Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Color-Coded Hearts: Octogenarian Dorothy West Zeros in on Martha's Vineyard's Black Bourgeoisie

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Color-Coded Hearts: Octogenarian Dorothy West Zeros in on Martha's Vineyard's Black Bourgeoisie

Article excerpt

Color-Coded Hearts: Octogenarian Dorothy West Zeros in on Martha's. Vineyard's Black Bourgeoisie

When Black slaves came to this country stripped of any connection with the history and culture which gave them a sense of place in the universe, they heeded the human urge to define themselves.

The Africans were bound by the rules of slavery and subject to strange masters in a strange land, where people of another color had all the power, and they had none. The lines of demarcation were simple, until human nature interfered.

Slaves and masters had children, living proof of both the burden of Black powerlessness and the white transgression of misogynistic lust, or love. The very existence of their offspring should have helped to bridge the gap and blur the lines between the two races. Instead, it created such confusion, that, in 1805, Thomas Jefferson, himself the father of many biracial children and one of this nation's founders, devised an algebraic equation to define the generation when racially mixed blood becomes white. In the end, however, even his numbers meant nothing without emancipation.

By the time freedom came, African Americans had begun to make sense of it for themselves. Freedom from slavery, they found, did not shelter families, feed children or save lives. Race did. African Americans established a social hierarchy where skin color determined rank. The closer the skin color to white, the more acceptable the person. That culture and those rules, though long hidden in the hearts of many African American families, are the basis for Dorothy West's "The Wedding."

Confusion in `The Oval'

Set in Martha's Vineyard in the 1950s, "The Wedding" crashes the gates of color-coded thinking as one community wrestles its fears to the ground. The characters are the families of "The Oval," an insular area of the Vineyard reserved for members of the Black bourgeoisie who could afford to have summer homes there. They were of all skin colors. Many were second-generation professionals who could trace their family trees to white families or those of free, educated Blacks. But all of them had color-coded hearts.

In "The Wedding," Shelby Coles, the privileged daughter of one of The Oval's first families is about to marry a white jazz musician. Described by West as a beautiful woman with the "rose-pink skin, golden hair and dusk-blue eyes" of her maternal great-grandmother, Shelby has the conscience of a woman of color. As the day of her marriage draws near, she begins to question why she has not fallen in love with a Black man. …

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