views updated May 23 2018


by Nella Larsen


A novel set in Chicago and New York in 1927; published in 1929.


Tensions arise in the friendship between two black women, one of whom is “passing” as white.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Nella Larsen (1891–1964) was born in Chicago of biracial parents, a white mother of Danish ancestry and a black father from the West Indies. Throughout her literary career she cultivated a sense of mystery about her past, so that many biographical details are uncertain. But her father seems to have died when she was two. Larsen was raised mostly in her mother’s white middle-class social milieu. At age 16, however, she entered Fisk University’s Normal Preparatory School, a high school in Nashville, Tennessee, associated with the well-known black university there. She stayed for only a year; scholars speculate that she may have felt uncomfortable in the unfamiliar black world she found at Fisk. Larsen later worked as a nurse and then as a librarian in New York City, giving up her job to write full time starting in 1926. In two years she published two successful novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). Quicksand won the Harmon Foundation’s Bronze Medal for Literature in 1928, and in 1930 Larsen became the first black woman to receive a fellowship in creative writing from the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation. However, she never completed her third novel and in fact did not publish again after receiving the fellowship. Critics have expressed bafflement and regret over this abrupt end to her literary career. Among other reasons, they cite the promise that Passing shows in its psychologically subtle portrayal of the complex problems that racially mixed men and especially women faced in the highly race-conscious America of the early twentieth century.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

America’s color line

In the first quarter of the twentieth century the United States was a land sharply divided by color. In the South, where most blacks lived, the so-called Jim Crow laws fixed in place the separation of the races that had existed during the long centuries in which blacks had been enslaved. These laws mandated strict segregation under the various state, county, or municipal legal codes. Under the Jim Crow system, public facilities—from restaurants to restrooms, from shops to movie theaters, and from public schools to public transportation—either excluded blacks completely or shunted them into accommodations far inferior to those enjoyed by whites. In the North, where relatively few blacks lived before the early decades of the twentieth century, segregation was also found in many places but it usually existed on the unwritten level rather than in the law codes. Indeed, laws against segregation, dating from the post Civil War Reconstruction era, were on the books in many parts of the North. By the early twentieth century, however, they were rarely enforced, and segregation prevailed in areas of most large northern cities. Blacks in the North generally lived in separate neighborhoods, attended separate schools, and were excluded from many public facilities.

Public segregation was only the most visible manifestation of the pervasive racial discrimination that saturated all areas of American society. Indeed, throughout Western civilization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, racism and racial thinking went largely unquestioned. It was an age in which white colonial empires, ruled by European states, controlled most of the world. These empires’ racial aspects were famously exemplified in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” (1899), which glorifies the paternalistic brand of imperialism practiced by Great Britain. The “burden” of the title refers to the white man’s obligation of conferring on other races what Britain’s Kipling saw as the civilizing benefits of being conquered and ruled by whites, who in the process introduced their customs to the colonized. With its victory in the Spanish-American War (1898–1901), the United States took its first steps on the stage of world empire. Kipling’s poem was in fact written to celebrate America’s arrival as a colonial power (when it wrested the Philippines from Spanish control).

The racial assumptions of empire were underpinned by the accepted scientific theories of the day, which offered detailed and impressive-sounding explanations of whites’ supposed superiority. While these racial theories have since been discredited, at the time they were almost universally accepted by the white-dominated societies of both North America and Europe. Even scientists who would later be seen as relatively enlightened espoused some racist views. For example, Franz Boas (1858–1942), the German-American researcher now viewed as the father of modern cultural anthropology, objected to ranking white European cultures above those of other peoples, and he rejected widespread attempts to demonstrate black mental inferiority. Yet Boas also thought, in the words of a recent historian,”that black Americans were genetically inferior to whites and that only through intermarriage and the subsequent modification of the black genetic inheritance would America solve its racial problems” (Wintz, p. 11). Others took more extreme positions. For example, Frederick Hoffman’s Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (1896) claimed that blacks’ inferiority would cause their ultimate extinction. Charles Carroll’s The Negro, Beast or in the Image of God (1900) blended religious theories with pseudo-science to repeat the common slavery-era assertion that blacks were subhuman and therefore lacked souls.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the prevalence of racial thinking had contributed to a growing atmosphere of white hostility towards African Americans, whose position in American society had steadily worsened since the end of Reconstruction in the 1880s. In the North a small but unmistakable constellation of black elected public officials had largely vanished by 1900. In the South more than 2,500 lynchings (the torture and murder of black individuals by white mobs) occurred between 1885 and 1900. While the rate declined somewhat over the next two decades, the phenomenon spread during that period to areas such as the Midwest, so that more than 1,100 lynchings were perpetrated nationally between 1900 and the outbreak of World War I in 1917. Altogether nearly 3,500 lynchings have been documented for the period between 1882 and 1938, a conservative estimate since many lynchings escaped public notice. Lynching remained a very real and terrifying threat to blacks for decades. In Passing, Irene Redfield, the novel’s main character, beseeches her husband Brian not to mention it in front of their young children.

Equally threatening, if not more so, to African Americans’ sense of safety were the violent and bloody race riots that broke out starting around the turn of the twentieth century. At first the most violent outbreaks occurred in the South, for example in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898), and in Atlanta, Georgia (1906). But angry white crowds also instigated random violence against blacks in New York City (1900), Springfield, Illinois (1904 and 1908), and Greensburg, Indiana (1906). World War I (1917–19), during which black soldiers met harsh discrimination in the military even as they were called upon to defend their country, exacerbated America’s racial tensions. Violent confrontations between white and black soldiers left dozens killed in army bases across the country. Lynchings and race riots both rose in number sharply during the war, and racial violence took on a new edge when white and black troops returned afterward. Many young black men who had served in the war were no longer willing to tolerate racial abuse. They began fighting back more aggressively and more cohesively than before. In the tense summer of 1919, hundreds were killed as riots erupted in more than 25 northern and southern cities.

“Passing” over the color line

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, an assumption that has long been accorded an undisputed place in American attitudes toward race. Those of mixed white-and-black descent, known generally as mulattos, were included as a separate subcategory under “Negro” in the United States census numbers for blacks until 1910, at which time they comprised more than 20 percent of the total “Negro” population of some 10 million (Reuter, p. 118). After 1910 they were included without differentiation in the “Negro” population. Passing accurately reflects the popular perception that any black blood defined a person as black, in that Irene Redfield and her friend Clare Kendry are considered—and consider themselves—to be black, although both are of racially mixed descent.

