Skyller Walkes

Black Lit. Sem.


The Black Martyr

Charles Chesnutt makes significant use of his female characters in most of his fiction writings. Because his writing themes concentrate around issues of the color line, Black female characters are often present, but usually in the role of the sidelined, tortured, protagonist. More specifically, the Black female in Chesnutt's writings is the martyr or sacrament in the story that relinquishes something sacred to satisfy a white social standard. This sacrifice is usually at the expense of a Black character for a white society cause. Or the inverse is equally true. The Black female characters are themselves sacrificed for a service cause. This is evident in both Chesnutt's novel The House Behind the Cedars and two of the short stories "Her Virginia Mammy" and "The Wife of His Youth," both contained in the compilation of short stories of the same title.

In the case of The House Behind the Cedars the martyr was racially mixed Rena Walden, who is considered socially Black because of the "one -drop" rule in effect at the time. However, when Rena attempts to live as a white woman in South Carolina under the advise of her brother who is also "passing," her experiment tragically goes awry and ultimately results in her loss of everything including her life. In "The Wife of His Youth," the forgotten wife Liza Jane is a Black woman who has been on a search to unite with her "long-lost husband." Her husband is now known as Mr. Ryder and is apart of the exclusive Blue Vein Society for very fair-skinned Blacks. However, this woman unknowingly finds her husband, only to be denied and turned away until he chooses to acknowledge the taint of his past. In the last short story "Her Virginia Mammy" Chesnutt foreshadows what is implied about the Black female martyr in this story. Clara, a racially mixed, character who is unsure of her parentage, clings to her Black nanny Mrs. Harper for any answers that she could offer Clara concerning her racial heritage. Clara's anxieties generate from not knowing if she is purely white and thus, worthy of marrying a white man who loves her. Wanting so desperately, to alleviate some of Clara's pain, Mrs. Harper tells a fantastic story that explains how Clara was separated from her white parents who Mrs. Harper personally knew after they died. Naturally, this was all of the affirmation that Clara needed to go on and live her life wholly.

It is important to recognize that each of these story lines share a core premise. Each of the Black women forfeit something for the love or well being of someone else, or are sacrificed for the well-being of some else. Rena is an example of this selfless martyrdom because she sacrifices her life in white society and ultimately herself so that she won't jeopardize her brother's white living status or have to suffer the humiliation of being discarded by her white fiancé. Initially, Rena returns to North Carolina to tend to her sick mother, but while there she is coincidentally seen by her white fiancé. Because she is too shamefaced to confront her fiancé after he discovers her true racial identity, she decides to stay close to home and teach Black youth while toiling over her unhappy and destitute situation. Chesnutt illustrates Rena's sacramental mind-set in the following,

Although the whole fabric of Rena's new life toppled and fell with her lover's defection, her sympathies, broadened by culture and still more by her recent emotional experience, did not shrink, as would have been the case for a more selfish soul, to the mere limits of her personal sorrow, great as this seemed at the moment. (The House Behind the Cedars, 130)

This description of Rena is evident of the amount of sacrifice that Rena willingly undergoes for the mere principle of utility. This same martyrdom for the good of someone else is seemingly a pattern in the next two short stories. In "The Wife of His Youth," Liza Jane sacrifices twenty-five of her youth looking for her "Sam." Sadly, she was discarded and tossed aside by Mr. Ryder, who denied her the truth to her face. He consciously discards her because she is a part of a past that he would like to erase and no longer acknowledge because he has arrived to a place, "…for the high average of intelligence and culture that distinguished…" him and others like him ("The Wife of His Youth," 17). It is not until he is counseled by the other partygoers to actually acknowledge his past wife. Even Mr. Ryder's attempt to explain the truth to his social peers, he does it safely under the guise of an "I know of a man who…" story, which would protect him no matter what his peers advised. Therefore, even in this case which turned out to benefit Liza Jane, she was still at her husband's mercy. She was acknowledged, but only after being denounced in the beginning. In "Her Virginia Mammy," the Black martyr is Mrs. Harper, who Chesnutt implies to be Clara's true mother. The implications are pronounced enough for the reader to draw this conclusion. In fact, Chesnutt describes the two women with a shared likeness.

As they stood…. the mirror reflecting and framing their image, more than one point of resemblance between them was emphasized. There was something of the same oval face, and in Clara's hair a faint suggestion of the wave in the older woman's {Mrs. Harper}; and though Clara was fairer of complexion, and her eyes were gray and the other's black, there was visible, under the influence of the momentary excitement, one of those indefinable likenesses which are at times encountered, - sometimes marking blood. ("The Wife of His Youth," 49).

This is a confirmation to the reader that the two women one Black and the other "white" share some kinship, more than likely, that of mother and daughter. Nevertheless, Mrs. Harper keeps the truth from her daughter so that Clara can fulfill her wish of relishing blindly in a white life. Once again, the martyr is the Black female who is always so willingly ready to give up some aspect of her life and happiness for someone else, and in turn be left to wallow in the sorrow of their own loss.

The losses that each of these women suffer is immeasurable. Rena lost her happiness in a society that would never accept her for what she really was, her fiancé, and eventually her life. Liza Jane, dedicated to a love in her past, lost many years of her life searching for a man who was ready to deny her for the luxury of living a pretentious life. Mrs. Harper lost her daughter to a lie that she told to keep Clara's myth of being white alive. In fact, Mrs. Harper's cause perpetuated a false consciousness for her daughter. Of course the acts of these Black women are honorable, but it is also somewhat suspect. Why is it that Chesnutt's Black female characters are made to give up their loves, hopes, dreams, and ultimately their dignity at the unrewarding expense of someone else? Although society seemed to have no place for racially mixed people, and individuals were fighting against a precedent established and divided by a color line, one must question the role placed upon each of the Black female characters in Chesnutt's writings. Ultimately Chesnutt's patterns confirm that each of these martyr's sacrifices was a white society's gain, and a Black person's loss.