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/