Cbr15bingo politics, racial politics in particular
On a summer day on Martha’s Vineyard some time in 1950s America, beautiful Shelby Cole is getting ready to marry the man she loves, and in the 24 hours leading up to the wedding, the reader of Dorothy West’s 1995 novel The Wedding becomes privy to the complicated class and racial politics that swirl around what should be a happy day. West, a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, captures generations’ worth of “striving to succeed while black in America” and the pressures within the black community to honor one’s family and make progress. What the reader sees is that such pressures might mean putting one’s true love and desires second, leading a life filled with regret and frustration.
The Coles family is the “it” family on Martha’s Vineyard for those who vacation in the area known as ‘the Oval’ during the summer. The Oval is where affluent black families own cottages and socialize. It is exclusive and there is a pecking order amongst families. Renters who are there due to a family deciding to lease out their cottage are at the bottom of the ladder and as such, will watch the wedding from afar. Dr. and Mrs. Coles (Clark and Corinne) are at the top of the social hierarchy. Not only are they very wealthy and respected, they are also very light skinned; their daughters Liz and Shelby are fair and lovely and could pass for white if they chose. The matter of skin tone and passing is a constant theme in the story. Shelby is marrying a white man, a jazz musician, and her parents are not thrilled, largely because of the musician part. It is not considered a respectable occupation amongst the upwardly achieving black families that produce doctors and lawyers. Shelby’s maternal grandmother (Gram/Caroline) is the one person who is very happy about the match. Gram is a white woman and her backstory includes a childhood in the South. Gram was disgusted with her daughter for taking up with a black man up North, but their baby, Corinne, was light skinned and became the apple of Gram’s eye. She loves her granddaughters for the same reason, although she was disappointed in Liz for marrying a dark skinned black man, and she refuses to acknowledge their dark skinned infant. Throughout the chapters, we learn more about the Coleses (the family histories of both parents, the constant story of striving to move upward in life, of marrying someone who seemed the “right” person but not the person you loved, of the attraction that the light skinned parents each have for darker skinned partners on the side). We also learn about an outsider in the Oval, a renter named Lute, whose designs on Shelby could spell disaster for the wedding day. Lute is a handsome and successful black furniture maker from Boston who has three young daughters by three different white women. He loves his girls but is abusive toward his partners. In Shelby he sees the object of his two chief desires: a beautiful light skinned woman who is also socially connected and can give him the status he is unable to acquire through white women.
We know something terrible is on the horizon, as Gram has a premonition of death at the beginning of the story, but West distracts the reader from that with her formidable storytelling talent. The histories of Clark’s and Corinne’s families are riveting to read, and frequently heartbreaking. West’s writing is gorgeous, full of rich detailed descriptions that put the reader in real historical places and that reveal the pains and internal struggles of her characters. A couple of passages that stood out for me:
Gram’s way of life … had been cut down in its bloom. The flower of the South had rotted in the slime of slavery, the root no substance to the stalk, and the stalk suddenly obscenely ejaculating until it lay limp and self-abused in a burial of petals.
Later, West writes that Clark
…had stoically borne the burdens of his parents’ expectations, but all at a terrible cost. Advanced social position did not come without an abnegation, an obliteration of the personal, the intimate, the hidden, the passionate.
Clark was part of “…a generation mired in the self-hatred that was bigotry’s most monstrous crime, more damaging than a laundry list of physical indignities because it amounted to a mental rape, a theft of personal dignity.”
The end of this story contains sudden surprises for its characters and for the reader. This is the kind of novel that you could spend an entire semester discussing and dissecting. It’s the kind of novel that bears re-reading. It will stay with you.