“You Should’ve Seen My Grandmother; She Passed for White”: African American Women Writers, Genealogy, and the Passing Genre

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, Women on 2018-08-22 04:27Z by Steven

“You Should’ve Seen My Grandmother; She Passed for White”: African American Women Writers, Genealogy, and the Passing Genre

University of Sheffield
October 2015

Janine Bradbury, Senior Lecturer in Literature; School Learning and Teaching Lead
School of Humanities, Religion & Philosophy
York St John University, York, United Kingdom

Ph.D. Dissertation

This thesis critiques the prevailing assumption that passing is passé in contemporary African American women’s literature.

By re-examining the work of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Dorothy West, Alice Walker, and Barbara Neely, I argue that these writers signify on canonical passing narratives – Brown’s Clotel (1853) and Clotelle (1867), Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), Larsen’s Passing (1929), and Hurst’s Imitation of Life (1933) – in order to confront and redress both the historical roots and contemporary contexts of colourism.

As well bridging this historiographic gap, I make a case for reading passing as a multivalent trope that facilitates this very process of cultural interrogation. Rather than focussing on literal episodes of passing, I consider moments of symbolic, textual, and narrative passing, as well as the genealogical and intertextual processes at play in each text which account for the spectral hauntings of the passing-for-white figure in post-civil rights literature.

In Chapter 1, I examine the relationship between passing and embodiments of beauty in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), Bambara’s “Christmas Eve at Johnson’s Drugs N Goods” (1974) and Neely’s Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (1994).

In Chapter 2, I discuss passing, class, and capital in Naylor’s Linden Hills (1985) and Dorothy West’s The Wedding (1995).

In Chapter 3, I suggest that Walker and Morrison revisit Larsen’s Passing in their short stories “Source” (1982) and “Recitatif” (1983).

Finally, I conclude this project with a discussion of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child (2015) in order to demonstrate the continued centrality of the passing trope for authors interested in colourism, genealogy, and black women’s experiences.

Embargoed here until October 2020.

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Imitation of Life

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-12-26 23:30Z by Steven

Imitation of Life

Charisse L’Pree, Ph.D.: The Media Made Me Crazy

Charisse L’Pree, Assistant Professor of Communications
S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications
Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York

Written during the dismal conditions of the Great Depression, Fannie Hurst’s novel, Imitation of Life, was adapted to film in 1934 and 1959. It tells the story of two widowed mothers, one white and one black, raising their daughters amidst a climate of capitalism and racism. Despite the drastic changes in the movie industry and culture, both versions met great success. Using the conventions of female melodrama, the story foregrounds the dilemmas of motherhood while commenting on capitalism, racism and image. In this paper, I will address how this story manages to transcend a generation and how the narrative was changed to accommodate a postwar audience. I will also discuss how the movie industry affected the production and marketing of Imitation of Life at the cusp of the tumultuous 1960s.

Released in 1932, Hurst tells the story of Bea Pullman, a young widow looking to sell her deceased husband’s excess of maple syrup and take care of her daughter, Jessie. She hires Delilah Johnson as a sleep-in housemaid who brings her remarkably light skinned daughter, Peola, to complete the family. After eating Delilah’s pancakes, Bea decides to go into business selling pancakes on the boardwalk of Atlantic City. The story then follows as the business becomes successful, Bea falls in love with Steve and the daughters begin to grow up and begin to develop their own lives. Hurst was a close friend of acclaimed author Zora Neale Hurston and Hurst’s descriptions of the black American experience are remarkably detailed and fitting for the time…

…The year before America’s famed sixties, Imitation of Life was released in theaters. Sirk’s story was different from Hurst’s or Stahl’s. Bea Pullman was renamed Lora Meredith, an aspiring actress struggling in New York City with her daughter, Susie. On the beach, they meet Annie Johnson and her daughter, Sarah Jane, who are currently between residences. In a moment of heartfelt sympathy, Lora invites the Johnsons to spend the night at her small apartment. The next morning, Annie tends to the housework while Lora sleeps in, securing the new family dynamic. With Annie’s domestic assistance, Lora becomes a famous Broadway actress. Meanwhile, Annie tries to raise her light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, who desperately wants to be white. This version travels deeper into the issues of Sarah Jane’s internalized oppression; it takes the audience to the seedy nightclubs where she works after running away from home and inserts a scene where her white boyfriend beats her in an alley after learning that she is black. True to form, Imitation of Life (1959) still addresses issues of motherhood, capitalism and racism but does so through the eyes of an acclaimed, German-born, melodramatic director…

Read the entire review here.