On average, those mulattos with more white or light-skinned ancestors found it easier to “pass” in public for white (though as one of Irene’s friends observes in the novel, the chances of inheritance will occasionally bring dark-skinned babies to two light-skinned parents). Early in the novel Irene recalls running into Clare in a high-class whites-only restaurant in Chicago; both women are light-skinned mulattos passing in the restaurant for white. However, Clare—blonde, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned—is passing permanently, as it were, while Irene is doing so only in order to be served in the luxurious establishment. Such short-term deceptions were common on the part of those whose light skin and other “white” features permitted them to pass, and it was rare for anyone thus passing to be publicly challenged.

It is not known how many tried passing on a long-term basis, the way the novel’s Clare Kendry does, but a headline in the Pittsburgh Courier from May 1929 suggested a total of 20, 000 passing at that time. Less than two decades later, the noted author and black leader Walter White (himself a light-skinned black) commented on passing in a widely read article called “Why I Choose to Remain a Negro”:

Every year approximately 12, 000 white-skinned Negroes disappear—people whose absence cannot be explained by death or emigration. Nearly every one of the 14 million discernible Negroes in the United States knows at least one member of his race who is “passing”—the magic word which means that some Negroes can get by as whites, men and women who have decided that they will be happier and more successful if they flee from the proscription and humiliation which the American color line imposes on them.

(White in Singh, p. 92)

The Great Migration and the founding of a black capital

The spread of segregation and racial violence in the North after the turn of the twentieth century reflects the hostile white reaction to a massive exodus of blacks from the rural South that quickened around that time. Called the Great Migration, this large-scale movement brought significant numbers of blacks to northern cities such as New York and Chicago for the first time. Though smaller numbers had begun moving north as early as the 1890s, in 1910 90 percent of American blacks still lived in the South. The most intense period of migration began around 1915 and persisted through the 1920s, as European immigration diminished and poor rural blacks were drawn north by a growing demand for unskilled labor. An estimated 1.3 million blacks flooded to the North’s industrial cities between the end of World War I in 1918 and the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929. The largest number came to New York City, the black population of which grew from just below 92, 000 in 1910 to almost 330, 000 in 1930, an increase of 250 percent. Meanwhile, black populations in other major cities—for example, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland—rose at an even higher rate, though their actual numbers were lower than New York’s. Throughout this process, immigrants from the American South were joined by smaller numbers of blacks from the West Indies. Although the family history of the novel’s Nella Larsen remains uncertain, her father may have been a West Indian mulatto of black and Danish descent who settled in Chicago sometime in the 1890s, in the very earliest stages of the Great Migration.

Whereas before the Great Migration New York’s blacks had lived mostly in the squalid San Juan Hill and Tenderloin districts of Manhattan’s East Side, the immigrants began establishing neighborhoods in the middle-class area known as Harlem, directly north of Central Park. By 1920 Harlem housed some 73, 000 blacks, then two-thirds of Manhattan’s black population; by 1930, its black population would rise to 164, 000, or three-quarters of the island’s blacks. They formed the majority population in the heart


By 1900 a small black middle class had begun to emerge in America, mostly among the relatively few blacks who lived in the North. However, unlike in the white world, middle class status for blacks depended on education (often at a black institution such as Fisk Normal School, which Larsen attended) more than on income. Black society had a social structure unto itself: “Domestic servants, waiters, bellhops, barbers, and chauffeurs made up the black middle class; college teachers, lawyers, businessmen, and doctors formed the upper classes” (Singh, p. 71). One mark of having arrived in the upper classes was to employ black servants with darker skin than one’s own, as Irene Redfield does in Passing. Some critics have understood such details to be humorous satire by Larsen on black social pretensions. One catchword for black middle-class self-improvement was “uplift,” at which Irene’s husband—a doctor, and thus a member of the upper classes—perhaps snobbishly pokes fun. “Uplifting the brother’s no easy job,” he jokes, as Irene busily helps to organize a charity ball for the “Negro Welfare League,” a fictionalized black activist organization (Larsen, Passing, p. 83).

of this formerly white district, as they had since 1910. The rapid influx of newcomers reinforced and increased this majority, shaping it into a distinctive community not only in New York. Harlem was emerging as “the capital of black America” (Wintz, p. 20).

As black Harlem grew, it acquired an attractive mystique that made it not only a burgeoning population center but a vibrant cultural capital as well. Black intellectuals, writers, and artists from across America were drawn to it both as a place to live and as a symbol of a newfound sense of black identity. “In Harlem,” wrote black intellectual Alain Locke (1886–1954),”Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination” (Locke in Singh, p. 9). A respected scholar and critic, Locke used the term “the New Negro” to describe this phenomenon, popularizing the phrase by using it as the title of a widely read anthology of black writing that he edited, The New Negro (1925). In his own influential reviews and essays, he publicized the work of younger black writers and artists, becoming “the liaison officer” of an upsurge of black culture that arose in the mid-1920s (Franklin, p. 416). This African American cultural movement has become known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The Harlem Renaissance

While the Harlem Renaissance is most commonly held to have lasted from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, much of the groundwork for it had been laid by Alain Locke and other early proponents of black culture. James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), a composer and diplomat as well as a writer and social reformer, played a major role in critiquing and promoting the work of younger black writers and artists. Another important founder of the Harlem Renaissance was Charles S. Johnson (1893–1956), editor of the National Urban League’s magazine, Opportunity, which under his leadership surpassed W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Crisis to become the leading black journal of the 1920s. Writers published in these and other Harlem periodicals included major voices of the Harlem Renaissance such as the poets Claude McKay (1890–1948), Langston Hughes (1902–67), and Countee Cullen (1903–46). Larsen knew Cullen well, and prefaces Passing with a brief quotation from one of his poems,”Heritage,” which was published in his best known collection, Color (1925).

Although primarily a literary phenomenon, the Harlem Renaissance also influenced American culture in other ways, particularly in music.


