The Story behind “The House Behind the Cedars”

photo credit:  https://alchetron.com/Charles-W-Chesnutt-1199237-W

“I think I must write a book. I am almost afraid to undertake a book so early and with so little experience in composition. But it has been a cherished dream, and I feel an influence that I cannot resist calling me to the task. . . . The object of my writing would not be so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites–for I consider the unjust spirit of caste which is so insidious as to pervade a whole nation, and so powerful as to subject a whole race and all connected with it to scorn and social ostracism–I consider this a barrier to the moral progress of the American people: and I would be one of the first to head a determined, organized crusade against it.”
–Charles W. Chesnutt, journal, May 1880

“The House Behind the Cedars” written in 1900, is a story about post Civil War racial identification, prejudice, relationships and does not have a happy ending.  But, if it did, it wouldn’t make anywhere near the powerful statement that it does.

Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio on 20 June, 1858, two years before the Civil War.  He was largely self-taught, even when he took the legal bar exam in Cleveland, Ohio, and passed it.  His family moved to North Carolina and at the age of 14, he worked as a pupil-teacher at Fayetteville.  He taught at other schools for black students in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Charlotte, North Carolina.  In 1877 he became assistant principal of the “normal school” in Fayetteville.  This was one of a number of colleges established to train black teachers.  It later became Fayetteville State University.  He was a long-time supporter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  He loved literature and education.  He saw it as a way to show that not only Black lives matter, but that All lives matter.  He had good reason to believe this.

His parents were both free “blacks”.  His father was the son of an African American house slave, and her European American owner.  His mother was also bi-racial.  The word back then was mulatto.  Charles inherited enough genes from his European American ancestors to pass as “white”.  Back then that would have meant a much easier way to prosperity and financial security.  The ladder of life would not have been as hard to climb.  He chose however, to be honest with himself and his total ancestry and identified himself as “black”.  Back then, things were “black and white”, yellow and red too I suppose if you looked at Asian Americans and Native Americans.  If you didn’t label yourself, someone else would.

He married and moved his family to New York for a while and ended up back in Cleveland.  He wanted to raise his children in a more accepting atmosphere than the Southern States and appreciated the literary atmosphere New York offered.  After arriving in Cleveland and passing the bar exam, he started a very successful court reporting (legal stenographer) business.  So, when he finally put his life experiences as a “white black man” into story, he had a variety of tales to tell.  His works were widely recognized and awarded.  These works were sketches, essays, short stories and one novel, “The House Behind the Cedars”.

In short, (and this “Reader’s Digest version does the story no justice at all) Rena and John Walden are brother and sister, light skinned, African Americans or Negros as they were called then.  Okay people, it’s a word.  It comes from the Spanish word for black, “negro” (pronounced nae-grow).  Yes, it was incorrectly applied, let’s face it, no human being has truly black skin or, except for a person with Albinism, truly white skin.  Yes. it was shortened into an insult, but in this reference, it is correctly used.

John is quite a bit older than Rena and at the beginning of the story is coming home to take his sister into society.  He has changed his name to Warwick and is a prosperous “white” man.  Their mother reluctantly gives late teenaged Rena leave to go and help John with his newly motherless child.  Rena becomes enamored with high society and the finer things in life.  She is courted by a young man, a genuine European American who wishes to marry her.  Until that is, he finds out she is a “fraud”.

From the chapter “The Bottom Falls Out”.  “At first he could see nothing but the fraud of which he had been made the victim. A negro girl had been foisted upon him for a white woman, and he had almost committed the unpardonable sin against his race of marrying her.”  http://www.online-literature.com/charles-chesnutt/house-behind-the-cedars/

Rena, rejected and forcibly removed from the life she almost knew, leaves.  They try to forget each other and can’t.  She falls into a deeper and deeper depression until she returns home, physically as well as mentally ill.  He decides that she is worth being his wife no matter who she is and arrives at her mother’s house to find she has just died.