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Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance

Posted in Biography, Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, United States, Women on 2013-09-25 03:06Z by Steven

Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance

HarperCollins Publishers
544 pages
Trimsize: 6 x 9
Hardcover ISBN: 9780060882389; ISBN10: 0060882387
eBook ISBN: 9780062199126; ISBN10: 0062199129

Carla Kaplan, Stanton W. and Elisabeth K. Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature
Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts

New York City in the Jazz Age was host to a pulsating artistic and social revolution. Uptown, an unprecedented explosion in black music, literature, dance, and art sparked the Harlem Renaissance. While the history of this African-American awakening has been widely explored, one chapter remains untold: the story of a group of women collectively dubbed “Miss Anne.”

Sexualized and sensationalized in the mainstream press—portrayed as monstrous or insane—Miss Anne was sometimes derided within her chosen community of Harlem as well. While it was socially acceptable for white men to head uptown for “exotic” dancers and “hot” jazz, white women who were enthralled by life on West 125th Street took chances. Miss Anne in Harlem introduces these women—many from New York’s wealthiest social echelons—who became patrons of, and romantic participants in, the Harlem Renaissance. They include Barnard College founder Annie Nathan Meyer, Texas heiress Josephine Cogdell Schuyler, British activist Nancy Cunard, philanthropist Charlotte Osgood Mason, educator Lillian E. Wood, and novelist Fannie Hurst—all women of accomplishment and renown in their day. Yet their contributions as hostesses, editors, activists, patrons, writers, friends, and lovers often went unacknowledged and have been lost to history until now.

In a vibrant blend of social history and biography, award-winning writer Carla Kaplan offers a joint portrait of six iconoclastic women who risked ostracism to follow their inclinations—and raised hot-button issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality in the bargain. Returning Miss Anne to her rightful place in the interracial history of the Harlem Renaissance, Kaplan’s formidable work remaps the landscape of the 1920s, alters our perception of this historical moment, and brings Miss Anne to vivid life.

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There’s nothing wrong in passing…

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes, Passing on 2013-03-25 19:47Z by Steven

Peola: “There’s nothing wrong in passing. The wrong is the world that makes it necessary.”

Fannie Hurst, Imitation of Life, P. F. Collier, (1933): 244.


The Fictive Flapper: A Way of Reading Race and Female Desire in the Novels of Larsen, Hurst, Hurston and Cather

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Women on 2013-02-06 05:26Z by Steven

The Fictive Flapper: A Way of Reading Race and Female Desire in the Novels of Larsen, Hurst, Hurston and Cather

University of Maryland, College Park
391 pages

Traci B. Abbott, Lecturer, English and Media Studies
Bentley University, Waltham, Massachusetts

Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Maryland, College Park, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

This study seeks to reevaluate the 1920s icon of assertive female sexuality, the flapper, as represented in the novels of four women writers. Although cultural images often designate, by their very construction, normal and alteritous social categories, I argue that the flapper’s presence and popularity encourage rather than restrict this autonomy for even those female populations she appears to reject, notably lower-class women, nonwhite women, and homosexuals. Specifically, the flapper was predicated upon the cultural practices and beliefs of many of the very groups she was designed to exclude, and therefore her presence attests to the reality of these women’s experiences. Moreover, her emphasis on the liberating potential of sexual autonomy could not be contained within her strictly defined parameters in part because of her success in outlining this potential. Each chapter then focuses upon images of black and white female sexuality in the novels, chosen for their attention to female sexual autonomy within and beyond the flapper’s boundaries as well as the author’s exclusion from the flapper’s parameters.  Nella Larsen’s Passing suggests that the fluidity of female sexual desire cannot be contained within strict dichotomies of race, class, or sexual orientation, and women can manipulate and perhaps even transcend such boundaries. Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life offers a critique of the flapper’s excessive emphasis on sexual desirability as defined by conspicuous consumption, maintaining that lower-class white and black women can and should have access to sexual autonomy, while Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston similarly questions the denigration of working-class and non-white women in this model with her affirming view of Janie Woods, but also complicates the cultural presumption that any woman can find autonomy within a heterosexual relationship if such relationships are still defined by conventional notions of gender power. Finally, Willa Cather’s last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, contends modern black and white women have the right to control their own sexual needs within an unusual antebellum setting. Thus, all of these novel provide other models of sexual autonomy besides the white, middle-class, heterosexual flapper while harnessing the flapper’s affirming and popular imagery.

Read the entire dissertation here.