In 1909 the black scholar and political activist W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) helped found the National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the first nationwide organization to advocate the cause of African Americans. Significantly, although it was at first supported largely by progressive whites, the NAACP made its headquarters in Harlem. Du Bois himself moved to Harlem the following year, and from 1910 to 1934 he edited the NAACP’s influential magazine The Crisis. Starting with his book The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois had long called for an educated black cultural elite to lead the struggle against racism and prejudice. His confrontational agenda conflicted with the more accommodating approach of the other major black leader of the time, Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), who argued not for a liberal arts educated elite, but for blacks to improve their situation in America through vocational training and hard work. A former slave, Washington had operated out of Tuskegee, Alabama, deep in the rural South, and his views evolved out of that environment. But as more blacks found themselves in a northern, urban milieu, they increasingly sought different answers. Du Bois and the NAACP offered one alternative, the Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) offered another. Garvey settled in Harlem in 1916, where he recruited followers for his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Proclaiming that black is strong and beautiful, not inferior as the American experience had conditioned its ex-slaves to believe, Garvey boomed his message to receptive ears. He took action as well, founding a steamship company, the Black Star Line, to promote commerce among blacks in America, Africa, and the West Indies, even trying to establish a colony in Africa as an alternative living space. On the streets of Harlem and in other cities, UNIA members participated in lively parades that featured uniformed marching troops in Garvey’s Universal Africa Legion. Garvey attracted many enthusiastic followers (even critics estimated that his UNIA grew to at least 500, 000 members). But middle-class reformers like Du Bois were skeptical of Garvey’s exuberant, working-class radicalism, and the characters in Passing reflect their outlook rather than Garvey’s. The novel’s Irene Redfield, for example, helps organize a benefit dance in Harlem for the fictional “Negro Welfare League,” which critics see as a conflation of the NAACP and the National Urban League, another important Harlem-based organization, founded in 1910 to promote the welfare of black city dwellers.

Harlem musicians Fletcher Henderson (1898–1952) and Duke Ellington (1899–1974) took jazz—an African American musical form that became a major contribution to world music—and adapted it for large, orchestra-style bands, turning them into so-called big bands. Such big bands soon became the norm on the American popular music scene. From 1927 to 1931, Ellington—a composer and band leader as well as a pianist—thrilled affluent white audiences at Harlem’s glamorous and segregated night spot, the Cotton Club. The Cotton Club’s celebrity in the white world suggests much about the fascination that Harlem and black culture began to exert on white society during the frenzied “Jazz Age” of the 1920s. Curious whites sought the thrill of partying uptown in what they perceived as Harlem’s exotic environment, enjoying black entertainment but in exclusively white company.

This sudden penchant for black culture among affluent northern whites created a publishing market for many of the Harlem Renaissance’s literary works. It was sparked by the popular white author Carl Van Vechten, whose controversial 1926 novel Nigger Heaven featured gritty depictions of daily life in Harlem and became a national bestseller. In the ensuing debate, some Harlem Renaissance personalities attacked the novel, while others defended it. Some became acquainted with the author himself. Van Vechten took a genuine interest in black culture and befriended a number of younger black writers, Nella Larsen among them. In Passing, the character of Hugh Wentworth is based on Van Vechten, and indeed the novel itself is dedicated to him, for Van Vechten had recommended the book for publication to Alfred Knopf, his own publisher. The white fascination for Harlem that Van Vechten initiated also plays a part in Passing. It gives the novel’s Clare Kendry an excuse for spending time with her black friends in Harlem. Clare can masquerade as merely one of the “hundreds of white people” who attend events in Harlem “to see Negroes” and “to gaze on the great and the near-great while they gaze on the Negroes” (Passing, p. 104).

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Passing has a fairly straightforward plot line, although some complexity arises from the fact that the first third of the novel consists of an extended flashback. Entitled “Encounter,” this flashback recounts Irene Redfield’s and Clare Kendry’s first meeting and its immediate aftermath, and makes up Part 1. Part 2,”Re-Encounter,” describes their second meeting, while Part 3,”Finale,” focuses on subsequent events. The narrative is in the third person, though it unfolds from Irene’s point of view.

As the novel opens in October 1927, at Irene’s home in Harlem, Irene has just received the letter from Clare that will lead to their second meeting as described in Part 2. The letter prompts Irene’s extended reverie, the flashback through which the reader learns of their first chance meeting, two years earlier, in the summer at the whites-only Drayton Hotel in Chicago. At first, as both women sit alone in the Drayton’s exclusive restaurant, they do not recognize each other. Irene fears that the attractive, blonde woman regarding her with such interest has realized that she, Irene, is a Negro, and is about to have her thrown out of the restaurant:

They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy. Never … had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro… . Nevertheless, Irene felt, in turn, anger, scorn, and fear slide over her. It wasn’t that she was ashamed of being a Negro, or even of having it declared. It was the idea of being ejected from any place, even in the polite and tactful way that the Drayton would probably do it, that disturbed her.

(Passing, pp. 16–17)

However, the woman turns out to be Clare Kendry, whom Irene knew as a child growing up in Chicago. Clare had disappeared from Irene’s life after the death of Clare’s father, an educated but alcoholic black man who worked as a janitor. As Irene now discovers, after her father’s death Clare had moved away and was raised by her father’s aunts. These grand-aunts, who were white, raised Clare as white. Their brother, Clare’s grandfather, was said to have sown “a wild oat” with a young black girl, Clare’s grandmother (Passing, p. 32). Clare’s father was the result of that seduction. Wishing to keep their brother’s seduction of a black girl a secret, her grand-aunts forbade Clare to reveal that she was black. It was as a young white girl that she met and married Jack Bellew, a wealthy white mining executive. Clare tells Irene that it’s all been “worth the price,” although Irene secretly finds Clare’s passing “an abhorrent thing” (Passing, pp. 36, 37).

Both women are visiting Chicago, Irene to see her family and Clare with her husband on business. Clare invites Irene to tea in her hotel room the following Tuesday afternoon, along with another mulatto childhood friend, Gertrude Martin. Like Clare, Gertrude has married a white man, but Gertrude’s husband Fred is aware that she is black. Gertrude has twin boys but has decided against having further children because she, not her husband, is afraid that their skin might be dark. Clare, who has a daughter, also cites that “hellish” prospect as a reason for having no more children. Irene, offended, embarrasses both women by asserting that her own husband and one of her boys have dark skin (Passing, p. 50).

Irene’s discomfort is exacerbated by the arrival of Jack Bellew, Clare’s husband, who quickly reveals himself to be a strident racist. Irene is shocked and surprised to hear him call Clare “Nig,” since he does not know of her true racial status. Then Irene realizes that Bellew believes this to be merely an ironic reference to his wife’s olive skin:

“When we were first married, she was as white as—as—well as white as a lily. But I declare, she’s getting darker and darker. I tell her if she don’t look out, she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger.” He roared with laughter. Clare’s ringing bell-like laugh joined his.

(Passing, pp. 54–55)

As Bellew continues to express his hatred of African Americans—”black scrimy devils,” he calls them—Irene at first feels amused, then has difficulty concealing her rage and contempt (Passing, p. 57). The conversation moves on to other subjects before the party breaks up, but as the women bid each other goodbye, Irene decides firmly that she will have nothing further to do with Clare Kendry.

