Who’s Passing for Who?

Who’s Passing for Who?

2014-12-22 (Originally written in 1956)

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

In this short story, written in 1956, Hughes plays with the idea of race as a social construct. Considering the American “one-drop rule,” which meant if you had at least 1/33 African ancestry you were black, the narrator is puzzled by whether a couple in Harlem that he meets is a white couple passing as a black couple passing for white or a black couple who can pass for white. The joke is on the narrator.

One of the great difficulties about being a member of a minority race is that so many kindhearted, well-meaning bores gather around to help. Usually, to tell the truth, they have nothing to help with, except their company–which is often appallingly dull.

Some members of the Negro race seem very well able to put up with it, though, in these uplifting years. Such was Caleb Johnson, colored social worker, who was always dragging around with him some nondescript white person or two, inviting them to dinner, showing them Harlem, ending up at the Savoy–much to the displeasure of whatever friends of his might be out that evening for fun, not sociology.

Friends are friends and, unfortunately, overearnest uplifters are uplifters–no matter what color they may be. If it were the white race that was ground down instead of Negroes, Caleb Johnson would be one of the first to offer Nordics the sympathy of his utterly inane society, under the impression that somehow he would be doing them a great deal of good.

You see, Caleb, and his white friends, too, were all bores. Or so we, who lived in Harlem’s literary bohemia during the “Negro Renaissance” thought. We literary ones considered ourselves too broad-minded to be bothered with questions of color. We liked people of any race who smoked incessantly, drank liberally, wore complexion and morality as loose garments, and made fun of anyone who didn’t do likewise. We snubbed and high-hatted any Negro or white luckless enough not to understand Gertrude Stein, Ulysses, Man Ray, the theremin, Jean Toomer, or George Anthell. By the end of the 1920’s Caleb was just catching up to Dos Passos. He thought H.G. Wells good….

Read the entire short story here.

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