Friday, March 13, 2009

And Speaking of Passing...(and a Giveaway!)

So passing has been on my mind lately. Or rather, it keeps coming up in conversation and books, and stories people tell me. Indeed, it is truly a fascinating concept to consider; shedding one's own racial or ethnic heritage to assume another. And getting away with it! Equally fascinating is why people pass in the first place. For survival? For fun? For love?

Usually in this country, when we bring up the idea of passing, people assume we are talking about the custom of light-skinded Blacks passing for White. A practice adopted since we adopted the heinous practice of enslaving other human beings. But of course Black Americans were not the first nor the last to pretend to be something they weren't. Weren't all of those Muslims and then Jews passing as Christians in order to spare their lives and livelihoods in 15th century Spain? Just one example. Of course one must ask then if religious conversion = passing of another sort?

Anywhoo, most recently I've been hearing and reading about instances of Whites passing for Black here in the United States and wondered if there has been any exhaustive study on this practice. Because it did happen in the past and continues to happen in the present. In her memoir about her father, One Drop, Bliss Broyard discovers that one of her White ancestors in Louisiana passed for Black when he fell in love with a Black woman because that was the only way they could legally marry. Interestingly, he found life as a Black person too difficult and eventually passed back to White. In Sana Butler's arresting new book Sugar of the Crop: My Journey to Find the Children of Slaves, she too makes mention of a White man who passes as Black for the love of a Black woman. And then of course there's author James McBride's White mother who passed as Black so she could raise her Mixed kids in New York City and pass them off as fully Black so they wouldn't be ostracized.

What would be the implications of admitting that more than one or two White people passed in order to be with their Black loved ones in this country? Again I wonder, has a book already been written about this practice? If anyone knows, please share. Or maybe I'll just have to write it myself.

And to thank you for reading this blog, in the spirit of passing, anybody who comments on today's post, before midnight on Sunday, March 15, will be part of a random drawing to win a signed copy of Bliss Broyard's book, One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life-A Story of Race and Family Secrets.

Peace!

13 comments:

susan said...

Can't believe I'm first to post. Would love to win. Thanks!

Ola said...

I have never heard of whites passing for blacks! That is kinda strange/interesting. Now, you got me wanting to know more *sigh* lol. I think i'm going to add those books to my reading list.

Okay....while responding to this my boyfriend mentioned that a guy he works with is white and he kinda looks like a light skinned black person. My bf's coworker never tried to pass but stated that he had a hard time growing up in Kentucky and eventually moved. The guy is about 50yrs and grew up being the target of many racist threats because people thought he was black. It got so bad that he stayed home from school (he had to be home schooled for some time) . Funny thing, the guy said he never actually saw a black person until he moved to California when he was a teenager.
You learn something new each day!

Lovelyn said...

There is a book about this. It's called "Near Black."
Here's an article about it.

Spring said...

On a lighthearted note, I wonder if there will be more white people attempting to pass now that President Obama has been elected. He definitely has brought back cool.

Lori, that TV producer emailed me! Can you imagine?

LT said...

Susan, you're officially in the running.

Ola,great story. Thanks for sharing.

Lovely, thanks for the link, I'll def. check it out!

Spring, yeah, don't all White people want to be like Obama now? ha-ha. Woo-hoo about the producer. I know I for one would even start paying for cable if I could watch you and your wonderful family on TV. But would you still go by Spring?

Heidi Durrow said...

Lori also check out this new book called Passing Strange
http://www.amazon.com/Passing-Strange-Gilded-Deception-Across/dp/1594202001/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1237043410&sr=1-1

Dee said...

