge turned, continuing along the side of the garden until it reached the line of the front of the house. The piazza to a rear wing, at right angles to the front of the house, was open to inspection from the side street, which, to judge from its deserted look, seem to be but little used," was situated in an aristocratic manner like George Tryon’s estate is located on the Hill (8). In comparison to the rest of its neighborhood homes, the exterior of the house implied it belonging to a white person; when in reality, it belonged to the same race as its black neighbors. Hence, the color of the outer skin of the house deceptively masked the true tainted inhabitants inside, just like mulatto’s light skin color masked their tainted blood running within them.

In short, Chesnutt’s fiction was heavily based in factual arguments and current social issues of his time that were intertwined into his works, such as in his novel, The House Behind the Cedars. John Warwick, as his "white" last name implies, successfully passed as a white person in Clarence, South Carolina, while Rena Walden failed because her black heritage established in Patesville surfaced to kill her "white" life as Rena Warwick. Therefore, through the symbolic representations of two siblings, John Warwick and Rena Walden, Chesnutt clearly demonstrated that ‘whiteness’ is determined by one’s social environment and not by one’s blood.

 This page is the work of Rashmi Chidanand
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