The Musings of a Wannabe Intellectual

Category: Passing

The enduring presence of ‘passing’

I recently watched the entire PBS documentary Jazz (Ken Burns, 2000; highly recommend). It’s no secret that I’m mad for the blues and love jazz. Charlie Parker is an undisputed genius and I think the world would have less problems if more people listened to Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday – or would, at least, think a bit more deeply about their actions… But that’s not the point.

The point is my thesis topic keeps appearing! It seems as though now that I am aware of it, every time I watch or read anything African-American related my thesis topic (racial passing) appears, especially if it is considering the 1920s.

Jazz has a dynamite (and perhaps unintentional) reference to passing for white – or rather, passing for colored. The first black-run black music label, Black Swan Records embraced the anti-passing rhetoric to promote their label within the black community.


I think this advertisement speaks more to the growing black nationalism and empowerment of black people than the nature of passing itself, but then, those are the reasons passing has been neglected for so long… Regardless, it had me scrambling for the pen & paper.


…the African-American daughter who wants to pass is drawn back into the body of her mammy. Women are what they are; men are what they do. Women, especially black women, are embodied; men transcend.

Just as white ethnic mobility requires black fixity, so men need women. Mammy allows the blackface Jew, the jazz singer, to move forward; she pulls the whiteface African-American back to her maternal roots.

Michael Rogin, “”Democracy and Burnt Cork”: The End of Blackface, the Beginning of Civil Rights,” Representations, No. 46 (1994): 1-34, 16.

Films about passing, 1930-1950

Imitation of Life (1934)Imitation of Life (1934)

Stars: Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Rochelle Hudson, Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington
Director: John M. Stahl
Written by: Fannie Hurst (novel); William Hurlbut (screenplay)
Distributor: Universal Studios
Release Date: 26 November 1934
Running time: 111 min

Imitation of Life (1934) [Trailer]

Note: There is also the 1959 version of the film directed by Douglas Sirk.

God's Stepchildren (1938)God’s Stepchildren (1938)

Starring: Jacqueline Lewis, Ethel Moses, Alice B. Russell, Carmen Newsome, Gloria Press, Cherokee Thornton, Dorothy Van Engle
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Written by: Alice B. Russell and Oscar Micheaux
Distributor: Micheaux Pictures Corporation
Release date: 1938
Running time: 70 minutes

God’s Step Children (whole film) – [Part 1]: [Part 2]: [Part 3]: [Part 4]: [Part 5]: [Part 6]: [Part 7]: [Part 8].

Lost Boundaries (1942)Lost Boundaries (1942)

Starring: Beatrice Pearson, Mel Ferrer, Susan Douglas Rubes
Directed by: Alfred L. Werker
Written by: William L. White (story); Charles Palmer (adaptation)
Distributor: Film Classics
Release date:  July 2, 1949
Running time: 99 minutes

Pinky (1949)Pinky (1949)

Starring: Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore, Ethel Waters, Nina Mae McKinney, William Lundigan
Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay by: Philip Dunne and Dudley Nichols
Based on: Quality by Cid Ricketts Sumner
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Release date: September 29, 1949
Running time: 102 mins.

Pinky (1949): [Trailer]

Pinky (1949): [Whole Film]

I always want what I can’t have…

I have a serious problem, dear readers. I want what I can’t have.

Today I narrowed the selection of passing films I will be using in my thesis. I now desperately want to use the 1932 Oscar Micheaux’ Veiled Aristocrats.

Veiled Aristocrats (1932)

Stars: Lorenzo Tucker, Laura Bowman
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Written by: Oscar Micheaux
Distributor: Micheaux Film Corporation
Release date: May 16, 1932
Run-time: 44 Minutes

Plot (according to Wikipedia): John Walden, a light-skinned African American lawyer, returns to his family in North Carolina after being away for 20 years. Walden has passed as white and been successful. He discovers domestic turmoil: his mother is trying to dissuade his sister Rena, who is also light skinned, from being romantically involved with Frank Fowler (Carl Mahon), a dark-skinned African-American businessman. With his mother’s blessing, Walden suggest that Rena abandon Fowler and move with him to another part of the city, where she could pass for white.

After Rena reluctantly agrees, her brother sets her up in a fancy home with African-American servants, who are initially unaware of Rena’s African ancestry. Rena is pursued by a white high-class man who proposes marriage. Becoming uncomfortable with the situation, Rena tells her brother that she is a “negress” and is “tired of being a liar and a cheat”. Rena reunites with Frank and they elope.

So what’s the issue?: It’s a lost film. It is believed that no copies of the complete original film exist. A trailer and fragments from two reels were, quite serendipitously, discovered in a Tennessee garage in 1992 and they now live at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Clip of Veiled Aristocrats.

I want.

To pass is to sin against authenticity, and “authenticity” is among the founding lies of the modern age. The philosopher Charles Taylor summarizes its ideology thus: “There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s life. But the notion gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life; I miss what being human is for me.” And the Romantic fallacy of authenticity is only compounded when it is collectivized: when the putative real me gives way to the real us.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “The Passing of Anatole Broyard.” In Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man. New York: Random House, 1997. Pp. 180-214.

