Heyo. Quick one whilst I’m stuck revising for my impending death (translation: exams). I’m currently looking at early twentieth-century works on the theme of ‘passing’: the act of a mixed-race man or woman ‘passing’ for white in order to gain the obvious social benefits of being white in twentieth-century America, given that under the Jim Crow segregation laws of the time, ‘one drop’ of ‘Negro blood’ constitutes being ‘black’. Just thought I would share a selection of my notes on it, as they seem potentially quite interesting and I’m actually writing semi-coherent notes (the latter of which is the far more impressive attribute given how tired I am). The texts mentioned are Passing by Nella Larsen and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored(sic) Man by James Weldon Johnson, published in 1929 and 1912 respectively. Yes I realise this is cheating but come on, give me this one. Will try and return to a more standardised format once we’re post-op.
Wells, Colin. “Passing.” Literature and Its Times Supplement 1. Ed. Joyce Moss. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Print.
- “Racial thinking not only fostered disharmony. It also helped perpetuate the popular idea that any black blood in one’s ancestry means that one is black”
- Like the way Irene, Clare and Gertrude consider themselves ‘black’, even though they are all light skinned enough to pass as white.
- ‘Black Codes’ (1800-1866) followed by ‘Jim Crow’ laws (1890-1965) used this idea when defining terms of segregation/civil rights discrepancies for African Americans in relation to whites.
- This creates the idea of a ‘colour line’; and of course, when there is a line, there is the possibility to cross over the line (passing over).
- In Passing, both permanent and temporary ‘passing’ is displayed by various characters. Irene and Clare, for example, first meet each other again at the Drayton Hotel, a white only tearoom/cafe. In this case, both of them are ‘passing’ for white in order to gain access to a more comfortable/luxurious establishment. Irene’s passing is temporary: Clare’s is permanent, as it is revealed later in the novel that she is married to a white man, who is not only unaware of her African-American heritage, but openly racist towards blacks, even going so far as to call her “Nig” as a reference to her supposed “gettin’ darker and darker” (Larsen 55). Jack even goes far as to predict the end of the novel, joking that “she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger.” (Larsen 55)
- In The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the first book out of twentieth-century America to have a black narrator (source?), Johnson’s unnamed protagonist flits between both the white and black sides of his heritage, in the end settling for being white, though in the book’s closing lines he seems to regret this choice. Upon attending a conference that featured speakers such as Booker T. Washington, the African-American advisor to several presidents of the US, he feels “small and selfish”: an “ordinary white man who has made a little money” and claims, had he chosen to be black, that “I, too, might have taken part in a work so glorious” with “men who are making history and a race” (Johnson 100).
- Some issues surrounding ‘passing’ for white are opened up looking at these two works. Firstly, consider the dubiousness of the definition of ‘black’. If ‘passing’ is such an easy thing to pull off (a newspaper headline from 1929 suggested 20,000 as an approximate figure of ‘passing’ blacks), it begs the question: what does it mean to be black or white, if so many light-skinned ‘blacks’ can ‘pass’ for white? In Passing this issue is taken to an extreme extent when ‘black’ Clare is so light skinned, and so talented at ‘passing’, that she enters into a marriage with Jack, an open racist, who doesn’t merely “dislike” blacks, but actively “hates” them (Larsen 57). Ironically Jack exemplifies the idea of the ‘ignorant white’: he never really states where this hatred comes from, and has never personally known any blacks (that he is aware of), with his “knowledge” of the “robbing and killing” of blacks coming from what “I read in the papers about them” (Larsen 57).
- What is the difference, ethically, between Clare’s and Irene’s passing? In the immortal words of Keanu Reeves, the problem is choice. Irene points out that “white people were so stupid” when it comes to determining whether someone is white or black, choosing to look at physical features such as “finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot” (Larsen 16). Mae Henderson points out in her Notes that “the popular press teemed with warnings about those with ‘Negro blood’ sliding quietly into the ranks of whiteness and offered several physical characteristics… as a litmus test of hidden African ancestry” (184-5), presumably the same press that Jack gets his ideas of black characteristics from. Whilst Irene, then, is content to allow people to make their own assumptions (or passively ‘pass’), Clare chooses to actively ‘pass’ as white, creating tension between her and Irene as the two struggle to reconcile their respective racial identities. The issue of racial identity is also covered in The Autobiography. Johnson’s narrator, despite having a black mother and a white father, is raised as a white middle-class boy: as such, he is devastated to be separated from the “white scholars” by his school’s principal (Johnson 10-11), and returns home to his mother begging her to tell him “am I a nigger?” (11). For him, being black is synonymous with being “defective”, and whilst his view of coloured people is far more complex than that, it arguably contributes towards his choice to ‘pass’ permanently at the end of the novel.
- Crossing the colour line is not the only kind of ‘passing’ that is considered. Particularly in The Autobiography, the narrator’s ‘passing’ is not merely racial, but also cultural, maybe even to a greater extent. From Spanish cigar-makers in Jacksonville to a “millionaire” benefactor with whom he travels to mainland Europe, the narrator experiences both sides of not just the racial divide between black and white, but also the class divide between the ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ classes. His desperate struggle to find his place in the world is ultimately undermined by his mixed heritage: even his eventual choice to become a middle-class white man is shown to not be a result of a sense of belonging, but stemming from a fear of identifying as black after witnessing a lynching. Just a few pages prior to this, the narrator leaves his “millionaire” in order to “voice all the joys and sorrows, the hopes and ambitions, of the American Negro” (Johnson 70).
- ‘Passing’, then, is a question of identity. Whether ‘passing’ as white or ‘passing’ between different cultures, the individuals involved are either seeking an identity they can call their own, or escaping from one they can not live by. In particular for those of mixed heritage, conflicting messages of ancestry and race can present ‘passing’ as the simple solution to a complex problem, as the easy answer to an impossible question…
Who am I?