JUMPING THE COLOR LINE IN LITERATURE: DO NOT PASS

Here is a very eloquent and thought-provoking essay on light-skinned Blacks who passed for White as chronicled by well-known authors in literature. The author of this essay, Toure (himself an author) speaks to what Blacks of a paler persuasion must give up and abandon to cross over into the world of Whites and all the privileges that go with whiteness.

He also addresses that passing is fraught with fears of being found out because of the ODR, of the ties that must be obliterated in order to pass over into a world that denigrates blackness and worships whiteness and the tremendous torment the passer constantly lives under.

There is one statement he makes that he would not want to be anyone but a Black person: “This may come as a shock to you, especially if you look at whiteness as a boon and blackness as a burden, but I have never once wished to be white. If a fairy godfather came to me and said I could switch races, I’d open the window and make him use it. I think 99 percent of black people would do the same“.

Reminds me of my post I put up in 2007 entitled “One Wish“.

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JUMPING THE COLOR LINE IN LITERATURE

Do Not Pass

By TOURÉ
Published: February 16, 2010
This may come as a shock to you, especially if you look at whiteness as a boon and blackness as a burden, but I have never once wished to be white. If a fairy godfather came to me and said I could switch races, I’d open the window and make him use it. I think 99 percent of black people would do the same. That’s not a knock on whiteness — it seems to be working out well for many people — it’s that I love blackness, even if passing would allow me to unhook myself from the heavy anchor called racism. It’s cool: I’ve learned how to be as quick as a Br’er Rabbit, even with the anchor attached. Still, you might argue, wouldn’t switching from a disadvantaged race to the dominant one be as liberating as a winning lottery ticket? Well, for those who’ve been able to complete the sociopolitical fantasy trip and become racial transvestites, it usually ends badly.
February 21, 2010    

Frederick Eberstadt

Ralph Ellison, the author of “Three Days Before the Shooting . . . ,” 1966.

The character who jumps the color line is a fascinating American rogue, a self-­constructed person, a trickster who’s discovered that race is not an unscalable wall but a chain-link fence with holes big enough for some people to slip through. But once they cross the line, they’re fugitives hiding in plain sight, on the lam from themselves and their histories, cut off from their families, unchained from racism but chained to a secret whose revelation would bring an end to a life built on lies and a stolen place in the dominant culture. All that makes racial shape-shifters a fantastic opportunity for a writer: they’ve got Huck Finn’s independence, an identity in turmoil, a secret that could destroy their world, a refusal to be defined by others and a vantage on race that very few ever get to have. And in the story of a racial fugitive, there’s always a ticking bomb. It’s a corollary of the literary law that if you put a loaded rifle onstage, it has to go off: if a character shifts races, eventually he’ll be unmasked, and usually it’s painful physically or psychically or both.

Take Bliss, the star of Ralph Ellison’s unfinished second novel — published in 1999 as “Juneteenth” and now, in its unexpurgated version, as THREE DAYS BEFORE THE SHOOTING . . . (Modern Library, $50), edited by John F. Callahan and Adam Bradley. Bliss is a “high-yaller” boy, raised by a black Baptist preacher, who grows up to be Adam Sunraider, a virulently racist senator the world thinks is white. Sunraider makes the most of his whiteness by becoming a powerful politician, but he’s cut down to size as we meet him: in his first scene he’s shot by a black man disgusted by his racism, thus getting his pain almost as soon as he steps onstage. He spends most of the story dying in a hospital bed and talking with his adoptive black father, the Rev. A. Z. Hickman. In flashbacks we see that Bliss was a great child preacher who, in Hickman’s revivals, would rise from inside a coffin as if reborn from the dead, both presaging his own rebirth and likening himself to Jesus (another black man who became white, but that’s a different story).

Like Sunraider, Coleman Silk, the hero of Philip Roth’s 2000 novel “The Human Stain,” is a chameleonic black man (he’s described as having the complexion of eggnog) who shifts to white and rises to a position of power — now a classics professor, he was formerly the dean of faculty at a small New England college — but whose world begins to crash down around him because of racism. One day Silk wonders aloud in class if two chronically absent students are spooks. He means ghosts, but the students are black. Because the world thinks Coleman is white, it’s taken as a racist slur, and he’s unable to fully defend himself without revealing the secret he’s keeping from his wife and children. He’s forced to resign, and the stress of the controversy causes his wife to have a stroke and die. Silk calls it murder.

