Two Takes on ‘Imitation of Life’: Exploitation in Eastmancolor

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-05-17 23:22Z by Steven

Two Takes on ‘Imitation of Life’: Exploitation in Eastmancolor

The New York Times

J. Hoberman

“I would have made the picture just for the title,” Douglas Sirk said of his last Hollywood production, “Imitation of Life” (1959). But, newly released on Blu-ray by Universal, along with its original version, directed in 1934 by John M. Stahl, the movie is far more than an evocative turn of phrase.

This tale of two single mothers, one black and the other white — and of maternal love, exploitation and crossing the color line — is a magnificent social symptom. Both versions were taken from the 1933 best seller by Fannie Hurst, a generally maligned popular writer if one whose novels, the historian Ann Douglas notes in “Terrible Honesty,” her study of Jazz Age culture, constitute “a neglected source on the emergence of modern feminine sexuality.”

Mr. Stahl’s “Imitation of Life” movie was certainly the “shameless tear-jerker” that the New York Times reviewer Andre Sennwald called it, as well as a prime example of the melodramatic mode known in the Yiddish theater as “mama-drama.” But it was not without progressive intent and, released during the second year of the New Deal, addressed issues of race, class and gender almost head-on.

The white protagonist, Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), is a not-quite-self-made businesswoman; the most complex and sympathetic character, Peola Johnson (Fredi Washington), is a casualty of American racism, both institutionalized and internalized. Behind both is the self-effacing powerhouse known as Aunt Delilah (Louise Beavers), who is the light-skinned Peola’s black mother and the source of the secret recipe on which Bea founds her pancake empire — not to mention its smiling trademark.

Happily ripped off by her white partner for the rest of her life, Beavers embodies exploited African-American labor, something the movie acknowledges by giving her a funeral on the level of a state occasion. The real martyr, however, is Washington’s Peola. The film historian Donald Bogle called her “a character in search of a movie” — but the tragic mulatto is the only part Hollywood would allow this accomplished and politically aware actress to play. In effect, she dramatizes her own segregated condition on screen…

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The Blue Eyes of a Black Nationalist

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-05-08 19:36Z by Steven

The Blue Eyes of a Black Nationalist

The Secret History of America: Writings and Revelations from an American Studies Seminar at UC Berkeley

Maliq Hunsberger

When I was four years old, I came home from preschool and said to my mother, “they think I’m one of the white kids.” To their credit, I have always looked like one of the white kids. Unfortunately for those not interested in giving evidence to the proverb about books and their covers, my appearance is phenotypically misleading.

My mother is white and my father is Black. My older brother Miles looks, as he describes it, “ambiguously brown.” I on the other hand look unambiguously white. And not just in the way you tell your lightskinned friend he looks white. But invisible to the police, pre-Tiger Woods golf course, Applebee’s in the suburbs white.

The way I look has allowed me to occupy a space of “accessible Blackness” to many of my white peers. In other words, I have Black blood but not Black skin, meaning I can be seen as interesting but not scary. This has also functioned as my greatest tool of influence. I often find myself in discussions around race that I know my father, brother, or anyone visibly non-white are not included in. This is because I evoke much of the white fascination directed toward Black communities without donning the Black skin that the white world has been taught to fear so strongly. In this space I am able to “be a part of” genuine conversations about cultural appropriation, white privilege, racial common sense, etc. within white spaces because I pass so easily. These conversations have become taboo in multiracial spaces for fear of upsetting the colorblind “politically correct” balance that has pushed both straightforward racism and productive conversation underground. Unfortunately I have also become the acceptable target of much of that pent up racism that can no longer be expressed explicitly to those identifiably Black. It is this constant grappling of placement, membership, and authenticity that have provided my greatest privileges and contributed to my strongest feelings of isolation.

It is an odd feeling to be one race at the beginning of a conversation and another by the end…

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“A Chosen Exile” by History Professor Allyson Hobbs, has won two prizes from the Organization of American Historians

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-04-28 01:54Z by Steven

“A Chosen Exile” by History Professor Allyson Hobbs, has won two prizes from the Organization of American Historians

Stanford University Department of History
Palo Alto, California


A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life” by History Professor Allyson Hobbs has won two prizes from the Organization of American Historians: the Frederick Jackson Turner Award for best first book in American history and the Lawrence Levine Award for best book in American cultural history.

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Racial Reflections

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-04-23 00:28Z by Steven

Racial Reflections

American Book Review
Volume 36, Number 2, January/February 2015
page 13
DOI: 10.1353/abr.2015.0007

Ben Railton, Associate Professor of English
Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg, Massachusetts

Hobbs, Allyson, A Chosen Exile: History of Racial Passing in American Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014)

Even without a back-cover blurb from Isabel Wilkerson, it seems inevitable that Allyson Hobbs’s A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America would be compared to Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010). Both books focus on an American history with which we’re all vaguely familiar but know far too little of its specifics and complexities. Both works use the individual, intimate stories of American lives, families, and communities to consider these sweeping cultural and historical issues. And both are entirely successful in bringing their readers into those stories and histories, helping them understand American identities and communities in a way that perhaps no prior work has accomplished.

