Racial Pride and Prejudice Drive A Family-Centered Novel

DOROTHY WEST is the sole surviving member of that visionary company of love, hope, talent - and the usual feuds and friendships - known as the Harlem Renaissance.

A writer and editor, West made her literary debut in the 1920s, winning a prize in a story contest at the age of 18. During the `30s she kept alive the ideals of the Harlem Renaissance by founding a pair of journals dedicated to providing a forum for new African-American voices such as Ralph Ellison and Pauli Murray. West's first novel, ``The Living is Easy,'' appeared in 1948. ``The Wedding'' is only her second novel to be published. For 25 years, however, she regularly wrote short stories for the New York Daily News, back in the days when many newspapers featured short fiction.

``The Wedding'' is a finely wrought, richly complicated novel with the suspense and focus of a short story. It is set on Martha's Vineyard in August 1953: more specifically, in an elegant, insular enclave of well-established professional black summer residents - known as the Oval. The story begins on the day before the wedding of the leading family's beautiful daughter, Shelby Coles, to a white jazz musician.

The Coles family is somewhat divided about Shelby's choice of a husband. Her parents would have preferred her to marry a man of similar racial heritage, and they are, if anything, even less pleased that their prospective son-in-law is pursuing a career in music rather than a more solid and respectable profession like law or medicine. Shelby's older sister Liz, who has already disappointed their parents by eloping with a dark-skinned black man (though he, at least, is a doctor), also has qualms about Shelby's choice.

The one family member who wholeheartedly approves is Shelby's great-grandmother. Gram is white and is praying for the day when she will be able to return to the world of whites. The daughter of a plantation owner, Gram became an involuntary member of the black community when her daughter Josephine, fearing spinsterhood and post-Civil War poverty, opted to marry the studious son of a former slave rather than give her hand to ``white trash.''

But there is a greater and far more potent threat to Shelby's wedding plans than the vague misgivings of her parents and sister. Handsome Lute McNeil, a kind of living paradigm of the stereotype of black masculine sex appeal, has made up his mind to wed this fair-skinned princess of the black elite. A self-made man, uneducated but ambitious, Lute has become rich from his own custom furniture-making business. Only the sore financial need of one elderly longtime Ovalite, Addie Bannister, has enabled an outsider like Lute to rent a summer cottage in the enclave.

The snobbery of the Ovalites, compounded by issues of color, is dwarfed by the snobbery of this uncouth social climber, whose only redeeming feature is his love for his three adorable little daughters. Therein, however, lies a tale unknown to the Ovalites he plans to conquer.

Each of these golden-skinned girls is the product of a different marriage. Barby, age eight, is the daughter of a rebellious white teenager who was looking for trouble and found it in Lute. The mother of six-year-old Tina was a gentle, naive Polish-American waitress, whom Lute also mistreated and discarded in order to secretly wed Della, a scion of one of Boston's oldest white families and the mother of his youngest child, Muffin.

Tired of waiting for Della to openly acknowledge their marriage, Lute has decided to dump her and concentrate on Shelby. When he announces to his little girls that he plans to provide them with a new mother, their reactions poignantly reveal the sad lessons they have learned from watching his treatment of their previous mothers: ``Women were all the same,'' Barby reflects. ``Sooner or later they cried, and Daddy hit them.''

``Let's try one,'' pleads Tina, the child most starved for maternal affection. ``Please, Barby, please. If she's too bossy, we can divorce her.''

Will Shelby succumb to Lute? The novel opens on the day before her planned wedding to the white jazz player, so it would not seem that time is on Lute's side. But the outcome, as West reveals it, depends not so much on Lute's powers of persuasion as on the complex background of class and color consciousness, family secrets, and racial pride and prejudice that may or may not influence Shelby's choice.

West relays the intertwined histories of Shelby's various ancestors with vividness and concision. Each of these stories in itself has the makings of a full-scale novel. We meet a fascinating cast of characters, from slaves to a college president, and we are made privy to the striving for achievement, status, and light skin color that has marked the early decades of this family's history. We share the confusions of the six-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed Shelby the day she wandered too far from home and was not recognized by white folks as the ``little lost colored girl'' being sought by her parents and the island police. We also learn the frightening details of Lute's pattern of exploiting women.

For many of the characters, whether they are black like Lute or white like Gram, whiteness is perceived as desirable, blackness as a kind of blight. Shelby's sister Liz expresses the younger generation's growing pride in blackness, as she remonstrates with their great-grandmother for refusing to embrace Liz's dark-skinned baby: ``Gram, you say `dark' as if it were a dirty word.... Look at Laurie's skin.... Hers makes mine look washed out.''

The challenge of seeing beyond racial prejudice - and racial pride - falls to Shelby, who learns to see the individual, not the stereotype, by looking through the eyes of love. West draws the many strands of her story together in an ending that is genuinely cathartic, mingling elements of tragedy, loss, reconciliation, and hope.

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