Wife of His Youth
by Dean Franco
I happened to be reading Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, when videos of Jeremiah White, Barak Obama’s former pastor, began circulating widely in the media. “Great!,” I thought, “here in living color is a masterful rhetorician straight out of Ellison’s novel!” Nothing he said struck me as either shockingly new or especially appalling. I had also recently read Toni Morrison’s novel, Paradise, with its own representation of black liberation theology and versions of “God Damn America.” Besides, I became conscious of politics during the Reagan years, and since then I have watched the televangelist godfathers of the GOP blame everything from earthquakes, to hurricanes, to 9-11 itself on gays and lesbians, and Jews. I knew that another outrageous pastor was not what disturbed so many Americans. Rather, it was Wright’s betrayal of a certain vision of blackness that was so upsetting. Wright’s sermons testified to the gap between the futuristic panache of Obama—a handsome, moderate sounding, black man who promised to unify America—and this seething anger that seemed to belong to an entirely other time. For at least some who are captivated by Obama, the candidate represents “race without race,” and the future disarticulated from the past. When Obama appears on TV speaking fluently about uniting America, drawing on a rhetorical tradition that is centuries old and always flattering to our nation’s finest self-conception, white Americans may look up and think, “now that’s my kind of black man.” But Jeremiah Wright—what is this? What does his blackness have to do with Obama’s?
Let us call it a tension between the black American past and the specular black future. If the colorline is the story of the twentieth century, we may yet long for a color-free future, and a race-transcendent black man to lead us there. This is the future of epiphenomenal incidentality, where people just “happen to be black,” or white or whatever—it doesn’t really matter—in contrast to the past, where race was the matter. Naturally, all such wishful thought about the future is a reading of the present. It tells us what people want America to be, and what they cannot abide. For many, a Barak Obama presidency would be a victory for race relations and at the very same time it would signal that the story of race in America was finally over.
I’ve heard that story before. In Ellison’s Invisible Man, the eponymous protagonist also longs to be a uniting figure and a leader of his race, but the legacies of slavery and the humiliations of segregation continually catch up with him. While junior at a Tuskegee-like college, he takes a white Trustee, Mr. Norton, on a country drive. Norton is a “great white father” type, and he continually tells the narrator, “your future is my fate,” by which he means Invisible Man’s assigned future as a leader of the race will confirm the trustee’s hope of living in a world where the race-problem is somehow solved. The setting for the conversation is instructive for the present: Norton is in the back, the narrator is driving the car. But Norton’s seeming passivity is belied by the fact that he commands the car, without saying a word. And there we are, I think—we’re all in the back of the car, passively hoping to be driven around by The Chosen one, our fate and future, Barack Obama, all the while with a mental roadmap of the future that may be more utopian than realistic. It is that passivity that is killing me now. Of course, any of us can put a hand on the wheel and become active campaigners, and many of us have. But somehow we have ended up in a scenario wherein only Obama can take us into the future. And we all wonder, how will he handle the Wright issue during the general election? What will people say about his wife, Michelle? We sit back and wait . . .
Invisible Man is himself thrown off the path by Norton’s position, not to mention the oddball questions—“your fate? . . . I’m only in my junior year”—and he accidentally drives Norton off the pre-approved campus tour, ending up among the vestiges of a former slave plantation. There they meet the “peasants” as the narrator calls them: “We were trying to lift them up and they . . . did everything it seemed to pull us down” (47). For exposing the white Trustee to memories of plantation life Invisible Man is sacked from the college. He protests to the college president, explaining, “I was only trying to please him,” to which the president responds, “Please him? And here you are a junior in college! Why, the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie!” (139). Ellison’s novel ends with his protagonist embracing the whole of his life’s history, fully formed by his racial experience, but not wholly defined by it: “I was my experiences and my experiences were me” (508). The compelling declaration notwithstanding, Invisible Man lives an underground life—literally, in a cellar—and Ellison would never complete another novel.