These are Irene’s memories after receiving Clare’s letter, which arrives at Irene’s home in Harlem two years later. Part 2,”Re-Encounter,” opens with Irene’s pondering how to respond to the letter, in which Clare asks to see Irene again. She shows it to her husband Brian Redfield, a handsome and successful doctor, and they discuss it as their maid,”a small mahogany-colored creature” named Zulena, serves them breakfast (Passing, p. 79). Also weighing on Irene’s mind is Brian’s simmering “dislike and disgust for his profession and his country,” which has persisted despite his success as a doctor (Passing, p. 84). His dissatisfaction shows itself in his long-held desire to move with his family to Brazil, which he imagines is free of racial discrimination. This fantasy alarms Irene, who views it as the greatest problem in their marriage.

Over the next several days, Irene puts off answering Clare’s letter as she busies herself helping to organize a charity event, the annual benefit dance for the Negro Welfare League. However, when Clare turns up at her house in person, Irene finds herself newly charmed by the other woman’s beauty. She warns Clare that visiting Harlem is dangerous for her, as it may lead to her husband’s learning that she is black. Clare, lonely in her ongoing deception, does not seem to care about the risk of being discovered.


“The myth has persisted,” about Brazil, says one historian “that there is no racial prejudice. The facts, alas conditional the boast,” as do Brazilian novels (Burns p. 322). Several decades before Larsen documented the anxieties and prejudices suffered by mulattos in the United States, a well-known Brazilian writer, Aluisio Azevedo, published a slice-of-life novel about this same issue. His O Mulato (1881, The Mulatto) concerns the love of a light-skinned, blue-eyed mulatto, Raimundo, for a white woman. The novel, which exposes the racism of the white women’s family, leads ultimately to Raimundo’s death, “a vengeance society wreaked upon him because he dared to be the equal of the ‘white’ Brazilians” (Burns, p. 205). His fate reflected prejudices in real-life Brazil in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Employers advertised for white-only workers, using not-so-subtle euphemisms: “good appearance,” tor example, meant that only light-skinned workers need apply. Branches of government discriminated too. The Brazilian Navy refused to hire blacks to posts demanding contact with foreigners. Still Irene’s husband in Passing might be happier in Brazil, since he would be moving from a society in which he was a minority within a minority ethnic group to one in which he was part of the majority in a majority ethnic group. In 1890, out of 14.3 million Brazilians, mulattos and blacks together numbered 8 million (of which 6 million were mulatto). Also, though prejudice did exist in Brazil, there was less of it than in other multiracial societies of the day. By the 1920s, when Larsen’s novel takes place, racial barriers had already begun to break down in Brazil. It was in the ’20s that blacks were first hired to play on Rio de laneiro soccer teams. By contrast, American baseball wouldn’t hire its first black major league player (Jackie Robinson) until 1947.

During Clare’s visit, Irene gets a phone call from Hugh Wentworth, a well-known white author, who is also helping with the charity dance. When she learns about the dance, Clare expresses her determination to attend, over Irene’s protests. As she tells Irene,”You don’t know, you can’t realize how I want to see Negroes, to be with them again, to talk with them, to hear them laugh” (Passing, p. 108). Later, at the dance, Clare creates a sensation, dancing with many men (she dances several times with Brian Redfield). Clare also sparks the interest of Hugh Wentworth, who asks Irene about “the name, status, and race of the blonde beauty out of the fairy tale” whom he sees on the dance floor (Passing, p. 115). Turning their conversation to the subject of passing, Wentworth hints that he suspects Clare may be doing just that, and Irene does not contradict him. For Irene, the dance marks “the beginning of a new friendship with Clare Kendry,” who now becomes a frequent visitor to the Redfield home (Passing, p. 120).

Part 3,”Finale,” opens several months later. It is early December in Harlem, although as Irene admits to herself she feels little of the Christmas spirit. Brian is restless and distant, and Irene fears that the fantasy of moving to Brazil has renewed its grip on him. But when Brian criticizes Hugh Wentworth—who has not hidden his low opinion of Clare—to Irene and defends Clare, Irene is struck by the sudden intuition that her husband is having an affair with Clare. As Christmas comes and goes, her suspicion hardens to conviction, and Irene finds herself growing obsessed with a secret desire for Clare to leave, to be out of their lives.

When Clare, the Redfields, and others of their social set attend a large dinner party at the Harlem home of a black couple named Freeland, Irene finds it difficult to relax and enjoy herself. Suddenly the party is interrupted by the violent intrusion of Jack Bellew, who has tracked his wife to the Freelands. He confronts her next to the open window of their sixth-floor apartment: “So you’re a nigger, a damned dirty nigger!” (Passing, p. 175). Irene runs to Clare, obsessed by the fear that if Clare is free of her husband, she might steal Brian away. Irene grabs Clare by the arm—and immediately afterward the group of party-goers, distracted by Bellew, is shocked to see that Clare has fallen from the open window. What exactly happened, the reader is told,”Irene Redfield never allowed herself to remember clearly” (Passing, p. 176). A white official soon arrives, and it is decided that Clare must have fainted. Irene finds her knees giving out, and she herself faints. “Death by misadventure,” Irene, through her dimmed consciousness, hears the white official conclude about Clare’s apparent accident (Passing, p. 182).

Class, gender, and color

As Irene, Clare, and Gertrude Martin compare their experiences of motherhood in Part 1, Clare declares that she will have no more children: “I’m afraid. I nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born for fear that she might be dark” (Passing, p. 49). Gertrude, who like the other two women is light-skinned, agrees: “No more for me either. Not even a girl. It’s awful the way it skips generations and then pops out. Why, he [Fred, Gertrude’s white husband] actually said he didn’t care what colour it turned out, if only I would stop worrying. But of course nobody wants a dark child” (Passing, p. 49). Like much else in Passing (and in Larsen’s other novel, Quicksand), these comments reflect the ways class, gender, and color have often been intertwined in African American cultural attitudes. The relationship between class and color was long established in black society along the lines suggested above. Light skin was considered socially desirable, and the lighter the skin, the higher social status its wearer could claim. Indeed, the educated black middle class that emerged in the early twentieth century was largely a mulatto class. Thus, for example, the black leaders mentioned above were light-skinned blacks, as were many of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance. The mulattoes’ privileged position resulted not just from white culture’s color-consciousness, but from black culture’s as well.