However, Hobbs’s most fundamental choice to structure each of her chapters around a different time period differentiates her book from Wilkerson’s in an important way. That is, most of the collective narratives of passing have focused on the same late nineteenth–through mid–twentieth–century time period that comprised the Great Migration—the period between, let’s say, Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900) and the 1950s version of the film Imitation of Life (1959; a remake of the 1934 original), with James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) and Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) marking significant stages along the way. Hobbs’s third and fourth chapters also focus on this period, but through her extended attention to all the aforementioned works and figures and many others (such as the pioneering turn of the century sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, who both analyzed and experienced these issues of identity; or the Harlem Renaissance poet and novelist Jean Toomer, whose writings and life complement each other to provide a rounded picture of passing in 1920s and 1930s), she urges the reader to better understand breadth and depth of the era.

But by the time Hobbs brings her readers to those chapters and that new look at a somewhat familiar time period, she has already provided an even more striking shift in our perspectives on passing through her first and second chapters. In those chapters, she narrates and analyzes the far different yet still interconnected histories and stories of passing in the pre-Civil War and Reconstruction periods, convincingly portraying the issue as one that has persisted and evolved alongside American society and culture throughout the centuries. Indeed, these earlier chapters expanded and challenged some of my most basic understandings of passing: it’s impossible to think of it as simply a choice between different possible identities and communities, for example, when considering the case of William and Ellen Craft, the fugitive slaves who used both racial and gender passing as a conjoined strategy to gain their freedom. Is passing a choice if it is necessary for freedom and even survival? If not, might that also help us see the necessities and even at times inevitabilities of twentieth-century acts of passing as well? Such are the kinds of questions prompted by Hobbs’s Chapter 1 investigation of antebellum passing.

These striking earlier chapters have another, corollary effect: they also force us to reexamine the time periods under consideration through the new lens provided by the issue of passing. Ever since Frederick Douglass highlighted in the first chapter of his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) the prevalence of master-slave rape and thus miscegenation on plantations, we’ve had at least some collective sense of how arbitrary the racial categories and definitions by which the slave system was divided were—of why Douglass was defined as an African American slave while his father’s other children were free white men and women. But what Hobbs’s stories and analyses remind us is that, thanks to such racial mixing as well as many other factors, race was also a slippery, liminal category in the era—one that could be manipulated and altered in the right moments and circumstances. Successful manipulations were, no doubt, as rare as escapes such as Douglass’s, but, still, the existence of slave passing at all underscores the instability of race and other identity markers in…

Read the entire review here.

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The officer who refused to lie about being black

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive, Passing, United Kingdom on 2015-04-17 21:59Z by Steven

The officer who refused to lie about being black

BBC News Magazine

Leslie Gordon Goffe

Today it’s taken for granted that people of all ethnic groups should be treated equally in the armed forces and elsewhere. But as Leslie Gordon Goffe writes, during World War One black officers in the British armed forces faced a system with prejudice at its core.

When war was declared in 1914, a Jamaican, David Louis Clemetson, was among the first to volunteer.

A 20-year-old law student at Cambridge University when war broke out, Clemetson was eager to show that he and others from British colonies like Jamaica – where the conflict in Europe had been dismissed by some as a “white man’s war” – were willing to fight and die for King and Country.

He did die. Just 52 days before the war ended, he was killed in action on the Western Front…

…Another candidate for the first black officer is Jamaican-born George Bemand. But he had to lie about his black ancestry in order to become an officer. Bemand, whose story was unearthed by historian Simon Jervis, became a 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery on 23 May 1915, four months before Clemetson became an officer and two years before Walter Tull.

When the teenage Bemand and his family migrated to Britain from Jamaica in 1907, and the ship he was on made a brief stopover in New York, Bemand, the child of a white English father and a black Jamaican mother, was categorised by US immigration officials as “African-Black”. Yet, asked in a military interview seven years later, in 1914, whether he was “of pure European descent”, Bemand said yes. His answer was accepted.

But Clemetson took a different approach.

“Are you of pure European descent?” he was asked, in an interrogation intended to unmask officer candidates whose ethnicity was not obvious and who were perhaps light-skinned enough to pass for white. “No,” answered Clemetson, whose grandfather Robert had been a slave in Jamaica, he was not “of pure European descent”.

By telling the truth about his ancestry, Clemetson threatened to disrupt the military’s peculiar “Don’t ask, don’t tell” racial practices, which were conducted with a wink and a nod…

Read the entire article here.

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The Family Secret in the Mirror

Posted in Audio, Autobiography, Interviews, Media Archive, Passing, Religion, United States on 2015-04-16 14:01Z by Steven

The Family Secret in the Mirror

The Brian Lehrer Show
WNYC 93.9 FM
New York, New York
Monday, 2015-03-23

Brian Lehrer, Host

Lacey Schwartz wins the documentary section prize for her documentary work-in-progress, ‘Outside The Box’ at the TAA Awards during the 5th Annual Tribeca Film Festival. (Mat Szwajkos/Getty)

Raised as a white Jewish kid in Woodstock, New York, filmmaker Lacey Schwartz tells the story of her discovery that she is in fact bi-racial and doesn’t just take after her father’s Sicilian ancestor. In her documentary “Little White Lie,” she discusses the effect of the lies and the truth about her family and identity.

