“Passing” and the American dream

“Passing” and the American dream

Salon Magazine

Baz Dreisinger

These days we’re supposed to think race doesn’t matter. But as “The Human Stain” and a raft of recent writing makes clear, we’re just as fascinated by its slippery boundaries as ever.

Every now and then, cultural and social critics fashion an axiom that’s flippant, succinct and thus darling enough to render its truth value irrelevant. Such is the case with a phrase coined by culture-mongers in the 1960s that’s finding new currency today: “Passing is passé.”

“Passing” is shorthand for “racial passing,” and “racial passing” means people of one race (generally African-American) passing for another (usually white). Anybody who’s surprised that there’s a shorthand terminology for what might seem a pretty unlikely scenario will be more surprised that the phenomenon, with its lengthy history in American culture, isn’t all that unusual. Some of the earliest stories about passing reach back to the 19th century, when slaves — like Ellen Craft, who penned a mesmerizing slave narrative — used their light skin to escape, and novelists from Mark Twain to Charles Chesnutt mined the subject for their oeuvre.

Passing was a much-hyped subject during the Harlem Renaissance, which produced a plethora of rich fiction about it: Nella Larsen’sPassing,” Jessie Fauset’sPlum Bun,” Walter White’s “Flight.” The subject had its Hollywood heyday; melodramatic passing flicks from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s include “Pinky,” “Lost Boundaries” and two big-screen versions of “Imitation of Life” (the latter version, directed by Douglas Sirk, probably still delights the Kleenex industry).

But along came the ’60s. And with it, Black Power and other ideologies that made the saga of passing — and the act of passing itself — soppy, weak-kneed and thus unhip. Passing was passé, critics said, because racial pride was where it’s at. Whether prophecy or prescription, their words proved accurate, for a while, at least: The subject never vanished from public or private sectors, but it did step aside for a hot minute or two.

That hot minute is over. Passing, these days, is anything but passé. This week Anthony Hopkins, neither a black man nor a Jew, saunters onto the big screen to play a black man passing as a Jew in the long-awaited screen version of Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain.” Last month, journalist Brooke Kroeger’s collection of case studies, “Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are,” earned solid reviews and prompted a National Public Radio program on passing. Brent Staples recently penned a series of New York Times editorials on the subject…

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