“This damned business of colour”: Passing in African American novels and memoirs

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2012-04-24 03:26Z by Steven

“This damned business of colour”: Passing in African American novels and memoirs

Lehigh University
230 pages
Publication Number: AAT 3167071
ISBN: 9780542026218

Irina C. Negrea

Presented to the Graduate and Research Committee of Lehigh University in Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in English

The topic of this dissertation is an analysis of racial passing, as depicted in the novels The House Behind the Cedars by Charles Chesnutt, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, by James Weldon Johnson, and Passing by Nella Larsen, as well as in the memoirs The Sweeter the Juice by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, Notes of a White Black Woman by Judy Scales-Trent, and Life on the Color Line by Gregory Williams.

Starting from the premise that passing is a complex phenomenon that reinforces and subverts the racial system simultaneously, this dissertation focuses on the subversive side of passing that comes to light especially when the passer is found out—a side that becomes obvious in the reactions it provokes in white racists: horror, fear, disgust, and insecurity.

One other new element that this dissertation brings into the field is a classification of passing that can be used as a tool for the analysis of similar literary works. The majority of passers fall into one of two categories: identificatory and performative. Identificatory passing is predicated on the passer’s identification with the white ideology. It is permanent, and the passer breaks all ties with his/her African American ancestry. At the other end of the spectrum is performative passing, based on the view of race as performance—a matter of props, makeup, and/or behavior. The passer crosses the color line and “acts” white, but in most cases, s/he does not break his/her ties with his/her African American roots and community. Rather, the performative passer tries to acknowledge both his/her racial identities, refusing to be boxed in one narrow racial category. These types of passing do not exist in a “pure” state; there are characters who start as performers of race and end up identifying with whiteness, for example, but the two basic types exist, in one combination or another, in all the stories of passing ever written. These two different types of passing engender different types of subversion of the racial system, and they are discussed as well in this dissertation.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter I: “Gone Over on the Other Side:” Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars
  • Chapter II: “They Wouldn’t Know you from White:” The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
  • Chapter III: “They Always Come Back:” Nella Larsen’s Passing
  • Chapter IV: The Family’s “Heart of Darkness:” Passing in African American Memoirs
  • Bibliography

Purchase the dissertation here.

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Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black

Posted in Autobiography, Books, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States on 2011-09-16 03:19Z by Steven

Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black

Plume, an imprint of Penguin
February 1996
304 pages
5.35 x 7.95in
Paperback ISBN: 9780452275331
ePub eBook ISBN: 9781440665813
Adobe eBook ISBN: 9781440665813

Gregory Howard Williams, President
University of Cincinnati


  • Los Angeles Times Book Prize
  • Friends of American Writers Award: Nominee
  • Melcher Book Award: Nominee

A stunning journey to the heart of the racial dilemma in this country.

Table of Contents

  1. Acknowledgments
  2. The Open House Cafe
  3. The Midas Touch
  4. “Captain of My Soul”
  5. Rooster
  6. Learning How to Be Niggers
  7. Bob and Weave
  8. “Saved”
  9. Hustling
  10. Politics and Race
  11. The Color Line
  12. Accept the Things I Cannot Change
  13. Choices
  14. Go for It!
  15. Big Shoulders
  16. Persistence
  17. Teammates
  18. “Born in the Wilderness and Suckled by a Boar”
  19. State of Indiana v. Gregory H. Williams
  20. Mike: Like a Moth to Flames
  21. Tottering Kingdoms and Crumbling Empires
  22. Your Truly Mother
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University of Cincinnati president has a unique perspective on his life as a black man

Posted in Articles, Biography, Media Archive, United States on 2011-09-15 22:00Z by Steven

University of Cincinnati president has a unique perspective on his life as a black man

Cleveland Plain Dealer

Karen Farkas

CLEVELAND, Ohio—Gregory Williams says that in the five decades since he learned he was black and moved into a tarpaper shack with his black grandmother instead of a middle-class home with his white grandmother, the nation has made great progress in inclusion and diversity.

But much still needs to be done, the University of Cincinnati president told the audience at the City Club of Cleveland on Friday.

“Certainly there is less rigidity in America’s color line today than there was in the 1960s,” he said. “We live in a time, thankfully, where the ‘multiracial’ population is growing and barely raises an eyebrow these days. Yet all of us can be yanked back across the line by a look, a so-called ‘joke’ or a tense reception in the so-called ‘wrong’ neighborhood.”

