The Dilemmas of Racial Identity in Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s “The Stones of the Village”

by Renée Ruggeri

In Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s “The Stones of the Village,” the protagonist Victor Grabért is faced with a identity dilemma that many light-skinned people with African ancestry, including Dunbar-Nelson herself, had to grapple with in the beginning of the 20th century: passing as white in order to fulfill one’s individual potential in a period of white discrimination against people with known African ancestry, or embracing that ancestry and facing racism from white people and assumptions from African Americans. While Dunbar-Nelson wanted to associate with her black heritage, Victor, on the other hand, makes a conscious effort to convince everyone in New Orleans that he is of pure white blood. For Victor, New Orleans becomes not only his adopted home, but also his city of opportunity; the place where he can mask his true identity. For Victor, New Orleans is his escape. But even New Orleans cannot protect Victor from the whites’ persecution against blacks. Throughout the story, we see him struggle with his dual identity as a man of color who feels the whites’ discrimination and revels in the “revenge” he enacts on his childhood stone throwers (Dunbar-Nelson 30), as well as a white man decrying blacks in order to fit in. Because of the ever-present white persecution against blacks, Victor chooses to adopt both the physical traits and mental mindset of a white person in order to establish and protect the family and tradition he never had, in spite of the deep sense of guilt he feels for doing so. Through Victor’s story, Dunbar-Nelson suggests that choosing to be white and thus gain access to money, career and social prominence is not always enough.

unidentified boyVictor does not set out to pass as white. So that he will no longer have to endure the negative comments about his skin color from both black and white children, his grandmother sends him to New Orleans where he applies for a job in a bookstore on Royal Street. The owner thinks he is white and when when Victor is hired, he realizes the benefits that can come from “passing.” It is also in this bookshop where Victor begins his education, and with time, grows pale from much reading,” (Dunbar-Nelson 8) making his skin even whiter. Victor takes advantage of Mr. Buckley never meeting his African American guardian, Madame Guichard, and fulfills the bookstore’s owner’s wish for him to attend Tulane College. As Victor grows up, he begins to actively “pass,” as “no one had asked questions, and he had volunteered no information concerning himself,” (Dunbar-Nelson 11). He befriends Steve Vannier, who comes from a prominent white family and this friendship gives Victor the necessary social connections to help mask his mixed identity. After establishing himself as a lawyer, he delves further into his disguise: “Grabért’s personality was pleasing, without being aggressive, so he had passed through the portals of the social world and was in the inner circle” (Dunbar-Nelson 11). He even “had long since eliminated Mme. Guichard from his list of acquaintances” (Dunbar-Nelson 12); an active choice of no longer associating with those of color who know his racial ancestry. Coupled with his “pale” physicality, Victor now has all of the tools necessary to fully assimilate into white society, and can now be an acceptable suitor for Elise, who is from a prominent white family.

Even though he is successful in leading everyone to believe he is white, Victor always has a sense of internal guilt about his deception. Being in New Orleans, however, gives Victor solace and assuages this shame and allows him to continue to pass: “It was inexpressingly soothing to Victor; the great unknowing city, teeming with life and with lives whose sadness mocked his own teacup tempest” (Dunbar-Nelson 18). “Soothing” connotes a feeling of making a discomfort more tolerable. But Victor struggles to keep quiet when the blacks around him are insulted by his white counterparts: “the blood rushed to Grabért’s face, and he started from his seat angrily…the lawyer was tingling with rage and indignation” (Dunbar-Nelson 13). When he is at the restaurant with Frank Ward, he demands to know why a black man was not served. Victor’s unexpected reactions in defense of the blacks in both situations almost give him away. But instead, he thinks to himself, “I must be careful” (13, 19), and becomes “frightened, frightened at his own unguardedness” (19). Victor realizes the danger of revealing himself and cannot fathom giving up his well-established social position and his law practice on Carondelet Street to do so.

Victor’s fear emerges when he is questioned about his past. During Victor’s courtship of Elise Vannier, she has a natural inclination to learn about his family, and asks about his past. Her seemingly innocent questions upset him. “The girl’s artless words were bringing a cold sweat to Victor’s brow, his tongue felt heavy and useless, but he managed to answer quietly, ‘I have no home in the country’” (Dunbar-Nelson 15). He begins to question if it is “just” to marry a white woman, but decides that he has every right to do so, since “they had money; so had he. They had education, polite training, culture, social position; so had he” (Dunbar-Nelson 16). However he goes to bed “worn out with the struggle, but still with no definite idea what to do” (Dunbar-Nelson 17).

Dunbar-Nelson suggests that Victor cannot live with his decision and the reality that being white is not enough. “His temptation to ‘to end the whole miserable farce” (Dunbar-Nelson 31) at a banquet in his honor, is the closest he comes to revealing his African ancestry. But his next thought of, “Well, he must speak, and he must remember Elise and the boy” (Dunbar-Nelson 32) is his dilemma summed up in a sentence. As soon as he considers telling the truth, Victor immediately realizes the consequences that his wife and son will be faced with. He then thinks back on his childhood stoning, “for were they not all boys with stones to pelt him because he wanted to play with them?” (Dunbar-Nelson 32). He dies immediately; never disclosing himself, yet never losing the overwhelming sense of guilt either.

‘The Stones of the Village’ is an even more overt and tragic handling of race, passing, and the black Creole” (Lauter 391) than some of Dunbar-Nelson’s other works. The short story was not published during her lifetime, and when Dunbar-Nelson proposed expanding The Stones of the Village’ into a novel, she was told that the American public would not like her color-line fiction (Bryan 76). By telling Victor’s story, we see Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s own dilemma of whether to let others sometimes think she was white. Her personal account in her unpublished essay “Brass Ankles Speaks” tells us that choosing the opposite of Victor and identifying as black also posed problems. Both of Dunbar-Nelson’s unpublished works reveal the internal dilemmas that racially mixed people confront in a racist society that labels people as either black or white.

Illustration

Unidentified boy, Prosper L. Flint Papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA.

Works Cited

Bryan, Violet Harrington. The Myth of New Orleans in Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993. Print.

Dunbar-Nelson, Alice. “The Stones of the Village.” The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Vol. 3. Ed. Gloria T. Hull. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Print.

Lauter, Paul. “Late Nineteenth Century 1865-1910.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2. Lexington, MA: D.C. Health, 1990. Print.

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