Season 2, Episode 6: Stanford Prof. Allyson Hobbs Talks about A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life

Posted in Audio, History, Interviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-10-22 18:23Z by Steven

Season 2, Episode 6: Stanford Prof. Allyson Hobbs Talks about A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life

The Mixed Experience

Heidi Durrow, Host

Allyson Hobbs, Assistant Professor of History
Stanford University

I was lucky enough to get an advance reading copy of A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, a most excellent book by Stanford Professor Allyson Hobbs. She recently did a TED Talk about the role of grief in these narratives of racial crossing. The book very aptly and eloquently “examines how passing became both a strategy for survival and an avenue to loss.” You will love this interview with Allyson Hobbs as she explains the inspiration for this book, a brief discussion on the idea of “passing as black” and much much more.

Listen to the episode here. Download the episode here.

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Passing For White

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-10-19 21:40Z by Steven

Passing For White

South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Fort Lauderdale, Florida

David Crary
The Associated Press

America is more diverse than ever and racial pride is strong, yet a new movie and book are highlighting a phenomenon that seems like a relic of the segregationist past — black people passing as white.

The film, The Human Stain, is an adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel about a classics professor, played by Anthony Hopkins, who conceals his racial background.

The book, Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are, by Brooke Kroeger, includes a sympathetic profile of a black man who passed as a white Jew during the 1980s and ’90s.

Kroeger, a New York University journalism professor who spent four years researching her book, said passing has a profound resonance for many black Americans.

“Over and over, I’d hear personal stories about members of their family who didn’t return for reunions, who led clandestine lives,” she said.

“Traditionally, the attitude toward passing was you accepted it, you never exposed a passer. Post-1960s, when people are so proud of their racial and ethnic identities, it seems more like cultural treason, yet still people don’t give passers up.”

Paul Johnston, a retired X-ray technician, knows of passing firsthand. His parents, Albert and Thyra Johnston, passed as white along with Paul and his three older siblings while the family lived in two New Hampshire towns during the 1930s and ’40s. Albert was a physician in the community.

The truth of the Johnstons’ background came out in 1941, when Albert was rejected as a Navy officer. But despite the family’s fears, townspeople in Keene, N.H., were generally receptive to them even after the news spread, and the Johnstons’ experience was movingly depicted in a 1949 film, Lost Boundaries.

Paul Johnston, 68, is now married to a woman of Irish descent who has nine children from a previous marriage.

“Some of the kids were pretty prejudiced, but they grew to like me,” he said in a telephone interview. “They thought it was quite fascinating that something like this [his family's passing] would happen.”

Johnston, who says some of his relatives continue to pass for white, lives in a predominantly white town on Cape Cod.

“Almost nobody knows of my background, not because I’ve kept it a secret, just because I haven’t talked about it much except to a few people in my church,” he said. “I don’t think it would make any difference to people, but you never can tell.”…

…In The Human Stain, Roth’s fictional protagonist, Coleman Silk, was loosely modeled on the late Anatole Broyard, for many years a prominent literary critic for The New York Times

Read the entire article here.

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Hey – Are You White?

Posted in Articles, Arts, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-10-09 00:34Z by Steven

Hey – Are You White?

The Austin Chronicle
Austin, Texas

Wayne Alan Brenner, Arts Listings Editor

And what, if anything, do you intend to do about it?

Black may be beautiful, but here’s a somewhat paler man who’s been involved with the uglier parts of the White Power movement. His name is Wesley Connor and he’s the main character in a new drama called Am I White by Austin playwright Adrienne Dawes. And this Connor guy is based on a real, actual person: A man named Leo Felton.

Note: The real guy, Felton, is in prison (not for the first time) as of this writing, sent up for armed robbery and allegations of planning to bomb the Holocaust Museum, and will likely remain there for a couple dozen years or more.

Thing is, this White Power guy, he’s … well, he’s actually of mixed race himself. And this fact was publicized during news coverage of his indictment. And so, back in the harsh black-and-white world of the lock-up, things are now a bit more let’s say problematic for him on a day-to-day basis. Not to mention what might be going on inside the man’s own skull: How does he square all this cognitively dissonant bullshit away?…

Read the entire article here.

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Racial passing was a painful way to improve life

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-10-09 00:23Z by Steven

Racial passing was a painful way to improve life

Asbury Park Press
Neptune, New Jersey

Kelly-Jane Cotter, Staff Writer

Racial passing helped African-Americans create new lives in a time of danger. But a Morristown author’s new book also examines the complex legacy of passing, and the pain of leaving families behind.

