A Chosen Exile: History of Racial Passing in American Life

Posted in Books, Forthcoming Media, History, Monographs, Passing, United States on 2014-04-17 02:14Z 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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Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-03-20 21:33Z by Steven

Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative

African American Review
Volume 35, Number 2 (Summer, 2001)
pages 205-217

Juda Bennett, Associate Professor of English
The College of New Jersey

Passing for white, a phenomenon that once captivated writers as diverse as Charles Chesnutt, Sinclair Lewis, Nella Larsen, and Mark Twain, no longer seems to engage contemporary novelists. The long list of authors from the first half of the twentieth century, which includes canonical writers like William Faulkner and forgotten stars like Edna Ferber, is hardly balanced by the short list of contemporary writers who have addressed this figure of racial ambiguity. In considering the relative disappearance of the passing figure from contemporary literature, this essay begins with neither a clear and substantial presence nor a complete absence of passing in the work of one of our most important novelists, Toni Morrison.

In each of her seven novels and in her sole short story, Toni Morrison invokes the passing myth, sometimes in only one or two paragraphs and often with indirection. The Bluest Eye, for example, features a dark-skinned child who cannot possibly pass for white, yet Pecola ignores biology and becomes (if only to herself) a blue-eyed Shirley Temple. Although some might consider Pecola’s delusion a weak or perhaps specious representation of passing for white, The Bluest Eye artfully reinforces its interest in racial passing by alluding to Peola, the passing figure in Imitation of Life. This intertextual play effectively evokes the myth without actually representing the phenomenon of passing, and in this way
Morrison decenters and deforms the traditional passing figure. Why?

It is my hope that this overview, although focused on Morrison, will be suggestive of larger shifts in culture, politics, and aesthetics. Why, for example, has the passing figure, after holding a central place in the imaginations of early-twentieth-century writers, been consigned to the margins of late-twentieth-century novels concerned with race? Why did Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes address the subject directly, even entitling works Passing and “Who’s Passing for Who?” while Morrison approaches the subject indirectly and often in a subplot or through an allusion? Are there certain stories that are considered embarrassing, passe, or even dangerous? Are there stories, furthermore, that simply cannot be told or, rather, cannot be told simply?…

Read the entire article here.

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Rutherford’s Bill Galloway reflects on genealogy, racial history

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-03-10 05:49Z by Steven

Rutherford’s Bill Galloway reflects on genealogy, racial history

Woodland Park, New Jersey
Thursday, 2014-02-20

Kelly Nicholaides

Bill Galloway, a resident with roots that go back to the 1920s in Rutherford, is proud of both his black roots and the “miscegenation” of his family. The longtime-Rutherford resident’s ancestors built a solid foundation with a focus on education and work ethic in a fully integrated school system since the 1920s. The family built relationships with individuals of all backgrounds, and made lasting connections that cemented their success as community leaders.

A pharmacist who still works full-time, Galloway, 85, reflected on his genealogy as well as the evolution of the concept of race, and notes that his family has a long history of bi-racial roots on both maternal and paternal sides. Regardless, Galloway notes that even if one doesn’t appear black, any black individuals in one’s ancestry technically makes someone black. Part-African-American, part-Scottish and British, with a bit of Native American, Pacific Islander on his paternal side, Galloway, eschews the term African-American. Additionally, he does not differentiate between ethnicity, which relies on DNA, and race, which applies to physical attributes.

“First it was colored, then Negro, then black, and now African American. Yet all of us came from mixed race families, when you think about it. I’m the darkest in my family,” Galloway reflects. “The black race is everything from jet black to pure white. If you have even just a little black in you, even if you don’t appear black, you’re still black. Race has nothing to do with color of your skin. Race is what’s in your DNA.”…

…”Back in those days, and since the miscegenation of the 1860s, black woman had babies by slave owners, and there were thousands during the Civil War. Around 1900, white women were fined if they had a bi-racial baby,” Galloway says. “Back then, people who got tired of discrimination got rid of their birth certificates, came up north here and 100 miles around, and passed as white people. They took Bibles and put in their birth dates and new names. The Bible was accepted as ID,” Galloway explains…

Read the entire article here.