Williams, who has been at UC for two years, spoke of his life as a black man who looks white and his views on race and several times asked “Why is it taking so long?” to speed racial healing in the nation…

…Williams, who said he came to view himself as African-American, eventually wrote an award-winning and best-selling memoir, “Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black.” He also earned numerous degrees, leading to a career in academia…

…Following his speech, a man in the audience asked why Williams didn’t try to live as a white man after he got older.

“In Indiana I was ostracized for being black, and if I abandoned those who were willing to stand by me, I’d have no principles at all,” Williams responded…

Read the entire article here.

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Being Black and White

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive on 2011-01-29 22:16Z by Steven

Being Black and White

The American Prospect
E. J. Graff, Associate Director and Senior Researcher
The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism
Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts

When I was 18, I learned, quite belatedly, that my father’s brother had married a black woman. The wedding took place in 1958—the year I was born, the year after my parents married. Instantly I knew that racism had kept me from knowing my uncle (by then dead of a heart attack), my aunt, my cousins. Instantly I knew I would have to find them. But it was one thing to discover that the deepest, most volatile division in the country ran right through my family; actually crossing that divide to claim kinship was, for a long time, too daunting for someone whose only experience with “diversity” was being the sole Jewish kid among her semirural Ohio high school’s 2,300 students.

And so it wasn’t until my thirties that I finally met my aunt and cousins. To my surprise, they treated me not just as a cousin but as a living symbol of racial reconciliation. Once we’d met, told stories, and compared features—we share a long jaw and sharp chin—I started to notice how arbitrarily I’d sorted the world around me into “black” or “white.” All around were black people who looked related to me. White friends had color in their families of blood or choice: a stepfather, a spouse, a sister-in-law, a dearest friend. I started to feel that every American whose family has been here more than a few decades is from a mixed-race family, that somewhere out there—however near or far—we all have relatives of the “other” color. African Americans know this, of course, often down to the name of at least one plantation owner in the family tree. But for a white girl in a color-bound world, this was news.

As it happened, the insight that was striking me so personally—that the color line is drawn in shifting sand—would soon strike the culture. In the past few years, the headlines have been full of such things as the 2000 census’s mix-and-match option; genetic evidence that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (his dead wife’s half-sister and slave) left a widening delta of descendants; and the ascending god Tiger Woods’s refusal to reject his plural ethnicity. And since 1995, a number of mixed-race memoirs have hit our shelves, opening discussion of a new identity: biracial writers who have a black parent and a white one. These authors grapple with the sense that they don’t quite belong anywhere, that they aren’t fully claimed by either race. But their wide range of experiences reveals how deeply racial identity, like any identity, is affected not just by society but also by family, character, time, and place…

Read the entire article here.

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Blinded By the Light; But Now I See (Book Review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Law, Media Archive on 2010-08-12 02:41Z by Steven

Blinded By the Light; But Now I See

Western New England Law Review
Western New England College
Volume 20, Issue 2 (1998)
pages 491-504

Leonard M. Baynes, Professor of Law and Inaugural Director of The Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and Economic Development
St. Johns University


In the United States, interracial discrimination is considered the norm. The use of the word “discrimination” brings to mind George Wallace standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama [in 1963] to bar the entry of African American students. It brings to mind slavery. After all, we ostensibly fought the Civil War over slavery and the right to hold Black people as slaves. White against-Black discrimination occupies an almost sacred historical position in our society.

Today, discrimination often comes in more subtle forms, and, of course, White people now claim that they are victims of so-called “reverse discrimination.” Racial discrimination by Whites against Blacks is not the exclusive discrimination paradigm. African American society has its own internal form of discrimination—often light against dark—which sadly was modeled on the White—against-Black paradigm. It was not uncommon for very light-skinned Blacks (sometimes nicknamed the blue vein society because their veins could be seen through their skin) to exclude dark-skinned Blacks from their clubs and activities based on skin color. Other organizations would discriminate based on whether a person’s skin color was lighter than a brown paper bag. Many of these organizations have changed and now include African Americans of a wide rainbow of colors.

These days, discrimination in the African American community is often dual-sided-light versus dark and dark versus light. Spike Lee, in the film School Daze, which takes place on an all Black college campus, underscores this duality and divides the students into two groups: (1) the wannabees (more often light-skinned, and middle class) who are members of fraternities and sororities and (2) the jigaboos (more often dark-skinned, and from lower economic backgrounds) who are often members of Black militant groups. In the film, it was evident that the two groups despised and intimidated each other.