Allyson Hobbs has a gap in her history that will be familiar to many African-Americans.

“My aunt told me a story of a relative who passed as white in the ’30s and ’40s,” Hobbs said. “Her mother believed it was the best thing to improve her life circumstances, but my relative did not want to do it. She didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to leave the South side of Chicago and everyone she knew.”

Nevertheless, the light-skinned young woman left her darker family members and started anew. She married a white man and had white children. She “passed.”

“One day, she gets a very inconvenient call from her mother,” Hobbs said. “Her father had died, and her mother wanted her to come home for the funeral. But she couldn’t. How could she go? How would she have explained this to her husband and children, that suddenly there was this black family in Chicago? She didn’t go, and she never went back.”…

Read the entire article here.

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A History of Loss

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-10-08 20:45Z by Steven

A History of Loss

Harvard University Press Blog
Harvard University Press

Between the late eighteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries, countless African Americans passed as white, leaving behind families, friends, and communities without any available avenue for return. As historian Allyson Hobbs explains in A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, scholars have traditionally paid far more attention to what was gained by passing as white than what was lost by leaving a black racial identity behind. Her book, she writes, “is an effort to recover those lives,” to write the history of passing as a history of loss…

Read the entire article here.

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‘A Chosen Exile’: Black People Passing In White America

Posted in Articles, Audio, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-10-08 00:47Z by Steven

‘A Chosen Exile’: Black People Passing In White America

Code Switch: Frontiers of Race, Culture and Ethnicity
All Things Considered
National Public Radio

Karen Grigsby Bates, Correspondent
Culver City, California

Dr. Albert Johnston passed in order to practice medicine. After living as leading citizens in Keene, N.H., the Johnstons revealed their true racial identity, and became national news. (Historical Society of Cheshire County)

Several years ago, Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs was talking with a favorite aunt, who was also the family storyteller. Hobbs learned that she had a distant cousin whom she’d never met nor heard of.

Which is exactly the way the cousin wanted it.

Hobbs’ cousin had been living as white, far away in California, since she’d graduated from high school. This was at the insistence of her mother.

“She was black, but she looked white,” Hobbs said. “And her mother decided it was in her best interest to move far away from Chicago, to Los Angeles, and to assume the life of a white woman.”…

…Hobbs began writing about passing for her doctoral dissertation, and was encouraged to turn it into a book. The dissertation became A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America. It’s a history of passing told through the lens of personal stories…

…Then there’s the sad tale of Elsie Roxborough, a beauty from a distinguished Detroit family who became the first black girl to live in a dorm at the University of Michigan. She tried acting in California, then moved to New York to live as a white woman. When her disapproving father refused to support her, Roxborough — then known as Mona Manet — committed suicide. Her grieving and equally pale sister passed as a white woman to claim the body, so Roxborough’s secret wouldn’t be given away. Her death certificate declared she was white….

Read the article here. Listen to the story (00:04:58) here. Download the story here.

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In a new play, Adrienne Dawes delves into racial identity

Posted in Articles, Arts, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-10-02 02:22Z by Steven

In a new play, Adrienne Dawes delves into racial identity

Austin American-Statesman
Austin, Texas

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Reporter/Arts Critic

Before the dialogue begins, before the first stage direction is explained, the complexities of race and racial identity percolate up from the script of “Am I White,” a new play by Austin writer Adrienne Dawes.

Take the cast list: “Wesley Connor, biracial (passes as white), member of the White Order of Thule,” “Ryan Cahill, white, member of the Aryan Brotherhood” and “Justine Ramos, biracial (could pass as black).”

Ricocheting back and forth in time, seguing into nightmarish scenes played out as a disturbing minstrel show, “Am I White” tells the story of an imprisoned neo-Nazi convicted of plotting terrorist acts who must confront his own mixed-race heritage.

Directed by Jenny Larson, “Am I White” opened Wednesday for a three-week run at Salvage Vanguard Theater.

“Am I White” is based on the true story of Leo Felton, a white supremacist who hid his own mixed-race identity as the child of a short-lived idealistic Civil Rights-era marriage between a black architect and a white former nun…

Read the entire review here.