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White Lies

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing on 2014-03-04 04:57Z by Steven

White Lies

The New York Times
Sunday Book Review

Porochista Khakpour

‘Boy, Snow, Bird,’ by Helen Oyeyemi

Strange times, crowed too many wise and unwise men over the millenniums. But as the art critic Jerry Saltz wrote in New York magazine last fall, maybe we’re finally at a point where the strangeness of the times is matched by an ability to accept it. In defending the perplexing Kanye West video “Bound 2,” Saltz heralded this as an age of the New Uncanny. The all-American banal-bizarre spectacle of the video (synthetic sunsets; slow-motion galloping stallions; the nippleless ingénue) is “a freakish act of creation and destruction by appropriation,” what Saltz deems “part of a collective cultural fracturing.” Saltz is riffing on Freud’s description of the uncanny as “nothing new or alien, but something familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” But maybe we’re not as alienated as we once were, something that occurred to me when beholding another unapologetic, all-encompassing contradiction-celebration: the story-allegory and real-surreal gyre of Helen Oyeyemi’s gloriously unsettling new novel, “Boy, Snow, Bird.”

Oyeyemi is from Strange Times. Raised in Britain by Nigerian parents, the 29-year-old five-time novelist isn’t even affiliated with a single home anymore: London, New York, Berlin, Barcelona, Budapest, Prague — who knows where she is doing her thing at any given moment? For years I saw her as something of a literary mystic, reading her with a mixture of awe, confusion and delight, but only now do I feel that we’re at a place where we can properly receive her, and she’s ready for us too. With “Boy, Snow, Bird,” a culmination of a young life spent culling dreamscapes, Oyeyemi’s confidence is palpable — it’s clear that this is the book she’s been waiting for…

…As usual, the Oyeyemi foundation is located in her fairy-tale comfort zone — in the case of “Boy, Snow, Bird,” the fairy tale is “Snow White.” She uses the “skin as white as snow” ideal as the departure point for a cautionary tale on post-race ideology, racial limbos and the politics of passing. It feels less Disney or German folklore and more Donald Barthelme’s 1967 novella “Snow White,” in which the political and the social poke through the bones of a pretty children’s tale, alarming us with its critical cultural import.

Set in the 1950s, Oyeyemi’s novel opens on the Lower East Side of New York City, with a young white woman named Boy Novak running away from her violent rat-catcher father. She soon meets a widower, a jewelry craftsman and former history professor named Arturo Whitman, in Flax Hill, Mass. She marries Whitman and becomes obsessed by her new stepdaughter, Snow. “What was it about Snow?” Boy asks herself. Oyeyemi paints Snow as half virtual, half corporeal: “She was poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future but didn’t want to brag about it.” All seems well until Arturo and Boy have a daughter of their own, Bird, who is born undeniably “colored.” Whitman’s family members are light-skinned African-Americans who have been passing as white, and the revelation becomes a turning point. The Snow White bits take over, with the Wicked Stepmother and the mirror motifs, and the fairy tale rewrites itself in startling ways…

Read the entire review here.

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Boy, Snow, Bird: A Novel

Posted in Books, New Media, Novels, Passing on 2014-03-04 04:43Z by Steven

Boy, Snow, Bird: A Novel

Riverhead Press (an imprint of Penguin Press)
320 pages
5.74 x 8.58in
Hardcover ISBN: 9781594631399

Helen Oyeyemi

From the prizewinning author of Mr. Fox, the Snow White fairy tale brilliantly recast as a story of family secrets, race, beauty, and vanity.

In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.

A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.

Dazzlingly inventive and powerfully moving, Boy, Snow, Bird is an astonishing and enchanting novel. With breathtaking feats of imagination, Helen Oyeyemi confirms her place as one of the most original and dynamic literary voices of our time.