Download the episode here.

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Lacey Schwartz Unearths Family Secrets in ‘Little White Lie’

Posted in Audio, Autobiography, Identity Development/Psychology, Interviews, Media Archive, Passing, Religion, United States on 2015-04-14 16:52Z by Steven

Lacey Schwartz Unearths Family Secrets in ‘Little White Lie’

KCRW 89.9 MHz FM
Santa Monica, California

Kim Masters, Host

Kaitlin Parker, Producer

Lacey Schwartz grew up thinking she was white. When her college labeled her a black student based on a photograph, she knew she had to get some explanations from her family. Those conversations formed the foundation of her new PBS documentary Little White Lie. She shares how she convinced her parents to talk about tough topics on camera and why documentaries like hers are in danger of being pushed out of primetime on some PBS stations.

Listen to the episode (00:29:07) here. Download the episode here.

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Was pro baseball’s first African-American player passing for white?

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-04-12 01:55Z by Steven

Was pro baseball’s first African-American player passing for white?


Jenée Desmond-Harris

William Edward White on the 1879 Brown baseball team. White is in the second row, seated and wearing a hat. (Source: Brown University Archives via Slate)

A story about professional baseball’s little-known first black player (well, possible first black player) raises as many questions about racial identity as it does about the official list of African-American sports pioneers.

In a fascinating February 2014 piece for Slate, Peter Morris and Stefan Fatsis explain that William Edward White, who played one game for the National League’s Providence Grays in 1879, publicly identified as white but was actually born to a white Georgia man and an enslaved biracial woman.

William Edward White was born in 1860 to a Georgia businessman and one of his slaves, who herself was of mixed race. That made White, legally, black and a slave. But his death certificate and other information indicate that White spent his adult life passing as a white man. Since the 1879 game was unearthed a decade ago, questions about White’s race have clouded his legacy.

The laws in most states at the time would have categorized someone like White — who had one black-identified parent and roughly one-quarter African ancestry — black. But he was identified as “white” on his death certificate and several census forms, and according to Slate’s reporting, it’s unlikely that even his wife knew he was the child of a mixed-race mother.

So should he be considered the first African-American baseball player? Should we start celebrating him among other black trailblazers every February, right along with Jackie Robinson?…

Read the entire article here.

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Harlem and After: African American Literature 1925-present (EAS3241)

Posted in Course Offerings, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United Kingdom, United States on 2015-04-12 01:15Z by Steven

Harlem and After: African American Literature 1925-present (EAS3241)

University of Exeter
Exeter, Devon, United Kingdom

Taking as its point of departure the landmark special issue of Survey Graphic that announced the arrival on the artistic scene of the “New Negro” (1925), this module provides a historical survey of African American writing, 1925 to present. Through close readings of works by both canonical and emerging writers, it encourages students to situate these texts within their historical, social, political and literary contexts. Emphasising key literary and political movements and moments (the Harlem Renaissance; the Civil Rights Movement; Black Power; Hurricane Katrina) and recurring themes and motifs (lynching and racial violence; racial passing and mixed race subjectivity; the legacies of the Great Migration; the significance of music in African American culture; minstrelsy and the commodification of blackness), it invites students to consider the range and diversity of African American literature (poetry; short stories; essays; fiction; graphic novel) published from 1925 to today.

For more information, click here.


Boutté play to explore questions of race and identity

Posted in Articles, Arts, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-04-06 01:13Z by Steven

Boutté play to explore questions of race and identity

Illinois State University

Eric Jome, Director of Media Relations

When Duane Boutté, an assistant professor in the School of Theatre and Dance, read James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the story struck a familiar chord. It also served as further inspiration for Boutté to develop a play based loosely on his own family history.

Johnson was an author, songwriter, professor, lawyer, diplomat and civil rights leader in the early 20th century. The executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1920s, Johnson also composed the lyrics to Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, a song the NAACP promoted as a black national anthem.

The book’s plot revolves around the life of a man struggling with his own racial identity. The un-named main character leads an idyllic childhood in the American south, taking piano lessons and developing a love for the music of Chopin. His world is changed when he learns that his mother is of mixed race, even though she passes for white. He eventually comes to terms with his heritage, but ultimately decides to keep his true identity a secret, even from his children.

Boutté was immediately intrigued. Johnson’s novel explored themes of identity that resonate deeply with him. His family tree, rooted in Louisiana, includes black and white branches. “I have maternal and paternal grandparents of mixed race, but they always identified as black,” he said. “Throughout American history, mixed-race children were more often raised by the black branch and shunned by the white. My great-great-grandfather in Louisiana established his own family cemetery so that both black and white family members could be buried in the same area, but I’ve always been struck by stories about a few mixed-race relatives of ours who simply passed for white.”…

Read the entire article here.

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