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In the Shadow of Her Ancestry: The New Tragic Mulatta

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2012-05-26 22:03Z by Steven

In the Shadow of Her Ancestry: The New Tragic Mulatta

North Carolina State University, Raleigh
60 pages

Vonda Marie Easterling

A thesis submitted to the Graduate Faculty of North Carolina State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts

This thesis examines the plight of the infamous tragic mulatta. Because of the mulatta’s lack of black features and her close resemblance to the white race, she was labeled by white society as the privileged of the black race. She was also referred to as the most tragic of all beings and elevated by white society over the darker skinned blacks. Thus, the mulatta found herself in a peculiar position in a race oriented, black-white society. Isolated from the black community and rejected as a part of the white community, the mulatta’s existence was then considered tragic.

Over the years, social and emotional change has occurred within the mulatta community. No longer considered the taboo of transgression, the mulatta still suffers from many of the same injustices as her ancestral mulatta. This research examines the psychological and emotional effects depicted in the 1959 film of Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life with sections of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and events from actress Dorothy Dandridge’s life. The research also analyzes Passing, Nella Larsen’s complex novel of the 1920s, to interrogate the strategy that many unidentifiably mulatto people mastered in order to achieve social and financial mobility. Lastly, the research explores the experience of the contemporary mulatta through Rebecca Walker’s memoir, Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, in order to explore the issues of the newly termed bi-racial person. The research explores the lineage between the historical mulatta figure and the new bi-racial persons to defuse the theory of the tragic mulatta as a mythical allusion.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Reel to Real: The Cinematic Mulatta
  • Chapter Two: To ‘Pass’ or Not to ‘Pass’: The Multi-Layered Practice of ‘Passing’
  • Chapter Three: As Time Goes By: The New Tragic Mulatta
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited

Read the entire dissertation here.

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Mammy versus mulatta: A rhetorical analysis of the act of passing and the influence of controlling images in Fannie Hurst’s “Imitation of Life”

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2011-10-10 20:34Z by Steven

Mammy versus mulatta: A rhetorical analysis of the act of passing and the influence of controlling images in Fannie Hurst’s “Imitation of Life”

Arizona State University
May 2010
189 pages
Publication Number: AAT 3407107
ISBN: 9781109743265

Allison Parker

A Dissertation Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy

Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel, Imitation of Life, and the two movies that followed in 1934 and 1959, address the issue of racial passing in a way that no text ever has before. The theme of Imitation of Life is imitation, and as a result, it lends itself to a discussion of race performativity. Imitation of Life is the first text to juxtapose the mammy character with the tragic mulatto character, and this makes it conducive to studying the category of race and how race performativity functions. In addition, instead of focusing exclusively on passing, this analysis focuses more specifically on the way that resistance to (or condemnation of) passing, mainly through the power of confession, produces a specific mode of performativity.

Each of the versions of Imitation of Life is analyzed separately in order to use the specific version of the text to examine not only how the mores of the time affect the outcome of the story to contextualize each story within its respective time period, but also to examine how each of the characters is constructed in order to evaluate the relationships between black and white women living in the same household. The focus is on the specific features of the mammy and the mulatto characters–their history, their attributes, and their significant features, in order to understand how they work in context and to understand their significance in terms of race performativity. Finally, an examination of the category of race in terms of performative reiteration is presented. Scenes from the book and the two films are scrutinized in an attempt to provide a vehicle to understand the means by which racial norms function. These sections work together to examine the condemnation of passing in Imitation of Life through the lens of race as a speech act. Imitation of Life is a passing narrative that is a crucial text for assisting theorists in understanding the complicated features of race performativity.


    • Introduction and Scope
    • Theoretical Approach
    • Organization of Research
    • Concluding Remarks
    • Fannie Hurst: Racial Activist
    • Hurston and Hurst
    • The Conflicts in Imitation of Lite
    • A Warning for Ambitious Womem
    • Aunt Jemima: The Most Famous Mammy
    • The Influence of Zora Neale Hurston
    • Delilah—the Ultimate Mammy
    • Peola—the Tragic Mulatto
    • Peola’s Passing
    • Critical Reception and Debate
    • The Plot Thickens
    • The Embodiment of Miscegenation
    • From Page to Screen
    • The Subservient Mammy Stereotype Continues
    • An Updated Bea
    • An Updated Peola
    • Critical Reception
    • Hurston, Hughes, Morrison, and hooks Respond
    • Lana’s Imitation of Life
    • Colorblind Casting?
    • Imitation in Imitation of Life
    • Starring Sarah Jane
    • The Rhinelander Case
    • Controlling Images
    • Austin, Derrida, Butler, and Performativity
    • Foucault and Confession
    • Assumptions of Whiteness and the Contradictions of Race
    • Judith Butler and Imitation of Life
    • The Punishment for Passing
    • Mammy Versus Mulatto
    • Conclusion

Purchase the dissertation here.

