Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture (review)

Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture (review)

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S.
Volume 35, Number 1 (Spring 2010)
E-ISSN: 1946-3170 Print ISSN: 0163-755X
DOI: 10.1353/mel.0.0078

David Todd Lawrence, Associate Professor of English
University of St. Thomas

Passing narratives have long been a fixture of American literature. For African American authors, plots of racial mobility have been used to expose the permeability of racial boundaries and to reveal the irrationality of racial categorization, while for many white authors, passing narratives have expressed fears of racial contamination as well as voyeuristic fantasies of blackness. Our interest in stories of passing, whether fictional or autobiographical, has not waned, and the popularity of recent memoirs, novels, and films depicting passing and mixed raciality attests to this fact. Baz Dreisinger‘s study, Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture (2008), capitalizes on the enduring curiosity surrounding the transgression of racial boundaries. While passing has mostly been thought of as a black-to-white affair, Dreisinger focuses on those crossing the color line in the direction of white-to-black. Her investigation of white-to-black passing provides a compelling perspective on past and current perceptions of race in American culture.

Dreisinger sets the parameters of her study by positing white-to-black passing as a commonality rather than an anomaly. She distinguishes between black and white passing, explaining that white passing is about neither deception nor survival. White passing is not even exactly about successfully becoming black. For Dreisinger, white-to-black passing is about those “moments of slippage in which whites perceive themselves, or are perceived by others as losing their whiteness and ‘acquiring’ blackness”…

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