At the same time, as suggested by Gertrude’s afterthought “not even a girl,” differences existed in the ways that black women and black men were perceived. On one hand, black women frequently found it easier to support themselves (often through domestic work) than black men, and Gertrude’s comment may be interpreted in this light. A girl might be preferable to her for this reason, among others. On the other hand, gender bias has permeated black society as well as white society. Black men have been accorded a greater degree of status and importance, and have been afforded more opportunities than women. Women, both black and white, were expected to conform to social roles of subservience, and black women had to contend with the added racial dimension. Hence, in deceiving her husband in the novel Clare commits a double offense: she violates the traditional obedience owed by a wife to her husband as well as the prohibition against transgressing the color line. As critic Cheryl Wall observes,

In Larsen’s novel,”passing” does not refer only to the sociological phenomenon of blacks crossing the color line. It represents additionally both the loss of racial identity and the denial of self required of women who conform to restrictive gender roles… . Irene and Clare … demonstrate the high price black women pay for their acquiescence and, ultimately, the high cost of rebellion.

(Wall, p. 131)

Sources and literary context

Nella Larsen’s sources for Passing include real-life models for the novel’s characters, places, and events, as well as an established literary tradition of books about passing by both black and white American authors. Irene Redfield, according to Larsen’s biographer Thadious Davis,”is modeled upon Larsen’s girlhood friend Pearl Mayo, and also upon Irene McCoy, a prominent Chicagoan active in the YMCA” (Davis, p. 312). Hugh Wentworth and his wife Bianca are modeled on white author Carl van Vechten (as noted) and his wife Fania Marinoff, while the character of Brian Red-field is based on Larsen’s own husband, the respected physicist Elmer Imes. The novel’s Drayton Hotel, where Irene and Clare first meet in Chicago, is based on two well-known Chicago hotels, the Drake and Clare Morrison. While the novel’s Negro Welfare League conflates the NAACP and the National Urban League, the charity ball that Irene helps organize is based on the real-life NAACP charity ball—an annual social event in Harlem.

The theme of passing had been treated tan-gentially in a number of novels about mulattoes starting in the 1870s, including Mark Twain’s The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). The first novels to develop the subject fully were by black authors: Charles W. Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900) and, most notably, James Weldon Johnson’s pioneering work The Autobiography ojan Ex-Colored Man, the first novel to feature a black narrator. With the advent of the Harlem Renaissance, passing became an especially popular theme, beginning with Walter White’s Flight (1926). The prolific black female author Jessie Redmon Fauset, with whom Larsen is often compared, treated the subject in her novel Plum Bun (1928), which came out the same year as Larsen’s Quicksand. Flight, Plum Bun, and Passing are often cited as the three classic Harlem Renaissance passing novels. In each, a middle-class mulatto woman gives in to the temptation to pass, marries a strongly racist white man, and finally expresses regret and a nostalgia for the warm company of black peers.


Passing was widely and favorably reviewed, garnering praise in both black publications, such as The Crisis and Opportunity, and mainstream white ones, such as the Saturday Review of Literature, the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Times Book Review, and the Times (of London) Literary Supplement. Reviewers, especially white ones, expressed fascination with the exoticism and intrigue of the subject matter, taking interest too in the elements of split personality inherent in it. The praise was qualified, however, by the pinpointing of a few “flaws.” A number of critics found the ending contrived, complaining that the crowd staring at Clare could hardly have failed to notice Irene pushing her out the window, as the text strongly hints that she does. Some also found fault with the depiction of Clare Kendry, suggesting that her oft-described beauty rendered her one-dimensional. On the whole, the novel received a less enthusiastic reception than her previous work, Quicksand, had.

While some found Larsen’s style lacking, others praised both her writing and the deftness with which she examines her characters’ complex motivations. An anonymous critic in the New York Times Book Review, for example, applauded Larsen’s “good, firm, tangible prose” and called the novel “an effective and convincing attempt to portray certain aspects of a vexatious problem” (“Beyond the Color Line,” p. 14). “She has produced a work so fine, sensitive and distinguished” wrote W. B. Seabrook in The Saturday Review of Literature, “that it rises above race categories and becomes that rare object, a good novel” (Seabrook, p. 1, 017).

—Colin Wells

For More Information

“Beyond the Color Line.” New York Times Book Review, 28 April 1929, 14.

Burns, E. Bradford. A History of Brazil. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Christian, Barbara. Black Woman Novelists: The Development of a Tradition. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Davis, Thadious M. Nella Larsen: Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Hutchinson, George. The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Larsen, Nella. Passing. New York: Modern Library, 2000.

McDowell, Deborah E. The Changing Same: Black Women’s Literature, Criticism, and Theory. Bloomington: Indiana State University Press, 1995.

Reuter, Edward Byron. The Mulatto in the United States. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1918.

Seabrook, W. B. “Touch of the Tar-Brush,” The Saturday Review of Literature, 18 May 1929, 1, 017.

Singh, Amritjit. The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

Wall, Cheryl A. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana State University Press, 1995.

Wintz, Cary D. Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance. College Station, Tex.: Texas A & M University Press, 1996.


views updated May 18 2018


The word passing, an Americanism not listed in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, refers to a crossing of a line that divides social groups. Everett Stonequist cites a great variety of cases, including Jews passing as Gentiles, Polish immigrants preferring to be German, Italians pretending to be Jews, the Japanese Eta concealing their group identity to avoid discrimination, the Anglo-Indians passing as British, and the Cape Coloured as well as mixed bloods in the West Indies and Latin America moving into white groups. One could add many other cases, such as whites and blacks passing as Mexicans, or Chinese Americans passing as Japanese. There was some passing from white to black in the United States, for example, by musicians.

Passing is used most frequently, however, as if it were short for "passing for white," in the sense of crossing over the color line in the United States from the black to the white side. Louis Wirth and Herbert Goldhamer (1944) see in passing "an attempt on the parts of Negroes to enter into the white community in a fashion which would otherwise be forbidden because of racial barriers." Ratna Roy (1973) defines passing as "assimilating into white society by concealing one's antecedents."

Racial passing is a phenomenon of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries. It thrived in a modern social system in which, as a primary condition, social and geographic mobility prevailed, especially in environments such as large cities that provided anonymity to individuals. A second constitutive feature for passing was a widely shared social-belief system, according to which certain descent characteristics, even invisible ones, were viewed as more deeply defining than physical appearance, individual volition, and self-description, or than social acceptance and economic success.