Two new terms…

As you may remember, dear readers, I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of consistent terminology in my field. Well, here are two more for my growing list:

Mauve Decade – The ‘mauve decade’ refers to the 1890s. Apparently this was because a scientist accidentally created mauve and quickly became a favorite shade in fashion. I don’t know. It seems so benign and passive to me (unless you are a Doctor Who fan, in which case it is quite apt). I think I’ll stick with the ‘Gilded Age’, despite its lengthy time frame…

Racial Crossing – Another term for racial passing and a favorite among 1920s sociologists. In hindsight this one was a bit obvious but I still need to revisit all the databases in search of it.

In other news, I have just read a fabulous analysis of Iola Leroy and Frances Harper’s take on racial passing. More to come…

People who passed for white: Judson Douglas Wetmore

Judson Douglass Wetmore was an attorney who gained fame after winning Patterson v Taylor, 51 Fla. 275 (1903) (Florida v Patterson). He is more widely known for influencing the experience of the protagonist in Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.

Wetmore’s experience with crossing the color line was more often temporary. Rather the completely crossing the color line and permanently passing, he presented himself according to his audience and needs. He established himself as a ‘Negro lawyer’ in Florida and later in New York City. However, as race relations became increasing volatile, Wetmore found himself more often than not acting the part of a white man…

Few fun facts:
– Both his spouses were of Jewish heritage who, though aware of his blackness, concealed his heritage from their families.

– He briefly represented Ada King, wife of Clarence King (who had a double life and passed for black).

– While attending Michigan Law School he passed for white by omission; his peers assumed he was white and Wetmore just never corrected them.

Judson Douglass Wetmore, you just became a person of great interest to me.

Blacks who Pass for White (Phil Donahue Show)

(Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4) (Part 5) (Part 6) (Part 7) (Part 8)

This episode have provided some useful insight into the human experience of ‘passing’ or how it feels to be ‘perceived as white’. I loved the little soundbites like “hair going back home” and “black and black make black”. I did take issue with a couple of things in this episode though… And I took the time to think about what they were and why they invoked those feelings.

I think that the man on the panel was remarkable unhelpful. He was wrong to shut down the audiences comment about poverty in urban populations; in 1990 this was a series issue on the rise, not just something white folks were conceptualizing based off television shows (although I won’t dispute the media has done a lot of perpetuate negative stereotypes).

Another thing I really disliked was the panels constant referral to themselves as victims of racism. I don’t mean to say that they haven’t experienced racism or that they haven’t been disadvantaged by prejudices, I just really don’t like victim-hood. It’s such an introverted and unhelpful state. Most of the panel members seemed so angry and closed off to other perspective. As soon as one accepts the role of victim they just seem to become stagnant.

Finally, while I see they are a good historical source to gain different perspectives on the phenomenon for my thesis, I think if I had watched this in the 1990s I would have walked away angry. It was a particularly ineffective segment for addressing mixed race issues. I get that this was a “I’m black and I’m proud” moment but… there needed to be a space for the ambiguity to properly be acknowledged; that caller deserved to have her desire to just be herself rather than black or white. They had the platform to talk about something that affects millions of people and they turned it into an “either/or” situation.

Portrait of the Inauthentic Negro (July 1950)

Worst of all, the inauthentic Negro is not only estranged from whites—he is also estranged from his own group and from himself. Since his companions are a mirror in which he sees himself as ugly, he must reject them; and since his own self is mainly a tension between an accusation and a denial, he can hardly find it, much less live in it.

– Anatole Broyard

Anatole Broyard was a well-known book reviewer for the New York Times. It was revealed on his death bed in 1990 that, for the majority of his life, he had been passing for white. Broyard was ‘colored Creole’ desperate to be recognised as a writer, rather than “a ‘Negro writer’ consigned to the back of the literary bus.”

His life in itself is fascinating but what I find interesting is a pattern I am discovering within racial passing. The passer seems to allude to their other life, their heritage, or their knowledge of African American culture through the use of linguistic patterns, culturally-specific words or race-focused publications. Now that is fascinating.

(Sources: Portrait of the Inauthentic Negro and Editorial Observer; Back When Skin Color Was Destiny — Unless You Passed for White)

The Complexity of Racial Identity in The Jefferson’s

The episode focuses on the mixed-race children of the Jefferson’s neighbours. Their son has just returned from Europe and their daughter is hostile to him.

The son, Allan, had passed for white throughout college and went to Europe to escape the restraints of the colour line.

This is probably one of the few times I have seen this aspect of ‘passing’ discussed in popular culture. Typically, the passer in popular culture ‘passes’ for some kind of social or economic gain. Instead, this scene highlights the friction ‘passing’ causes within a family, and the the inner conflict experienced by the passer – am I white or black?

I like it because it adds an emotional dimension to a topic typically presented in a logical and analytical light.

The Jefferson’s, Season 1, Episode 13 Jenny’s Low (1975)