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A Breezy Chameleon, Blurring Social Borders

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2014-02-17 17:21Z by Steven

A Breezy Chameleon, Blurring Social Borders

The New York Times

Jennifer Schuessler, Staff Editor

When the literary scholar George Hutchinson was in the archives at Howard University one afternoon a decade ago, he thought he knew which story of a neglected African-American woman writer he was chasing.

He was at work on a biography of Nella Larsen, whose classic Harlem Renaissance novel “Passing” was rediscovered in the 1970s. But while poking around, Mr. Hutchinson noticed a listing for the papers of Anita Thompson Dickinson Reynolds, an obscure contemporary of Larsen’s, and decided to take a look.

There, amid a jumble of letters and cassette tapes, lay an unpublished memoir breezily recounting the Zelig-like adventures of a woman who had starred in some of the first black films made in Hollywood, mingled with the Harlem Renaissance elite, been drawn by Man Ray and Matisse in Paris and touched down in Spain during its Civil War, before packing up her Chanel dresses and heading home to a more conventional life as a psychologist.

It was a story of passing stranger than anything Larsen had imagined, recounted with uncommon sexual frankness and blithe disregard for racial barriers. “I was fascinated by the way she threaded together all these different worlds, with this total nonchalance,” Mr. Hutchinson said in a recent interview. “I had never read anything like it.”

Previously, Reynolds’s name had survived mainly in a few scattered footnotes. But now, Harvard University Press is publishing her memoir, as “American Cocktail: A ‘Colored Girl’ in the World.”…

Read the entire book review here.

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Baseball’s Secret Pioneer

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-02-14 22:40Z by Steven

Baseball’s Secret Pioneer


Peter Morris, Baseball Historian
Haslett, Michigan

Stefan Fatsis, Sports Writer

William Edward White, the first black player in major-league history, lived his life as a white man.

On June 22, 1937, Joe Louis knocked out James Braddock with a right to the jaw to become the world heavyweight champion. At a time when Major League Baseball was still a decade from integration, Louis’ victory in Chicago’s Comiskey Park was a triumph for black America, and for racial progress. “What my father did was enable white America to think of him as an American, not as a black,” Joe Louis Jr. told ESPN in 1999. “By winning, he became white America’s first black hero.”

Three months before the fight, another notable moment involving race and sports occurred in the same city: the death of a 76-year-old man named William Edward White, of blood poisoning after a slip on an icy sidewalk and a broken arm. Fifty-eight years earlier, White played a single game for the Providence Grays of baseball’s National League to become, as best as can be determined, the first African-American player in big-league history. Unlike Louis’ knockout, though, White’s death merited no coverage in the local or national press. A clue as to why can be found in cursive handwriting in box No. 4 on White’s death certificate, which is labeled COLOR OR RACE. The box reads: “White.”

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. If he didn’t want other people to think of him as black, did he actually break the sports world’s most infamous racial barrier? Or is the reality of his racial heritage, and the difficult personal issues it no doubt forced him to confront, enough to qualify him as a pioneer? Should William Edward White be recognized during Black History Month alongside Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson and other groundbreaking African-Americans?

These are complicated questions. Allyson Hobbs, an assistant professor of American history at Stanford, says the practice of “racial passing” in America dates at least to runaway slaves in the 1700s. Slaves, she says, often attempted to pass as white to gain their freedom but then lived out their lives as black. By the Jim Crow era, when William White came of age, the social and economic advantages of living as white—and the disadvantages of living as black—were so profound that people who could successfully pass did so and never looked back.

“People who passed did not want to leave a trace,” says Hobbs, whose book A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life will be published by Harvard University Press in the fall. “They did not want to leave records, they did not want to have anyone find them, to discover that they were passing. It’s very difficult to get a well-rounded image of these people’s lives, and that’s by their design. It’s a hidden history, and it’s one that can be very frustrating because there is often so little data available about these people.”…

Read the entire article here.