A child whose ancestors come from groups X and Y could theoretically live as an X, a Y, or an XY. In the United States, for example, the child of Irish and Italian parents may be Irish, Italian, Irish-Italian, "simply American," or become, as by marriage, a member of another ethnic group. Yet some types of ancestry (often those associated in the United States with the term "race" rather than "ethnicity") deny a descendant the legitimate possibility of choosing certain forms of identification (including even X-ness, the identity of one parent, of three grandparents, or of fifteen out of sixteen ancestors) because the identity of the remaining other part of the ancestry (Y-ness) is considered so dominant that the individual is believed to be "really" a Y. The description of Roxy in Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) gives full expression to this paradoxical racial identification: "To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one-sixteenth of her which was black out-voted the other fifteen parts and made her a negro. She was a slave, and salable as such." William Javier Nelson called the United States a "hypodescent" society in which children of a higher-caste and a lower-caste parent are assigned the lower-parent status, a procedure deriving from slavery. It is quite possible that the first printed instances of the expression "passing for white" appeared in runaway slave bills. In hypodescent societies X-ness is seen not as an "ethnic option" (Mary Waters's useful term; 1990) for XY, nor as a legitimate parental legacy, but only as a "disguise." Hence XY is considered a Y who is "passing for" but "not really" an X.

This "fiction of law and custom" (Twain) may seem odd in a social system that cherishes social mobility and espouses the right of individuals to make themselves anew by changing name, place, and fortune, and that has produced famous parvenus and confidence men. In Gustave de Beaumont's novel Marie (1835), one of the first works of fiction to thematize racial passing, the narrator Ludovic makes this point explicitly:

A Massachusetts bankrupt can find honor and fortune in Louisiana, where there is no inquiry into the ruin he experienced elsewhere. A New Yorker, bored by the ties of a first marriage, can desert his wife on the left bank of the Hudson and go take another on the right bank, in New Jersey, where he lives in undisturbed bigamy. There is but one crime from which the guilty can nowhere escape punishment and infamy: it is that of belonging to a family reputed to be colored. The color may be blotted out; the stain remains. It seems that people find it out even when it is invisible; there is no refuge secret enough, no retreat obscure enough, to hide it.

The coexistence of the cult of the social upstart and the condemnation of the racial passer constitutes the parameters in which the phenomenon of passing took place. In the era of passing, the notion also found support that no one could "always tell" Ys by certain ineffaceable characteristics and visible signs such as their eyes or fingernails or the babies they might generate even generations later. Because this is, however, not really true, passing highlights an area of social ambiguity and insecurity. Stories of passing may appeal to modern readers' fascination with the undecidable or offer the assurance of some firmness in at least one individual identity (that based on racial ancestry) in a world of fluidity.

This makes tales of passing allegories of modernization that may appeal to people as they move toward more general identifications and experience anxieties about giving up old homes and families. In a generally mobile society, the world of passing suggests, despite its first appearance, an unchangeable hold of origin and community. One may thus say that "passing" is a misnomer because it is used only to apply to cases of people who are not presumed to be able to pass legitimately from one class to another but who are believed to remain identified by a part of their ancestry throughout their lives. Ironically, the language speaks only of those persons as passing who, it is believed, cannot really pass.

The experience of passing can be differentiated in various ways. The person who passes voluntarily may be doing it for a variety of motives that push him out of one group and pull him into another one: the possibility of economic advancement and benefits (opportunism); interracial courtship and marriage (love); escape from slavery, proscriptions, and discrimination (political reasons); and for many other motives such as for curiosity, for kicks (an "occasional thrill"), for the love of deception, for revenge, and for investigative purposes (most famously by Walter Francis White). A person may also pass inadvertently when being mistaken for white and failing to protest; and involuntarily, be it because the individual may be too young to decide for himself (as in Frank J. Webb's The Garies and Their Friends ) or because it is arranged for him by others without his knowledge (like Tristan in Lydia Marie Child's A Romance of the Republic ).

Passing may be undertaken full-time, twenty-four hours a day, or it may be "part-time" (Joel Williamson) or "segmental" (Wirth), for job purposes on a certain time segment on a daily basis or for avoiding segregation in transportation, entertainment, restaurants, and hotels. It may be permanent, at least by intention, for the duration of an individual's life; or it may be full-time but temporary or sporadic (for a shorter or longer period of a person's life, for one purpose or scheme, such as escaping from slavery, finding a job, completing a program of education, or simply while waiting for an advantageous moment to "come out"). This sporadic form of passing is sometimes associated with sexual cross-dressing and transvestitism: In William Wells Brown's Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853) or William and Ellen Craft's Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860), for example, runaway slave women dress up as white men.

Passing may be arranged by a secretive individual alone; revealed to some confidants, friends, siblings, or family members; or it may be done in the open, forcing others to pretend that they do not know. According to Edward Byron Reuter (1931), "much 'Passing' is more a matter of acceptance or indifference than of actual and successful concealment." It may be planned by others; it may even "be unknown to the person who is passing," for example, in stories of orphans, foundlings, or switched babies (Wirth and Goldhamer, 1944). It may be done collectively by several family members (A Romance of the Republic ), siblings (Charles Chesnutt's The House behind the Cedars ), or friends, a couple, a whole family (Edith Pope's Colcorton ), a town, or other large groups (George Schuyler's Black No More ).

Passing may be experienced as a source of conflict or not. Fear and "constant anxiety," according to an anonymous author in Century, of discovery may so much intensify the stress, which the person who passes experiences, that giving up the subterfuge may come as a relief. "It is a great risk, and they live in almost daily fear of exposure" ("The Adventures of a Near-White").

Wirth and Goldhamer (1944) write:

For even though a person could not be identified by means of any physical marks as having Negro ancestry, there is always the possibility that someone who knew him as a Negro may discover his present mode of existence, or the possibility that he may have to account for his family and his early life. Even where the chance of such discovery is slight, there may be such constant anxiety and daily fear that the individual prefers to remain within the Negro community.

And Mary Helen Washington (1987) makes similar observations about Nella Larsen's treatment of the theme of passing:

The woman who passes is required to deny everything about her past: her girlhood, her family, places with memories, folk customs, folk rhymes, her language, the entire long line of people who have gone before her. She lives in terror of discoverywhat if she has a child with a dark complexion, what if she runs into an old school friend, how does she listen placidly to racial slurs? And more, where does the woman who passes find the equanimity to live by the privileged status that is based on the oppression of her own people?

Washington also stresses that the word passing may "connote deathin the black community dying is often referred to as 'passing.'"