For many Blacks, discussion of this internal discrimination is still a taboo subject. It is understood, but rarely discussed or investigated. But recently, critical race theorists have begun to examine the complex foundation and mechanisms of color-based discrimination. Professor Judy Scales-Trent of State University of New York at Buffalo is the author of the book entitled Notes of a White Black Woman: Race, Color, Community, and Dean Gregory Howard Williams, dean of the Ohio State University College of Law, is the author of the book entitled Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black. Both books are exceptional personal narratives, which allow the reader to examine first-hand, incidents and introspection surrounding color-based discrimination in the United States. Both authors describe many experiences of discrimination that they have encountered within the African American community, as well as by Whites.

Many African Americans are dark enough so that racial recognition is never at issue. Many who are very easily recognized as Black often wonder what it would be like to be so light. Both Scales-Trent and Williams answer that question. They both highlight those unique issues that they encounter as light-skinned African Americans who are so light that they cannot easily be racialized. Both authors contribute to the color analysis by challenging our historical conceptions of race, identity, and racial solidarity. Ultimately, they help us to better understand and address how they have encountered discrimination by both sides. It is also very important to point out that both of these people could have passed as White if they wanted to, but they did not. They chose to stay Black and be involved in the African American community.

In this Book Review, I discuss the law regarding intra-race discrimination based on color. I then discuss excerpts from the books of Professor Scales-Trent and Dean Williams, concluding that it is sometimes difficult to be an African American who is too light…

Read the entire article here.

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Racial Passing

Posted in Articles, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Law, Media Archive, Passing, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2009-11-28 01:31Z by Steven

Racial Passing

Ohio State Law Journal
Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law
Vol. 62: 1145 (2001)
Frank R. Strong Law Forum Lecture

Randall Kennedy, Michael R. Klein Professor of Law
Harvard Law School

I. Passing: A Definition

Passing is a deception that enables a person to adopt certain roles or identities from which he would be barred by prevailing social standards in the absence of his misleading conduct. The classic racial passer in the United States has been the “white Negro”: the individual whose physical appearance allows him to present himself as “white” but whose “black” lineage (typically only a very partial black lineage) makes him a Negro according to dominant racial rules. A passer is distinguishable from the person who is merely mistaken—the person who, having been told that he is white, thinks of himself as white, and holds himself out to be white (though he and everyone else in the locale would deem him to be “black” were the facts of his ancestry known). Gregory Howard Williams was, for a period, such a person. The child of a white mother and a light-skinned Negro man who pretended to be white, Williams assumed that he, too, was white. Not until he was ten years old, when his parents divorced, did Williams and his brother learn that they were “black” according to the custom by which any known Negro ancestry makes a person a Negro. Williams recalls vividly the moment at which he was told of his “new” racial identity:

I never had heard anything crazier in my life! How could Dad tell us such a mean lie? I glanced across the aisle to where he sat grim-faced and erect, staring straight ahead. I saw my father as I had never seen him before. The veil dropped from his face and features. Before my eyes he was transformed from a swarthy Italian to his true self—a high-yellow mulatto. My father was a Negro! We were colored! After ten years in Virginia on the white side of the color line, I knew what that meant. When he held himself out as white before learning of his father’s secret, Williams was simply mistaken. When he occasionally held himself out as white after learning the “true” racial identity of his father, Williams was passing. In other words, as I define the term, passing requires that a person be self-consciously engaged in concealment. Such a person knows about his African American lineage—his black “blood”—and either stays quiet about it, hoping that silence along with his appearance will lead observers to perceive him as white, or expressly asserts that he is white (knowing all the while that he is “black” according to ascendant social understandings).

Estimates regarding the incidence of passing have varied greatly. Walter White claimed that annually “approximately 12,000 white-skinned Negroes disappear” into white society. Roi Ottley asserted that there were five million “white Negroes” in the United States and that forty to fifty thousand passed annually. Professor John H. Burma’s estimates were considerably lower. He posited that some 110,000 blacks lived on the white side of the color line and that between 2,500 and 2,750 passed annually. Given its secretive nature, no one knows for sure the incidence of passing. It is clear, however, that at the middle of the twentieth century, large numbers of African Americans claimed to know people engaged in passing…

Read the entire article/lecture here.

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