- A Woman of One’s Own Blood:John Walden and the Making of White Masculinity in Charles W. Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars
In his novel about racial passing, The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Charles W. Chesnutt gives one of the most powerful lines to George Tryon, the white love interest of the story’s mixed-race heroine, Rena Walden. Upon discovering the secret passing of Rena and her brother John, George, contrary to the evidence of the siblings’ African American ancestry, confirms to the brother: “Personally, I shall never be able to think of you as other than a white man.”1 George’s reaction comes as a surprise, especially since his seemingly enlightened view addresses only one part of the Walden siblings, allowing John to remain white in the eyes of an established white Southerner while excluding his sister from the same privilege. Rena, as Chesnutt’s novel so painfully illustrates, can only ever be a light-skinned African American woman. I turn to this gender dynamic in my analysis of Chesnutt’s novel, exploring the kinship relations at play that allow light-skinned African American men, such as John, to establish a white identity through and at the expense of mixed-race women who must remain marked as such.
In order to show how mixed-race family dynamics could wield the power for certain members to cross the color line successfully, Chesnutt needed to embed this conflict in the larger question of nineteenth-century racial identity. In both his fictional writings as well as his essays, he adamantly critiqued the popular “one-drop rule.” According to this rule, one drop of African American blood in a person’s line of descent determines that mixed-race people were classified as black, even if their white ancestors and their white looks could clearly outweigh their black roots. Chesnutt eloquently answered the segregationist intentions of the one-drop rule in his aptly titled essay “What is a White Man?” (1899). In it, he maintained that contrary to [End Page 27] the “virulence and universality of race prejudice in the United States, the human intellect long ago revolted at the manifest absurdity of classifying men fifteen-sixteenths white as black men.”2 Similarly, Chesnutt’s novel asks its readers to consider the contradiction at play between cultural definitions of whiteness and blackness and the legal, often more multifaceted, reality of racial classifications, especially when they are compounded by gender.3
The tension between cultural force and legal reality surrounding the one-drop rule was evident to writers such as Chesnutt, a lawyer by training. Arguing against the rule’s implications that mixed-race people could ever be culturally and socially regarded as anything but black, Chesnutt showed that such views did not track with the actual, and constantly changing, legal regulations regarding the status of mixed-race people since the mid-nineteenth century. The various legal documents that the individual states had carried over from antebellum times told another, more complex and fine-tuned story. Chesnutt had outlined a number of these differing legal codes in “What is a White Man?” In specific, he pointed out South Carolina as a case in which, surprisingly, “the color-line is, in practice as in law, more loosely drawn […] than in any other Southern state,” thereby allowing mixed-race Americans who were light enough to pass to legally assume a white identity.4 Chesnutt used South Carolina’s legal situation as a decisive plot factor in The House Behind the Cedars. He quotes the Supreme Court passages he invoked in his essay verbatim in the novel, where they could serve as the loophole for the young light-skinned John Walden to move from North Carolina to South Carolina and switch racial identities from black to white. As the title of Chesnutt’s speech suggests, the question of what exactly makes a person white was far from universal or straightforward.
Although the question of race and racial purity was already many-sided and wide-ranging from a legal standpoint, Chesnutt’s novel complicates this hot-button topic further by considering the cultural force of gender. Like many nineteenth-century authors...