Some who pass may feel like cowards, traitors, or losers: For example, at the end of James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man the narrator feels that he has sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. Some may also simply miss the familiar world of their pasts, their friends, and families. They may feel obliged to deny their closest relatives and friends: Thus, in the presence of her white male companion, Angela has to pretend not to recognize her own sister Virginia in Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun (1929); and the subject of Langston Hughes's "Passing" (1934) cannot speak to his mother in the street. An elaborate passing scenario is developed by the writer Garvin Wales in Hamilton Basso's novel The View from Pompey's Head (1954): To keep his racial background a secret, Wales has to hide his own mother, and his agent sends her checks for her whole life. Because of this family-disrupting aspect of passingfully exploited by melodramatic films like Imitation of Life family loyalty and race solidarity may be jointly invoked in an argument against passing.

Yet passing does not always have to be as conflictual as is often assumed. Wirth and Goldhamer stress that the people who tell their stories are more likely to be the ones who suffered from the experience: "The successful and well-adjusted person who passes is not likely to be heard from." Passing may even lead the individual who succeeds in it to a feeling of elation and exultation, an experience of succeeding as a trickster-hero who crosses a significant boundary and sees the world anew. Passing may thus lead to the higher insights of rising above and looking through the "veil" of the color line, to an experience of revelation, to seeing while not being seenlearning about the free-masonry of whiteness; surreptitiously joining an enemy camplike a spy, a Trojan horse, a living reminder of the absurdity of racial divisions. People who cross the line in this sense, "by reason of their fair skins, are able to gain information about what white people are doing and thinking that would surprise many of them. Often have I gone into the South in my capacity of newspaper correspondent, and as a white man secured vast quantities of information on the race and other questions," writes the anonymous author of "White, but Black" in the 19241925 Century magazine. In William Henry's novel Out of Wedlock (1931), Mary Tanner devises a scheme for her children to pass and marry leading whites in order to undermine racial prejudice.

For reasons such as these, passing was often perceived as a threat by whites. Elmer A. Carter (1926) describes the 1924 Virginia Act to Preserve Racial Integrity as an effort "to stem the tide of pseudo Caucasians who are storming the Anglo-Saxton ramparts." The act included a provision that made it a "felony to make a willfully false statement as to color," and Walter White reports that in 1926 he was threatened by the sheriff of a southern town with an indictment for passing for white. Blacks may react protectively toward the person who passes (Shiny in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man ), may be indifferent, or may be "ever the quickest to reveal the identity of those who seek to 'pass'" (Century ).

The presence of people who are "neither black nor white and yet both" undermines the seeming certainty of the most important American racial boundary, and characters who threaten such boundaries may, like Joe Christmas in William Faulkner's Light in August (1932), be turned into sacrificial scapegoats. African-American writers such as Langston Hughes, George Schuyler, and Walter Francis White have explored the comic potential in passing and have used it to criticize white and black hypocrisy.

How widespread a phenomenon was passing? Since quantitative data do not exist, writers have offered dramatically heterogeneous estimates. Many African Americans have reported that they personally knew friends or relatives who were passing. In 1931 Caleb Johnson reported the Harlem assumption that more than ten thousand "have 'passed,' and are now accepted as white in their new relations, many of them married to white folks, all unsuspected." Jessie Fauset stated in an interview with the Pittsburgh Courier that about twenty thousand blacks were passing in New York alone. An unsigned editorial by the sociologist Charles S. Johnson in Opportunity (1925), titled "The Vanishing Mulatto," alerted readers to a possible interpretation of the U.S. Census statistics of 1900, 1910, and 1920. According to those figures 2,050,686 Negroes were classified as mulattoes in 1910, but only 1,660,554 in 1920. Some mulattoes, the editorial concedes, were undoubtedly recounted as blacks, but others must also have faded "into the great white multitude." Drawing on Hornell Hart, Johnson further notes a possible increase of 162,500 native whites from 1900 to 1910 and a corresponding disappearance from the black group of 355,000. E. W. Eckard (1936) assumed more modestly that there were nationally 2,600 cases per year from 1920 to 1940, but T. T. McKinney, as cited by Joseph R. Washington Jr. (1970), believed in 1937 that the figure was 10,000 per year; Walter Francis White (1947) claimed that every year "approximately twelve thousand white-skinned Negroes disappear." According to Herbert Asbury (1946), approximately thirty thousand African Americans were passing each year so that "more than 2,000,000 persons with colored blood have crossed the line since the end of the Civil War." Factoring in possible descendants of people who passed, he goes on to report the "conservative" estimate "that there are at least between 5,000,000 and 8,000,000 persons in the United States, supposed to be white, who actually possess Negro blood." About 10 percent of the 346 families Caroline Bond Day (1932) studied had members who passed, but Gunnar Myrdal (1944), drawing on a manuscript of Wirth and Goldhamer's study, pointed out that her group was not intended to be a representative sample. Edward Reuter (1931) concluded that the "actual number of persons who have left the race and been accepted as white is of course wholly impossible to determine. There is a tendency to grossly exaggerate the number." Passing was undoubtedly significant locally. The Seventh Ward in New Orleans, for example, was known as the Can't Tell Ward (Peretti, 1992), and in the 1920s a theater in Washington hired "a black doorman to spot and bounce intruders whose racial origins were undetectable to whites" (Green, 1967).

Uncertainty has not kept writers from advancing speculations not only about the general figures but also about age and sex distribution among the population of people who pass. For example, Earnest Hooton expressed his belief that it is the younger rather than the older ones who pass (Wirth and Goldhamer); and according to Charles S. Johnson's "Vanishing Mulatto" (1925), while there were "1,018 black males per 1,000 females," there were "only 886 mulatto males per 1,000 females"permitting the conclusion that men "travel more and are not so dependent as women on family connections." This sex-ratio approach suggested that men were more likely to pass than women, an assumption shared explicitly by Edward Byron Reuter (1931). Although fictional literature often presented men as more successful at passing than women (e.g., John as opposed to Rena in Chesnutt's The House behind the Cedars; or Johnson's ex-colored man as opposed to the heroines of Larsen's and Fauset's novels), there exists no evidence to support the belief that men have passed at a greater rate than women. Wirth and Herbert write that "the sex ratio can give no indication of what the total amount of passing is unless one were to assume that females do not pass." Caleb Johnson (1931) assumed the opposite, with little evidence:

While there are no statistics to support the conclusion, there is strong reason for the belief that many more women than men cross the color line from Negro to white. This is partly due to the fact that sexual attraction is stronger between the light male and the darker female than in the opposite direction. It is a matter commented on by numerous scientific observers, who agree that the male Negro almost universally prefers a woman of his own color or darker, while the primitive sex-appeal of the octoroon girl is highly potent with the average young white male. Moreover, the social act of "passing" is easier for the girl than for the man.