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The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary

Posted in Books, Judaism, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Religion, United States, Women on 2011-03-07 04:36Z by Steven

The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary

Rutgers University Press
248 pages, 3 photographs
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8135-4783-1
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8135-4782-4
eBook ISBN: 978-0-8135-4989-7

Lori Harrison-Kahan, Full-time Adjunct Faculty in English
Boston College

During the first half of the twentieth century, American Jews demonstrated a commitment to racial justice as well as an attraction to African American culture. Until now, the debate about whether such black-Jewish encounters thwarted or enabled Jews’ claims to white privilege has focused on men and representations of masculinity while ignoring questions of women and femininity. The White Negress investigates literary and cultural texts by Jewish and African American women, opening new avenues of inquiry that yield more complex stories about Jewishness, African American identity, and the meanings of whiteness.

Lori Harrison-Kahan examines writings by Edna Ferber, Fannie Hurst, and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as the blackface performances of vaudevillian Sophie Tucker and controversies over the musical and film adaptations of Show Boat and Imitation of Life. Moving between literature and popular culture, she illuminates how the dynamics of interethnic exchange have at once produced and undermined the binary of black and white.

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Imitation of Life

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Novels, Passing, Women on 2010-12-28 21:18Z by Steven

Imitation of Life

Duke University Press
2004 (Originially published in 1933)
352 pages
6 b&w photos, 1 line drawing
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8223-3324-1

Fannie Hurst (1889–1968)

Edited by:

Daniel Itzkovitz, Associate Professor of  American Literature and Culture
Stonehill College, North Easton, Massachusetts

A bestseller in 1933, and subsequently adapted into two beloved and controversial films, Imitation of Life has played a vital role in ongoing conversations about race, femininity, and the American Dream. Bea Pullman, a white single mother, and her African American maid, Delilah Johnston, also a single mother, rear their daughters together and become business partners. Combining Bea’s business savvy with Delilah’s irresistible southern recipes, they build an Aunt Jemima-like waffle business and an international restaurant empire. Yet their public success brings them little happiness. Bea is torn between her responsibilities as a businesswoman and those of a mother; Delilah is devastated when her light-skinned daughter, Peola, moves away to pass as white. Imitation of Life struck a chord in the 1930s, and it continues to resonate powerfully today.

The author of numerous bestselling novels, a masterful short story writer, and an outspoken social activist, Fannie Hurst was a major celebrity in the first half of the twentieth century. Daniel Itzkovitz’s introduction situates Imitation of Life in its literary, biographical, and cultural contexts, addressing such topics as the debates over the novel and films, the role of Hurst’s one-time secretary and great friend Zora Neale Hurston in the novel’s development, and the response to the novel by Hurst’s friend Langston Hughes, whose one-act satire, “Limitations of Life” (which reverses the races of Bea and Delilah), played to a raucous Harlem crowd in the late 1930s. This edition brings a classic of popular American literature back into print.

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Two or Three Spectacular Mulatas and the Queer Pleasures of Overidentification

Posted in Articles, Arts, Gay & Lesbian, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2010-03-05 01:18Z by Steven

Two or Three Spectacular Mulatas and the Queer Pleasures of Overidentification

Camera Obscura
Volume 23, Number 1 67 (2008)
pages 113-143
DOI: 10.1215/02705346-2007-026

Hiram Perez, Assistant professor of English
Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York

Building on feminist and queer scholarship on the relationship of film spectatorship to subjectivity, this essay conjectures subaltern spectatorships of the two US film adaptations of Fannie Hurst‘s 1933 novel Imitation of Life as a means of tracing the impossibly entangled discourses of race and sexuality, as well as of formulating “queer of color” as a kind of critical modality. Much like Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin functions, according to Sigmund Freud, as a cultural artifact prized in the form of an idealized beating fantasy by the Victorian (white) child, Imitation of Life stages for black and queer of color spectators originary traumas, in particular the formative (and compounded) experiences of racial and sexual shame. This essay seeks to reconcile the dissonant emotions evoked by Imitation of Life by reading the overidentifications of subaltern spectators with the figure of the tragic mulatto as instances of queer pleasure, both self-shattering and subject forming. In so doing, the essay pays tribute to that tragic mulatto as a spectacular mulata and diva. The spectacular mulata diva summons queer subjectivities; furthermore, she betrays larger national and colonial secrets, locating the racially hybrid genealogies of the classic diva and the universalized subject of psychoanalysis, heretofore presumably white (European).

Read or purchase the article here.

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