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Clotel or, The President’s Daughter

Posted in Books, Media Archive, Novels, Passing, United States on 2014-09-29 20:42Z by Steven

Clotel or, The President’s Daughter

Penguin Press
2003-12-30 (First published in December 1853)
320 Pages
Paperback ISBN: 9780142437728
ePub ISBN: 9781440626616

William Wells Brown (1814–1884)

Introduction by:

M. Giulia Fabi, Associate professor of American literature
University of Ferrara, Italy

First published in December 1853, Clotel was written amid then unconfirmed rumors that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with one of his slaves. The story begins with the auction of his mistress, here called Currer, and their two daughters, Clotel and Althesa. The Virginian who buys Clotel falls in love with her, gets her pregnant, seems to promise marriage—then sells her. Escaping from the slave dealer, Clotel returns to Virginia disguised as a white man in order to rescue her daughter, Mary, a slave in her father’s house. A fast-paced and harrowing tale of slavery and freedom, of the hypocrisies of a nation founded on democratic principles, Clotel is more than a sensationalist novel. It is a founding text of the African American novelistic tradition, a brilliantly composed and richly detailed exploration of human relations in a new world in which race is a cultural construct.

  • First time in Penguin Classics
  • Published in time for African-American History Month
  • Includes appendices that show the different endings Brown created for the various later versions of Clotel, along with the author’s narrative of his “Life and Escape,” Introduction, suggested readings, and comprehensive explanatory notes
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“Am I White” by Adrienne Dawes

Posted in Arts, Forthcoming Media, Identity Development/Psychology, Passing, United States on 2014-09-28 20:12Z by Steven

“Am I White” by Adrienne Dawes

Salvage Vanguard Theater Presents the Word Premiere of Am I White by Adrienne Dawes

Performances run October 1- 18, 2014
VIP Opening Night Performance: October 4, 2014

Salvage Vanguard Theater
2803 Manor Road
Austin, Texas 78722
Telephone: (512) 474-SVT-6 (474-7886)

Salvage Vanguard Theater announces the third and final MADE IN THE SVT production of its 20th anniversary season: the world premiere of Am I White by local playwright Adrienne Dawes, directed by Jenny Larson.

When Neo-Nazi terrorist Wesley Connor returns to prison after a failed bomb plot, he is confronted with the two identities that threaten his position within the White Order of Thule most: fatherhood and his own mixed race heritage.

Wesley Connor first entered the prison system at age 19. He became a member of the White Order of Thule, quickly rising the ranks of the “esoteric brotherhood working toward the revitalization of the Culture-Soul of the European people.” Within months of his release from prison, Wesley and teenage girlfriend Polly were arrested exchanging counterfeit bills at an ice cream shop. The subsequent search of their apartment found bomb-making materials, illegal weapons and plans that targeted the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

Inspired by the true story of Leo Felton and Erica Chase, Am I White travels between recurring dream and minstrel show nightmare to discover if a singular self exists in an alleged “post-racial” America…

For more information, click here.

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A Chosen Exile: History of Racial Passing in American Life

Posted in Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States on 2014-09-26 15:52Z by Steven

A Chosen Exile: History of Racial Passing in American Life

Harvard University Press
October 2014
350 pages
5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
26 halftones
Hardcover ISBN: 9780674368101

Allyson Hobbs, Assistant Professor of History
Stanford University

Between the eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, countless African Americans passed as white, leaving behind families and friends, roots and community. It was, as Allyson Hobbs writes, a chosen exile, a separation from one racial identity and the leap into another. This revelatory history of passing explores the possibilities and challenges that racial indeterminacy presented to men and women living in a country obsessed with racial distinctions. It also tells a tale of loss.

As racial relations in America have evolved so has the significance of passing. To pass as white in the antebellum South was to escape the shackles of slavery. After emancipation, many African Americans came to regard passing as a form of betrayal, a selling of one’s birthright. When the initially hopeful period of Reconstruction proved short-lived, passing became an opportunity to defy Jim Crow and strike out on one’s own.

Although black Americans who adopted white identities reaped benefits of expanded opportunity and mobility, Hobbs helps us to recognize and understand the grief, loneliness, and isolation that accompanied—and often outweighed—these rewards. By the dawning of the civil rights era, more and more racially mixed Americans felt the loss of kin and community was too much to bear, that it was time to “pass out” and embrace a black identity. Although recent decades have witnessed an increasingly multiracial society and a growing acceptance of hybridity, the problem of race and identity remains at the center of public debate and emotionally fraught personal decisions.

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