Dorothy West’s The Wedding VMC No. 431 (1995)

I’ve been moving through time on Thursdays in Black History Month, from the mid-19th-Century in Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman’s Narrative, through Zora Neale Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine, through the 1950’s in Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, and now to the Oval area in Dorothy West’s The Wedding.

Dorothy West moved to Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard in the mid-1940s and she published her first novel in 1948 (The Living is Easy) and her second novel, set in this very area and time period, was not published until 1995, the interim years filled primarily with her journalistic work on a regional newspaper.

I’ve wanted to read The Wedding for years (and, yes, the fact that Oprah filmed it in 1998 was a factor: I still want to watch Halle Berry’s performance but had to follow my “First, Read the Book” rule). This year’s Black History Month seemed the perfect reason to make time for it because I had the idea that it considered racial tensions and indeed it does.

For instance, in the wake of Shelby’s having gotten lost as a child, the members of the community discuss it after she has been found:
“Show me one white man who can look at a colored man without saying to himself, I see a colored man.”
“The only one I know of died on the cross, and the other one has not yet been born.” (74)

But I think the author has spent just as much time and energy illuminating the class tensions (and intersections between issues of race and class). Click Continue to read more.
For instance, when the policeman returns Shelby to her Gram, she adjusts her attitude to him according to her prejudice. “Communication between white aristocrat and white trash was unknown, there being no magnet of color to attract one to the other.” (76)

The devastation wrecked by classism is considered in the context of racial tension as, for instance, when Liz explains to her sister Shelby, who is considering marrying a white man: “Just because it’s 1953, not 1853, doesn’t mean it’s that much less dangerous to be colored, and when we take the new car out I get more looks from our own kind than from whites. It’s easier to hate your own kind for what they have than to hate somebody far away for what you don’t.” (99)

But it’s not even easy to define “your own kind”. When Shelby reunites with her Gram, she has some serious questions about belonging. “All the people she loved were like herself. ‘Oh, Gram, I’m so glad we’re all colored. A lady told me I was white.'” It was startling for the woman who notified the police that Shelby Coles had been found to realize that someone known to be colored could look white and some of Dr. Clark Coles’ patients have been similarly surprised, having assumed he was white as well.

Clark, like Shelby (and others), has had to wrestle with the question of love and marriage and race/class and belonging. “He had not had time for love before, and until he met Sabina he had never experienced the emotion that is blind to color lines and racial bars and class divisions and religious prejudices and all the other imposed criteria that have nothing to do with love but have so much to do with marriage.”

The Wedding raises a lot of questions about identity, home and family and leaves the reader free to contemplate them alongside its characters. Like many others, Shelby is still trying to find the answers herself:

“Oh, she’s perfect,” Shelby sighed. “Did you ever see such glowing skin? I can never decide what color she is. Tan maybe, with pink showing through the surface. And the softest brown eyes in the world. I’ve always thought brown eyes were for tenderness. And I love her black hair; it’s as black and shiny as a crow’s wing in the sun. Oh, Liz, will all my children with Meade be fair? Can’t one of them be Laurie’s warm color?” (85)

Has anyone else read a novel lately that is as much (or more) about questions as it is about answers?
Or has anyone else enjoyed “discovering” Dorothy West?

Remember: Freedom to Read Week!

“Philosophy, like lichens, takes centuries to grow and is always ignored in the Book of Instructions.” (84)

Quote from Elizabeth Smart’s once-banned book,
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945)