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The ‘white’ student who integrated Ole Miss

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-02-13 18:25Z by Steven

The ‘white’ student who integrated Ole Miss

Cable News Network (CNN)

Allyson Hobbs, Assistant Professor of American History
Stanford University

(CNN) — When Harry S. Murphy arrived at the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1945, he was nervous. He landed at Ole Miss by way of the Navy’s V-12 program, a wartime measure that allowed young men to take college classes, receive naval training and preparation to become officers.

Murphy was black, but university officials did not know that. He had a white complexion and wavy brown hair. A military official checked the “W” box for white when Murphy enlisted in the Navy.

This official unwittingly set Murphy on an entirely new path. Murphy explained that he had no intention to “pass,” and once at Ole Miss in Oxford, no one inquired about his race.

“I guess they just assumed I was white,” Murphy said.

If no one asked, why tell?

Passing—the choice to leave behind a black racial identity and present oneself as white—allowed many African-Americans to navigate a racist society. In today’s multiracial America, the decision to pass may seem unnecessary and unwarranted.

But historically, erasing one’s black identity was one of a limited number of avenues available to light-skinned African-Americans to secure a better life in the era of legalized segregation.

Those who passed often reaped financial rewards, gained social privileges and enjoyed the fun of “getting over” by playing a practical joke on unsuspecting whites and winning a clandestine war against Jim Crow America…

Read the entire article here.

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San Francisco Lithographer: African American Artist Grafton Tyler Brown

Posted in Arts, Biography, Books, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States on 2014-02-12 08:00Z by Steven

San Francisco Lithographer: African American Artist Grafton Tyler Brown

University of Oklahoma Press
264 pages
8.5″ x 11″
Illustrations: 20 b&w and 125 color illus.
Hardcover ISBN: 9780806144108

Robert J. Chandler, Retired Senior Research Historian
Wells Fargo Bank

A lavishly illustrated biography of an often overlooked artist and his work

Grafton Tyler Brown—whose heritage was likely one-eighth African American—finessed his way through San Francisco society by passing for white. Working in an environment hostile to African American achievement, Brown became a successful commercial artist and businessman in the rough-and-tumble gold rush era and the years after the Civil War. Best known for his bird’s-eye cityscapes, he also produced and published maps, charts, and business documents, and he illustrated books, sheet music, advertisements, and labels for cans and other packaging.

This biography by a distinguished California historian gives an underappreciated artist and his work recognition long overdue. Focusing on Grafton Tyler Brown’s lithography and his life in nineteenth-century San Francisco, Robert J. Chandler offers a study equally fascinating as a business and cultural history and as an introduction to Brown the artist.

Chandler’s contextualization of Brown’s career goes beyond the issue of race. Showing how Brown survived and flourished as a businessman, Chandler offers unique insight into the growth of printing and publishing in California and the West. He examines the rise of lithography, its commercial and cultural importance, and the competition among lithographic companies. He also analyzes Brown’s work and style, comparing it to the products of rival firms.

Brown was not respected as a fine artist until after his death. Collectors of western art and Americana now recognize the importance of Californiana and of Brown’s work, some of which depicts Portland and the Pacific Northwest, and they will find Chandler’s checklist, descriptions, and reproductions of Brown’s ephemera—including billheads and maps—as uniquely valuable as Chandler’s contribution to the cultural and commercial history of California. In an afterword, historian Shirley Ann Wilson Moore discusses the circumstances and significance of passing in nineteenth-century America.