Things also end badly for Clare Kendry, from Nella Larsen’s celebrated novel “Passing” (1929), whose lifelong deception is discovered by her racist husband shortly before she goes flying out a window to her death. William Faulkner’s Joe Christmas is among the loneliest characters in all of fiction; toward the end of “Light in August” (1932), he’s chased by a lynch mob and castrated as he’s dying. James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” does not end with the protagonist’s unmasking or physical pain, but he comes to deeply regret his life’s path, saying, “I cannot repress the thought that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”

We’ll never know how many there are like Johnson’s Ex-Colored Man — those who made the journey into whiteness and never came back. They’re silent in a whiteness protection program of their own construction. Anatole Broyard, the great literary critic of The New York Times in the 1970s and ’80s, was probably the inspiration for Coleman Silk. He was born black in New Orleans but passed as white in New York. Even as he was dying, with his wife urging him to reveal his secret to his children, he refused to tell them he was black. In his daughter Bliss Broyard’s memoir, “One Drop” (2007), he defers the conversation by saying, “I want to order my vulnerabilities so they don’t get magnified during the discussion.”

I don’t hate the real or fictional racial refugees who abandoned the tribe. I can understand the desire not to have your life conscripted by race. What I can’t understand is the other side of passing, the road more rarely traveled. From my perspective, it seems many white Americans are entranced by blackness and drool over how exciting and dangerous and sexy blacks seem. So my question is: Why aren’t more white people trying to pass as black?

Touré is writing a book about post-blackness, to be ­published in 2011.

SOURCE

RELATED LINKS:

 

1.
Juneteenth: A Novel by Ralph Ellison and Charles Johnson (Paperback – June 13, 2000)
3.5 out of 5 stars   (27)
2.
The Human Stain: A Novel by Philip Roth (Paperback – May 8, 2001)
3.
Passing (Norton Critical Editions) by Nella Larsen and Carla Kaplan (Paperback – Sept. 4, 2007)
4.5 out of 5 stars   (26)
4.
Light in August (The Corrected Text) by William Faulkner, Noel Polk, and Joseph Blotner (Paperback – Jan. 30, 1991)
4.5 out of 5 stars   (80)
a.
Light In August by William Faulkner (Hardcover – January 1, 1959)
5.0 out of 5 stars   (1)
 

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At the end of Mr. Toure’s brilliant essay, he asks a very good question:

 

“What I can’t understand is the other side of passing, the road more rarely traveled. From my perspective, it seems many white Americans are entranced by blackness and drool over how exciting and dangerous and sexy blacks seem. So my question is: Why aren’t more white people trying to pass as black?”

 

I can answer that.

Some time ago, a college professor asked the White students in his class, “How much money would it take to pay you to wake up the next day a Black person?”

Without fail, many of the White students stated large sums of money:  $10,000,000, $40,000,000 and even $50,000,000.

That is how much money they were willing to accept to give up all the privileges of whiteness: the ability to not suffer from racial profiling, not to be shot to death in a hail of 50 bullets fired at you on your wedding night; not to be called lascivious/wanton/aggressive because of 400+ year-old stereotypes; not to be questioned on your intellect; not to be written off before you even get your foot in the door; not to be followed nor harassed while shopping; not to have your voice dismissed or disregarded in a group where you are the only Black; not to have to teach your children to navigate the systemic racism that affects their lives on a daily basis.

I could go on, and on, but, I am sure Mr. Toure would get the picture.

Whites know what it is like for Blacks living in America.

They see it every day in the wage disparity, wealth gap, social and economic racism, sexualized gendered racism, monstrous racial stereotypes and the still prevalent racial segregation chasm that keeps up the beat down on Black Americans.

They see it in how their own parents, friends, White co-workers treat their fellow Black citizens.

They see it in how their lily-white neighborhoods remain lily white.

They see.

Oh, but, yes, they most certainly look over across the fence, beyond the veil, and say that they just can’t get enough of Black people. Can’t get enough of Black people, until they have sucked and usurped, and commodified whatever they can from Black people—–as long as Black people stay over there——away from their precious White sons and daughters, and white neighborhoods, and white churches, and white communities, and white lives.