When I think about the topic of passing, three people come to mind.
First, there's Adam Clayton Powell II. He was often mistaken for white and by seeing his many photos, his features appeared more Caucasian than African American. He has often said that passing for white would often backfire on him--when he told white people he was black they'd get angry and when he told the black people he was white they's get angry too.
Second, there's Jean Toomer, the African American poet who often passed for white since he felt it was easier for him. I don't know that much about him except for the fact that he became a Quaker in his later years and much of his poetry deals with racism and social injustice.
Third, there's Fredi Washington. She was light enough to pass for a convincing European. She was a dancer for a while and a wealthy white man once offered to support her financially if she would pass for French. Fredi refused. She was proud of who she was. She told everyone that despite how she looked on the outside, she was black and didn't want to be considered "white." Ironically, early in her career, she portrayed a woman who passes for white much the the chagrin of her black mother in "Imitation of Life." I also heard that her skin had to be darkened for roles opposite black men so moviegoers wouldn't think she was a white woman. By the way, her sister was Adam Clayton Powell's first wife.
As for me, I often wished that my skin was lighter even though I'm lighter than both my parents. I's something that's always in the back of my mind.

Dee said...

When I think about the topic of passing, three people come to mind.
First, there's Adam Clayton Powell II. He was often mistaken for white and by seeing his many photos; his features appeared more Caucasian than African American. He has often said that passing for white would often backfire on him--when he told white people he was black they'd get angry and when he told the black people he was white they’d get angry too.
Second, there's Jean Toomer, the African American poet who often passed for white since he felt it was easier for him. I don't know that much about him except for the fact that he became a Quaker in his later years and much of his poetry deals with racism and social injustice.
Third, there's Fredi Washington. She was light enough to pass for a convincing European. She was a dancer for a while and a wealthy white man once offered to support her financially if she would pass for French. Fredi refused. She was proud of who she was. She told everyone that despite how she looked on the outside, she was black and didn't want to be considered "white." Ironically, early in her career, she portrayed a woman who passes for white much the chagrin of her black mother in "Imitation of Life." I also heard that her skin had to be darkened for roles opposite black men so moviegoers wouldn't think she was a white woman. By the way, her sister was Adam Clayton Powell's first wife.
As for me, I often wished that my skin were lighter even though I'm lighter than both my parents. It’s something that's always in the back of my mind.

Dee said...

Sorry Lori,

My comment appeared twice because I made some grammatical corrections on my comment. It was mistakenly posted twice. Again, I'm very sorry and the revised comment below the first one under my name is the one that was meant to be submitted. This mistake was unintentional and in no way to increase my chances of winning. Sorry.

If you pull my name from the running I'll understand.

susan said...

There is every shade in my family and when I was younger I could not understand why blacks were colorstruck, prejudice against their own. I didn't understand grandparents rejecting the darker grand babies. When I was younger, I thought there was no excuse for passing. But as I got older I learned that nothing is simple, black and white. People do a lot of things to survive. I am not surprised that someone would claim to be black if it meant being able to love and keep your family intact.

By the way, I always wanted to be darker as a child. I grew up in the early 70s when it was cool and sexy to be dark-skinned.

KB said...

Passing in the name of love would provide for some great stories being shared, no doubt. You brought up a very interesting point about people of various religions "passing" be it for whatever reason.I don't think it's healthy to deny or suppress part of one's self,but it brings a lot of thoughts to mind. I have a lot of Jewish friends and have been in situations where I am assumed to be , then have Jewishness conferred upon me. I would never say I was someone that I wasn't, but I definitely think that some affinities for other cultures can be extremely powerful and that perhaps racial or cultural affiliation should be looked at as more fluid than it is...

Cloudscome said...

Sorry I missed the drawing deadline. I'll have to look for that book on my own. Sounds good. Interesting discussion. When I was young I wished I was Black because the beautiful, popular girls in my class that I admired were. When I told one of them I wished I had her skin color she told me straight up I was crazy. After that I started understanding the complexity a little more.

Now I think I understand a little that passing for Black might make it slightly easier on me and my Black sons in public, in that we wouldn't attract the same kind of attention. But I still wouldn't have the experience and understanding of Being Black in order to actually benefit them with wisdom and example. I have the advantages of being a white woman (which I know is privileged) but I am missing the advantages of being Black. I just have to be what I am and try to work against the category limits.

JBH said...

Sorry I missed the drawing deadline:-)

Thanks for enlightening me to the term "passing." I've often wondered what to call it when people see me as white...even though I'm mixed:-)

I would be interested to see more literature about whites passing for blacks...