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Undoing Racial Identification and Redoing Ethical Cultivation: Passing as a Performance of Identity and an Ethics of Self-Making

Posted in Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2014-01-26 09:59Z by Steven

Undoing Racial Identification and Redoing Ethical Cultivation: Passing as a Performance of Identity and an Ethics of Self-Making

Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York
Honors Thesis
Fall 2013
42 pages

Paige Meserve

Submitted to the Department of Religion

Paige Meserve uses contemporary affect theory and queer theory to explore how racial identities are performed (and taken apart) in novels from the 1920s Harlem Renaissance.  Drawing on Foucault’s notion of ethics as a practice of self-cultivation, Paige reads racial passing as one way that African-American women negotiate a world that refuses to sustain and feed them but which they cannot simply leave. Paige shows how such strangely performed identities constitute an ethics of dis-identification. By its means, these women hope to create cross-temporal communities that go beyond fixed racial identities of white and black, and therefore also go beyond existing moral codes of right and wrong – all in favor of imagining new styles of living that are not complicit with a racist world.

The Black Woman’s very life depends on her being able to decipher the various sounds in the larger world, to hold in check the nightmare figures of terror, to fight for basic freedoms against the sadistic law enforcement agencies in her community, to resist the temptation to capitulate the demands of the status quo, to find meaning in the most despotic circumstances and to create something where nothing was before. Katie Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics


In The Female Complaint, Lauren Berlant defines normativity as a “felt condition of general belonging and an aspirational site of rest and recognition in and by a social world”(5). Her work raises intriguing questions regarding how subjects outside of the mainstream culture can negotiate their existence and find happiness in a cultural landscape that doesn’t offer them the terms for it. How do these minority subjects manage such an ambivalent, but necessary, attachment to a social world simply incapable of providing them the means to thrive?

Berlant in Cruel Optimism uses the phrase cruel optimism to discuss this compromising bind. Cruel optimism is “a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic”(24). The subjects under consideration here are attached to creating a life for themselves in a terrain that makes it impossible. “Cruel optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object”(24). The optimistic attachment must be maintained to preserve the desire to keep on living; its cruelty, however, resides in the fact that the possibility of thriving in their cultural climate is severely limited.

José Muñoz describes a process he names disidentification as a way that a minority subject can work within the dominant culture while simultaneously critiquing it. In his work, Disidentifications, he refers to disidentification as “a hermeneutic, a process of production, a mode of performance”(25). To further outline what this process is, he writes: “Disidentification is, at its core, an ambivalent modality that cannot be conceptualized as a restrictive or “masterfully” fixed mode of identification”(28). In spaces where bodies and identifications are ungrounded and become scripts, the possibility emerges of discovering new ways of working with, inhabiting, or potentially abandoning the stunted cultural climate where identities serve more as a prison than a means to provide an affirming space for the self. Disidentification is “descriptive of the survival strategies the minority subject practices in order to negotiate a phobic majoritarian public sphere that continuously elides or punishes the existence of subjects who do not conform to the phantasm of normative citizenship”(4). In reading his work, I want to further explore the potential of performance spaces as ways a minority subject can work with the broken pieces society offers them as terms of existence. It is crucial to find these spaces that can perhaps provide an alternative way to negotiate and interact with a social system that tends to foreclose possibility.

A way that people of color have historically attempted to manage a society that brutally represses them and eliminates all possible avenues for a palatable existence, is racial passing, the process in which a person of one race adopts the mask of another race. As I will demonstrate throughout this analysis, racial passing is one of these potential performance spaces that enables these subjects to work with the dominant culture that suppresses them in new and different ways. In her introduction of Passing and the Fictions of Identity, Elaine K. Ginsberg writes: “passing is about identities: their creation or imposition, their adoption or rejection, their accompanying rewards or penalties. Passing is also about the boundaries established between identity categories and about the individual and cultural anxieties induced by boundary crossing.” She posits that the act of passing “interrogates the ontology of identity categories and their construction”(4). If passing treats race as a performance, then categories of race are destabilized and become an insufficient way to signify identity. Ginsberg questions: “when “race is no longer visible, it is no longer intelligible: if “white” can be “black”, what is white?”(8) These instances that destabilize identity demand different ways of understanding the category. I see passing as a site rich with possibilities that calls for further examination of its complexity and of its new potentialities…

Read the entire paper here.

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