My first impression was “you’ve got to be kidding, why on earth did you write this?”  Then I put the end into historical and literary context.  Even if he would have revived her and married her, in that time their life would have been one long struggle.  He would have truly had to have loved her more than his life, and he wasn’t written that way.  The characters were basically honest, caring people who were saturated with a system that rewarded one look and punished another.  They were living inside, on both sides, societal lies and had to balance feelings and beliefs.  I realized from the way Chesnutt gave all characters, even a lowly delivery boy, quality and humanity that he was decrying the unequal treatment of his time and expressing the belief that all lives matter.

There is a slogan and an accompanying group in the news.  “Black Lives Matter.”  They do, they truly do.  However, the more I hear of and from the group, the more I agree with Larry Pinkney.  Mr. Pinkney was one of the founders of the original Black Panther’s group and is a member of the Black Activists Writers Guild.  When asked recently, on the show InfoWars, to comment on the Black Lives Matter group, he said.

“The most diplomatic thing that I can say about Black Lives Matter is that they are a farce.  They’re not about serving.  They love attention but in terms of going into the community and doing something, and by doing something I mean serving the people, body and soul which we used to say, not jumping up on prime-time news and talking about black lives matter as if all lives are not precious.  All lives are precious.  We have a commonality and if they were sincere and for real about wanting to change the systemic chorus that people across the board, black, white, brown, red and yellow people, that we face, then they would find commonality, work together even with those with whom they might disagree.”  https://www.infowars.com/larry-pinckney-to-the-nfl-get-off-your-knees/

Much has changed since Mr. Chesnutt’s time.  Much has stayed the same.

What do you think?  Thanks for reading.

Two other places to read about Charles W. Chesnutt are http://www.chesnuttarchive.org/classroom/biography.html and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_W_Chesnutt

If you would like to read more about Mr. Pinkney look at http://blackactivistwg.org/Larry%20Pinkney/

 

A Sweet Love Story

I usually don’t read those internet stories.  You know, the ones you have to click through an unearthly number of pages wishing all the time it would have just been put on one:  why this celebrity did this, what this one looks now is whatever, and see what we caught on a hidden camera (seriously who cares), but, I am a sucker for animal stories.  This one makes me wonder, if a person can care this much for a dog, surely we all can care this much for each other.  Honestly, it’s worth the clicks.

http://www.wonderbuzz.com/animals/36/g/tabcdalldoeca/bronson-puppy-rescue/1?cs=synacor-centurylink1&ck=This+Puppy+Was+Going+To+Be+Euthanized.++What+She+Did+Will+Bring+Tears+To+Your+Eyes.#

Life Story Short


A Short Story is short on purpose. The author has a set number of words in which to tell the tale. Each word has to be important and to move the story along to its conclusion. But what about life stories? Like each word, each day is important. Each moves a life along to its end. I believe, as the Musician Cat Stevens wrote, some lives are “only dancing on this earth for a short while.” I have two brothers whose stories only had a couple of letters. My first daughter’s had not quite 30 chapters. When God/Nature/Fate is in control, that’s okay. But what about when Man, in his finite wisdom(?), takes control.

On May 8th, 2017, an article was published in the Utah newspaper, The Deseret News. It told of a young man with only 18 chapters of story who was facing legal charges. He helped a young woman with only 16 chapters written, end her life’s story. He helped her buy supplies, find a place in the nearby woods and establish a setting. Then he watched her die. He did this to discover if this was something he could go through with.

People magazine, June 26, 2017, printed an article about a young woman with only 20 chapters in her story who is facing up to 20 years in prison for actively encouraging a young man of 18 chapters to end his story. She texted him, keeping him on task. At one point, when he wanted to back out, she ordered him with profanities to continue.

No one who values the light, colors and varieties of life wishes to leave it. Therefore, it seems to me that all four stories had paragraphs, pages, even chapters of sad, depressing words that fogged over the beauty of living and put each person in a place of cold, damp gray. If one remains in that place long enough, one will do anything to get out.

Those who have removed themselves from that place, and life, I believe are now in the light of God’s infinite love and will see much more than gray. The rest of their eternal stories will be written with many more beautiful words.

