The house Behind the Cedars tells the story of Rena, a 1/8th black woman living in the Post-War South who moves with her brother to another state where they will both legally be considered white. Rena leaves behind her mother and is forced to lie about her background to secure an engagement with a wealthy, white man and protect her brother’s law practice. Her new life is destroyed when, on a trip to see her ailing mother, her fiancée discovers her mixed-race background and, disgusted, breaks off their engagement. Rena becomes a schoolteacher, teaching black children how to read and write for a time, but faces harassment from both her ex-fiancee and an unwanted suitor who was also mixed-race. She becomes ill and begins to go mad, eventually perishing with Frank, a dark-skinned black man who had known her since youth by her side to comfort her. Rena realizes on her death bed that Frank is the only man who ever truly loved her, but they could never have been together due to the expectation that she marry someone white or light-skinned.
I greatly identified with Rena, because although I identify myself as white, my great grandmother on my father’s side was a black woman. I also empathized with her confusion and anxiety about hiding her identity. I grew up pressured to hide a lot about my background, because my parents never married and my father had been an undocumented immigrant before he returned to Brazil when I was very young. In making this altered book, I examined not only my own experiences, but also the themes of forced secrecy and family separation that historically affected mixed-race people living as white, and now affect undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers.
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Book Arts & Typography
Brooks, Pilar, "A Contemporary Examination of The House Behind the Cedars" (2019). 14th Annual Student Book Arts Competition. 17.