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
2015-04-17

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
2015-04-13

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?

Vox
2015-04-11

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
2015-02-08

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.

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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
2015-03-25

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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Cast Into Racial Limbo: The Histories, Experiences, and Intricacies of Racial Passing in Twentieth Century America

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-04-03 20:26Z by Steven

Cast Into Racial Limbo: The Histories, Experiences, and Intricacies of Racial Passing in Twentieth Century America

Strigidae: A Journal of Undergraduate Writing in the Arts and Humanities
Volume 1: Issue 1 Written Bodies/Writing Selves (January 2015)
Article 3
8 pages

Hersch Rothmel
Keene State College, Keene, New Hampshire

The deep, complex, and contradictory layers that manifest through the intricate and subtle art of passing provide a catalyst for a greater understanding of how black identities have been constructed over time. Understanding passing as a historical, cultural, political, and social marker is necessary in assessing racial histories of America, and this understanding makes it possible to cultivate new perspectives and deeper critical analyses of how race has evolved and survived U.S. history.

Read the entire article here.

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Little White Lie

Posted in Autobiography, Media Archive, Passing, Religion, United States, Videos on 2015-04-02 01:20Z by Steven

Little White Lie

Apple iTunes
2015-03-31
USA
01:06:00

Lacey Schwartz

Also available via Amazon.

Filmmaker Lacey Schwartz grew up in a typical upper middle class Jewish household in Woodstock, NY, with loving parents and a strong sense of her identity, despite occasional remarks from those around her who wondered how a white girl could have such dark skin. As a child she always believed her family’s explanation — that her appearance was inherited from her dark-skinned Sicilian grandfather — but as a teenager, after her parents abruptly split, her gut begins to tell her something else. Lacey’s suspicions intensify when she attends a more diverse high school, where she suddenly doesn’t quite fit any racial profile, and her classmates are vocal about noting it. At the urging of her boyfriend, who is of mixed race, she begins to question her true identity and the validity of her parents’ explanation. At 18, Lacey finally confronts her mother and learns the truth about her biological father. As Little White Lie shows, both the bonds and the lies told between family members can run deep. Lacey strives to reconcile her newfound African American heritage with her Jewish upbringing, and discovers that in order to define herself, she must first come to terms with her parents’ choices and how much she is willing to let their past affect her future. Piecing together her family history and the story of her dual identity using home videos, archival footage, interviews, and episodes from her own life, Lacey discovers that answering those questions means understanding her parents’ stories as well as her own.

For more information, click here.

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“I was living in a racial closet”: Black filmmaker Lacey Schwartz on growing up white

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Media Archive, Passing, Religion, United States on 2015-03-26 18:47Z by Steven

“I was living in a racial closet”: Black filmmaker Lacey Schwartz on growing up white

Salon
Sunday, 2015-03-22

Marissa Charles


A photo of Lacey Schwartz and her mother, in “Little White Lie” (Credit: PBS)

Schwartz talks to Salon about race, privilege, family secrets and her new PBS documentary “Little White Lie”

For the first 18 years of her life Lacey Schwartz knew she was white. With her dark skin, curly hair and full lips, she was a nice Jewish girl from Woodstock, New York. And then — she wasn’t.

Twenty years ago, Schwartz applied to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and — even though she didn’t tick a box giving her racial identity — she was admitted as a black student. “I know some people looked at that situation and they think, ‘Why weren’t you outraged? Why wouldn’t you protest it?’” Schwartz, 38, said. But for the filmmaker, it was an opportunity to open herself up to something that deep down had been niggling her for most of her life, a question that became the the heart of her documentary “Little White Lie,” which airs Monday on PBS.

Ever since she was 5 years old, when a classmate demanded that she show him her gums, Schwartz knew she looked a bit different from everyone else in her very white town. But her parents, Peggy and Robert Schwartz, had an answer for that — a photo in their family album of her paternal ancestor, a dark-skinned Sicilian Jew. The real answer was far less complicated, buried underneath a lifetime of secrets and lies that helped spell the end of her parents’ marriage. (Spoiler alert: Schwartz is the result of an affair her mom had with an African-American family friend. She demanded answers from her mother when she was 18, but didn’t talk to her father about it until her mid-30s when she made the film.)

In “Little White Lie,” Schwartz confronts her family, exposing the secret and revealing how she has spent her adult years straddling two racial identities. We talked to Schwartz about ditching law for filmmaking and what it’s like to be black and white in America.

What made you want to become a filmmaker?

When I was in law school I started thinking about the issues that I wanted to work on and how film was an effective way to speak about the issues I cared about…

…Your story is like “The Emperor’s New Clothes” because it seems so obvious that you’re black, and yet everyone was saying that you were white. Growing up, when you looked at yourself in the mirror, did you ever have an inkling?

Absolutely. I saw my difference. It’s so crazy for me to find a picture of me when I was a kid and remember that I was so insecure about my hair and my skin and all those things. I definitely felt self-conscious of not being like everybody else that was around me…

…For you, what does it mean to be black?

I think it’s twofold. Part of it is about my own consciousness about being a person of color and being of the world and seeing things. I lived so much of my life having the outlook and thinking that I was white and being somewhat oblivious to the rest of the world, and so I think for me, it’s about gaining that consciousness of difference and really actually recognizing how other people see me.

Part of it’s also being part of the community and the connection. It’s shared experiences on a variety of different levels. When I got to college, that connection, realizing that — even though I hadn’t grown up identifying as being black — there were ways in which I really felt connected to being part of a community…

Read the entire interview here.

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