For those still in this world, UtahBlueDevil from Durham, NC commenting on the Deseret News article put it beautifully. “You have to wonder what could have gone so wrong (in) a short 16 or 18 years to have some kids with so much ahead of them to make such a horrible decision. There are many chapters in life, some good, (some) less so. But few of them last, and there is always a chance to write a new chapter, with a different ending. I feel and pray (for) the parents and families of both of these kids. It is nothing any family should have to deal with… under any circumstances.”

What kind of pages will the two older young people write in prison? Will they have a chance to use beautiful words or will their words stay fogged over?

What about you and I? What words are we using to write our stories? How do those words help or hurt us and those around us? I have too much fog causing words in mine. One thing is certain, the next time my second daughter calls me “anything but human”, I plan on smiling. After all, she is still here to swear.

Happy birthday Mom, do you feel ancient?

I just passed my 60th birthday. It felt like one more page in the story of my life, not even a chapter, only a page. My daughter, 18 years “old”, asked me how it felt to be 60. Other than arthritis, sinus headaches, chronic cough from sinus drainage, sore toe from clutzing and stubbing it, acid indigestion, hand and foot cramps, (at least I’m done with the other cramps, thank heaven) and a constant flow of words in and out of the brain that never make it to the mouth when I need them, Hey, it feels great!

I’m Fine, How are You?
There’s nothing the matter with me,
I’m just as healthy as can be,
I have arthritis in both knees,
And when I talk, I talk with a wheeze.
My pulse is weak, my blood is thin,
But I’m awfully well for the shape I’m in.
All my teeth have had to come out,
And my diet I hate to think about.
I’m overweight and I can’t get thin,
But I’m awfully well for the shape I’m in.
Arch supports I need for my feet.
Or I wouldn’t be able to go out in the street.
Sleep is denied me night after night,
But every morning I find I’m all right.
My memory’s failing, my head’s in a spin.
But I’m awfully well for the shape I’m in.
The moral of this as the tale unfolds,
Is that for you and me, who are growing old.
It is better to say “I’m fine” with a grin,
Than to let people know the shape we are in.
I’m fine, how are you?
(wish I knew who wrote this, I found it on http://www.dennydavis.net/poemfiles/aging2b.htm)

All in all, I simply: Don’t Worry
At age 20 we worry about what others think of us;
At age 40 we don’t care what they think of us;
At age 60 we realize that they haven’t been thinking of us at all.
(again from http://www.dennydavis.net/poemfiles/aging2b.htm)


My Grandmother Morris was born an eldest child in December of 1898 and died November 1994. She knew the first, middle and some last pages of the life stories of siblings, children, grandchildren, greatgrandchildren and greatgreatgrandchildren. She saw, felt and lived an entire history book. She travelled by horse and buggy, train, automobile and watched rockets fly to the moon. She knew the pain and delight of a hard day’s work with crops, farm animals and school children. She collected sagebrush for the fireplace and paid the propane bill for the room heaters. She communicated by word of mouth, telegraph, party line telephone but never computer. She knew how to see each unique sunset, to hear a bird call and name it, to smell a storm or feel a tornado’s approach, to taste the sweetness of crab apple jelly—sweeter because she made it, and to live the experience of standing on a Snake River tributary bridge with a grandchild and see, hear, smell, feel and taste all that entailed.
She taught me more than I can remember. The forgetting does not come from living too long. The forgetting comes from living too long in concrete and steel, too long with instant pudding, ½ hour Sit-coms and texting. It’s time I remembered. I think my next life page will be a different story from this one.

When an 80-year-old widow, Gram shared an anecdote that went something like this:

MY FIVE NEW BOYFRIENDS!
I am seeing 5 gentlemen every day.
As soon as I wake up, Will Power helps me get out of bed.
Then I go to see John.
Then Charlie Horse comes along, and when he is here, he takes a lot of my time and attention.
When he leaves, Arthur Ritis shows up and stays the rest of the day. He doesn’t like to stay in one place very long, so he takes me from joint to joint.
After such a busy day, I’m really tired and glad to go to bed with Ben Gay.
What a life!
Oh, yes, I’m also flirting with Al Zymer and thinking of calling Jack Daniels or Johnny Walker to come and keep me company.

(wish I knew who wrote this one too!)