Black people: “dangerous, and sexy and exciting”?

Many Whites know that life is still dangerous and menacing for Black Americans.

Oh, yeah, they love the elan, the verve, the substance and the essence of what Black Americans have created from this cauldron, this boiling vat of a hydrochloric acid bath known as America has been to Blacks, and what Blacks have created out of the hell of a history we have in this country.

Whites want that essence, but, not the burden. All the tenacity, the fortitude, the courage, the indomitable will, the perserverance.

Everything……..but the burden.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “JUMPING THE COLOR LINE IN LITERATURE: DO NOT PASS

  1. steve

    I haven’t finished the new Ellison novel, but I’m halfway through it and I’ve already read “Juneteenth.” To suggest that “Three Days Before the Shooting” is a novel of passing is to misinterpret the character Bliss.

    Bliss is *raised* as a light-skinned African American, but no one, except his mother, knows who the father is. The mother is an unmarried southern white girl who gets pregnant and then blames it on Hickman’s brother Robert, who she’s never even met, although she and Hickman know each other. She does it in order to protect the man she loves, although he’s gone away somewhere. She doesn’t say if he’s black or white and Hickman doesn’t ask.

    So Robert is murdered and when she’s due, she comes to Hickman, who delivers the baby.

    On p. 472, Hickman laments:

    “Poor Bliss, the terrible thing is that even if I told you all this, I still couldn’t tell who your daddy was, or even if you have any of our blood in your veins…Like when I was a boy and guessed the number of all those beans in that jar they had in that grocery window and they wouldn’t give me the prize because one wasn’t a bean, they said, but a rock!”

    Bliss is raised in black culture as a high-yellow child, but Hickman knows otherwise. Bliss does cross the color line at least once, maybe twice, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s passing, except culturally.

    I don’t get the feeling that Ellison cared about passing, I think he was more interested in the cultural interrelatedness of black and white Americans.

    There’s an example, eight pages later on p. 480, when Hickman is reminiscing about his early life as a jazz musician:

    “A communion there, back there in that life. Its own communion and fellowship. That Texas white boy who was always hanging around ’til he was like one of us, he knew it. ‘Tex, why you always out here hanging around with us all the time? You could be President, you know.’

    ‘Yeah, but what’s the White House got that’s better than what’s right here?’

    Maybe Bliss could tell him…”

  2. steve

    Jack Teagarden, the great Texas jazz trombonist, might have been the model for Tex, although I really can’t say. But the riff about Tex becoming president is interesting because when Reverend Hickman, Deacon Wilhite, and the members of the congregation travel to Washington, D.C. to warn the Senator, they stop off at the Lincoln Memorial to pray. Later, at Sunraider’s bedside in the hospital, Hickman reflects on Lincoln’s character and what a rare kind of human being he was, adding:

    “And to think, he thought, stirring suddenly in his chair, we had hoped to raise ourselves that kind of man…” (italicized) [p.421]

    Let’s suppose we take him literally (although I don’t know that that’s how it’s intended) and look at it in terms of “passing.” Does it mean they had hoped to raise a white child with the qualities of Lincoln, who would advance the cause, or that they had hoped to raise someone in the mold of a Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, who, in the timeframe of this novel, could not have been elected President? Unless he passed, of course, but I don’t think that’s what Ellison is driving at.

    Either way, I think Bliss is being used. He works alongside his guardian, Hickman, as a child evangelist, and he doesn’t know where he comes from. His mother had given him to Hickman to replace the brother whose life she took. Then years later, a crazy woman shows up at the Juneteenth celebration and rushes the stage crying “My baby, my Cudworth!” They try to assure Bliss that she’s not his mother, but deep down he wonders if they’re lying to him. Then later, when he’s on his own, he experiences a freedom he doesn’t feel as a part of the group. I don’t think that equates to passing though.

    Anyway, thanks for reading my thoughts, I don’t know if they’re what Ellison intended. But if you’re not already reading the book, I think you would enjoy it, and I hope what I’ve written hasn’t discouraged you in any way.

    I dig Touré, I liked his commentary on Michael Jackson and I’ve read one of his books. I also think James Weldon Johnson’s allegory about the ragtime piano player is a brilliant piece of writing, probably more important than Jean Toomer’s Cane. It’s not an admonition against passing.

    Thanks,
    Steve :)

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