Racial Passing as a literary trope

by kathleenljackson

Undoubtedly, the influx of black literature addressing the act of “passing for white” between the 1880s and 1940s has contributed to the fact that the act of passing has been largely explored in literary studies. Despite this, I don’t really plan on spending too much of my thesis discussing passing in literature. This is not because I don’t recognise its usefulness in providing context and direction on the topic, I just think there are other realms to be explored.

That said, I wrote a historiographical-focused essay on passing last semester and essentially dismissed the literary studies because I was focused entirely on actual historical events. However, over the last semester break, I spent a considerable amount of time on the road so I decided to listen some LibriVox and Lit2Go audio books. I’ve listened to Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter (1912), Passing (1929), and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). So, I can now speak to them;

Clotel was interesting, not focused specifically on passing; it addresses the life of a “mulatto” slave. There is a woman who… I guess you could say she passed – her husband bought her as a slave but they lived as man and wife until he died – even her children had no idea. When the husband/ owner died his wife and children were sold as slaves – the girls (despite being raised as, and being physically, white) were promoted and sold as sex slaves and met unfortunate ends. This introduced me to the concept of ‘fancy girls’ – I’ll be discussing ‘fancy girls’ in another blog.

Passing has the most literary commentary on it, for obvious reasons, I was … I guess a little underwhelmed because of this. Yes, one of the main characters passed as white but for me the central issue was Irene’s anxiety. Still, the novella provided some insight on why (according to Nella Larsen) people would ‘pass as white’ and the loss of community felt.

And finally, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is easily the most insightful novel on the “negro problem” I have ever read (and, yes, I’ve read Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Also deserving its own blog…

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