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“.
JUMPING THE COLOR LINE IN LITERATURE
Do Not Pass
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?
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.
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.