Is there a way to claim and live publicly the complexity of the African American experience that garners recognition and not invisibility? Another story from the African American canon suggests the way. Charles Chesnutt’s 1898 story, “The Wife of his Youth” is about a social-club of very light-skinned black folks living in Boston, known as “The Blue Veins” (because their skin is so fair, their blue veins are easily visible). The society sets the standards for less refined black folks, gathering for salons, dinners, and balls. The story begins with Mr. Ryder, a leading elder in the group, deciding to propose to the much younger and very fair Ms. Alexander at the upcoming ball. However, the afternoon of the ball a “very black” and “toothless” woman, a stranger, dressed in old-fashioned calico and named Liza Jane comes to see him. “She looked like a bit of the old plantation life, summoned up from the past by the wave of a magician's wand.” She is searching for her husband, whom she has not seen since before her emancipation from slavery, she explains. She is sure, though, that despite the time apart, and all the changes wrought by emancipation, reconstruction, and black migration, he is faithfully looking for her too. She has traveled all over the south and parts of the north, and upon arriving in Boston she turned to Mr. Ryder, having heard of his reputation as a leading man of his race.
Mr. Ryder tells the woman he does not know of any such man and sends her away. However, he has been false: he is her husband, she is the wife of his youth—each virtually unrecognizable to the other. That night, at the ball, Mr. Ryder is faced with a dilemma: turn his back on the wife of his youth and face the future by proposing to Ms. Alexander; or, lose the promise of marriage to this fair woman and confront the past. He makes his decision in a novel way. At the ball, he addresses the gathered society by explaining his scenario in the hypothetical. A fair skinned man, a leading figure of the race, is confronted by something ugly and shameful, the wife of his youth. Their marriage was a slave-marriage and may not be legally binding. This man, Mr. Ryder explains, is set to propose to another, to a woman he truly loves, when his former wife appears in town. After faithfully outlining the scenario, he asks “And now, ladies and gentlemen, friends and companions, I ask you, what should he have done?” The first voice to reply is Ms. Alexander, Mr Ryder’s intended: “’He should have acknowledged her.’ ‘Yes,’ [the rest] echoed, ‘he should have acknowledged her.’” Mr. Ryder announces that the woman in question is present, throws open a hallway door, and claims her as the wife of his youth.
Striking in the story is the role of story-telling itself. In order to think through his decision, Mr. Ryder divides himself into the subject and object of a story, playing the part of the erstwhile unnamed husband and the thoughtful interlocutor. He provides ample defense of the husband’s desire to remain free from the past, but presses on with his better judgment: “To thine own self be true.” He appeals to his audience as a divided man, but when he receives their affirmation that the husband should acknowledge his past he becomes once again a single whole person, and so makes his claim. Ryder tells his own story, but depends on his audience to confirm its moral. Not only do they tell him to embrace all his past, as Ellison’s narrator does, their role as witnesses means it is their past too.
When Jeremiah Wright’s sermons broke into the public sphere, there was a call for Obama to explain his relationship to his former pastor. In a profound speech, Obama braided together history, memory, and identity—the very threads running through Ellison’s and Chesnutt’s stories. In refusing to repudiate the man who officiated at his wedding and baptized his children, Obama seemed to be telling us that Wright’s angry sermons were part of a larger and infinitely complex plot that makes up the American historical narrative of race. Moving forward can never mean giving up the past. Instead, progress can only be progress when it looks clearly into the past, squares with the present, and uses these landmarks to chart the future. It is not, however, an individual project, as Chesnutt’s story makes clear, but one requiring public affirmation and integration. Obama cannot lead us anywhere by himself. If we expect him to drive the car while we sit in the backseat, he’ll surely run off the road. His past is our past, whatever our race. The collective calling out “yes” to the whole of it is the unifying gesture in Chesnutt’s story, and such a collective—and public—claiming may be the only real way to unify this country.
Dean Franco is an Associate Professor of English at Wake Forest University.