Joseph Washington (1970) rightly reminds readers that "the knowledge of the sex distribution of blacks who passed was even less adequate than the knowledge of the color distribution."

Although now relegated to a footnote in cultural history, the phenomenon of passing "unleashed tremendous anxiety and fascination among whites" (Washington, 1970) and, from the 1850s to the 1930s, was "the favorite theme in Negro fiction" (Reuter, 1918). Passing was swept aside in social history by the civil rights movement and in literature by the Richard Wright school. As Nathan Huggins (1995) put it, "Passing is passé." A generation later, the time may be ripe for case studies of known individuals who passed, for example, the Trinity Collegetrained Theophilius John Minton Syphax, who, for forty-five years, was the white Wall Street lawyer T. John McKee until he revealed his true identity shortly before his death in 1948 (Burly, 1951); or the Columbia graduate William E. Jackson, who disclosed his racial background when he married the white woman Helen Burns in New York in 1925. At the same time, a full-fledged cultural investigation could be conducted of the period in which passing created much fascination for both black and white Americans.

See also Identity and Race in the United States; Social Psychology, Psychologists, and Race


Adams, Bruce Payton. "The White Negro: The Image of the Passable Mulatto Character in Black Novels, 18531954." Ph.D. diss., University of Kansas, Lawrence, 1975.

"The Adventures of a Near-White." Independent (1913).

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werner sollors (1996)


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Passing refers to a person changing his or her racial or ethnic identity. The term entered the common vocabulary under Jim Crowthe regime of racial segregation in the United States that emerged in the late nineteenth century and lasted into the 1960s. During this time period, many U.S. states and communities adopted the one drop rule, which held that a person with any African ancestry whatsoeverno matter how remotewould be classified as Negro. Under Jim Crow, many people with one drop of black blood chose to identify as white to evade racial discrimination. Numerous novels and films of this period portrayed the phenomenon, usually in the form of a tragedy.

Two types of individual passing occurred under Jim Crow. In situational passing, a person of color presented a white identity only in certain situationsfor example, to obtain employment in a white-only workplace or to gain entry into a white-only public facility such as a theater or train car. The situational passer retained his or her minority identity at home. The temptation of situational passing was generally understood and tolerated among the African American population.

Some people engaged in full-time passing, commonly referred to as crossing over or passing over. A person who permanently crossed over the color line into a white identity cut most social ties with African American family members and friends. Avoiding contact with other blacks was necessary to prevent arousing suspicions within a new, white social milieu. Because people who crossed over were lost to the African American community, this type of passing was widely condemned by black editorialists and political activists.

In the United States, the Jim Crowera conception of passing implied some degree of subterfuge, in which the person who passed was seen as an impostor who deceived his unsuspecting audience. This conception of passing emerged in the historical context of scientific racism and the one-drop rule, which made the color line seem a rigid boundary based on science rather than a social construction.

In other times and places, changing racial-ethnic identity was commonly done out in the open, often in the court system or as part of a public appeal. Caribbean and Latin American countries did not develop the rigid, one-drop conception of nonwhiteness that existed in the United States under Jim Crow. The saying money whitens is a bit of folk wisdom that observes the conflation of class with race, that a rich man is more likely to be accepted as an honorary white than a poor man. In the Spanish colonies, it was possible to purchase through the court system a cédula de gracias al sacar an expensive document that was valuable because it officially removed legal disabilities from the documents bearer, such as illegitimate or multiracial birth status.

Such passing by permission was possible in situations where the color line was less clearly defined and thus more permeable. Passing by permission was occasionally available in the United States prior to the Jim Crow era. Some courts granted status as an honorary white to individuals of sufficiently light complexion and sufficiently respectable social status. However, this type of passing became rare in the post-Civil War era. By the early twentieth century, as the one-drop rule gained sway, passing by permission was mostly defunct in the United States.

Although individuals could not pass by permission in the United States under Jim Crow, group passing by permission did occur. In rural areas of the southern Atlantic seaboard, communities of mixed ancestry who had been free before the Civil War were occasionally permitted to convert to an American Indian identity and given a slightly higher status than freed slaves (Berry 1963). The motivation for the white community was to pretend that racial mixing between whites and slaves had never occurred by recategorizing the offspring of such unions as Indians. Another motive for conservative white politicians prior to black disfranchisement was that they were able to co-opt lighter-complected voters by making them honorary Indians, thereby gaining support for Jim Crow from a portion of the nonwhite population.

As the Jim Crow era ended in the 1960s, racial-ethnic identities became seen more as an option that each individual could choose for him or herself (Waters 1990). For people of mixed ancestry, self-identification became an acceptable standard, replacing the rigid one-drop system to some extent. As a consequence, reports of African Americans passing as white have mostly disappeared today.

By the late twentieth century, a new phenomenon had emergedreverse passingin which people raised with a white identity would claim a minority identity to benefit from minority set-asides in business, education, or government. For example, a federal court determined that the Malone brothers of Boston had falsely claimed to be African American to gain employment in the citys fire department under affirmative action criteria (Ford 1994).

More common is the phenomenon of the white wannabe passing as American Indian. In one notable case, a former white segregationist politician named Asa Carter adopted a new identity as Forrest Carter and achieved best-seller status as a Cherokee author. In the academy, Ward Churchill was exposed as having falsely claimed to be enrolled in the Keetowah Cherokee Nation in order to advance his career as an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado. Genealogical research revealed no evidence of Churchills claimed American Indian ancestry. After complaints by a group of American Indian professors in the early 1990s, some universities now require that applicants must show proof of tribal enrollment when requesting affirmative action review as American Indians. However, racial-ethnic self-identification remains the de facto standard in most workplaces today, which makes passing mostly a thing of the past.

SEE ALSO Acting White; Blood and Bloodline; Race; Whiteness


Berry, Brewton. 1963. Almost White: A Study of Certain Racial Hybrids in the Eastern United States. New York: Macmillan.

Burma, John H. 1946. The Measurement of Negro Passing. American Journal of Sociology 52 (1): 1822.

Day, Caroline Bond, and Earnest Albert Hooton. 1932. A Study of Some Negro-White Families in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Dominguez, Virginia R. 1986. White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Ford, Christopher A. 1994. Administering Identity: The Determination of Race in Race-Conscious Law. California Law Review 82 (5): 12311285.

Waters, Mary C. 1990. Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Thomas F. Brown


views updated Jun 11 2018

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