Passing: The Hidden History of Whiteness, Reflections on Generational Identity
I have a black mother and a white son. They are both biologically mine. My black mother and my white son. In public, my mother is easily identified as black and treated as such; while my son has only ever been seen as white and is treated as such. They are linked by one generation through me, the “mixed” one. They are equally valuable and valued in my eyes. But one has the option to walk through the world relatively unburdened by race; and the other has spent over 70 years feeling the disdain of others because of the color of her skin, the particulars of her features and the texture of her hair.
For just about every light-skinned African American, there is a person of color who has passed as White would surely have done if he had been born in an earlier time. Procreation between blacks and whites throughout the slaveholding and Jim Crow south is known. But the pervasive myth about the children borne from those unions — unholy as many were — is that they produced light-skinned black children only. That they spawned mulattoes and quadroons and octoroons, the presumed tragic figures of a society divided within itself. What the current white supremacist movement fails to embrace is the fact that a light-skinned, mixed-race black parent is as likely to produce a fair-skinned, straight-haired white child. And many of them did. Many of them passed and were raised as white. White in skin-tone and identity, but still the product of African American lineage.
Southern whiteness is not pure in any sense. It was constructed in the inhospitable environment of systemic dehumanization designed as a result of economic exploitation. In that system, whiteness mattered to differentiate between those who could hold power and those who were intentionally disenfranchised from opportunity. And at the nexus of those binaries lay the phenomenon of passing.
So passing they did, by the hundreds and thousands. Often by their own choice at an age when they could see the opportunity to fulfill the American dream of life and liberty for all. But often, that choice was made by a mother who had to ask herself, “Do I expose this baby as black or do I let my child pass?”
For many mothers, the choice to let their baby pass was an absolute necessity. Passing secured for those children a place in society where they could live as full human beings. Both black and white mothers faced this choice, only with slightly different nuances. While a black mother with a mulatto-looking child could raise her child (and perhaps later that child could decide to leave home and family for a distant place and try to pass, as many did). But a black mother with a discernibly white-looking child would recognize the opportunities available to that child and opt to give it up at birth to a white family, a white church, a white hospital, any institution that would be sure not to ask questions about the child’s parentage.
A black mother had to give up that child in order to give him or her a chance at life. In doing so, that black mother risked that child being raised to believe that she, the mother, lacked value. She might have had to watch him or her be raised to hate her own lineage, to negate her own identity over and over. To watch that child march on behalf of whiteness or participate in a lynching of his own possible relatives. For black mothers of white children raised in the south, the choice was to give the baby a chance or to give the baby a true sense of self. An unburdened life or the real possibility of death.
For white mothers, the choice might be between hiding a pregnancy and “discovering” a foundling to be raised by herself, a close family member or, if the baby could not rightfully pass, by a black family who could be trusted not to ask questions. Again, a choice had to be made but for those mothers, not only to save the life of the baby but herself. To birth a black baby could mean censure, isolation and worse. The choice of motherhood or self-preservation.
For all the knowledge of light-skinned African Americans in our community, it is puzzling that we are unwilling or unable as a culture to reason out this simple logic: people of African descent who were brought here as slaves had babies with white American men and women; those babies were a little lighter skinned and over a generation or two of those mixed babies having light-skinned black children, they could now produce white-looking white children.
The discomfort with this knowledge is surely multifold. The fact of rape is of course the most glaring problem. But perhaps a slightly nuanced narrative can live alongside of that more violent reality — but by first establishing a point of fact: no one can consent to sexual intercourse with a person who claims to own them. That is rape. However, using the logic of the time, it could possibly be argued that some measure of real intimacy may have grown between those who supported the ownership of human property and those who were presumed to be of a lesser humanity.
In fact, people living in such close proximity to one another over a lifetime, who must interact with another, whose lives are dependent on one another, may under some circumstances, bond. Famously, Homer Plessy represents a case in point. The legacy of his name lies in the 1892 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson that tragically affirmed “separate but equal” doctrine in the south. But what makes Homer Plessy notable is the fact that he was so fair-skinned, so White in appearance, that he had to identify himself as black in order to initiate the premise for that court case. Plessy’s grandmother was a free woman of color in New Orleans who had married a French expat to the United States. He had the option to pass but chose to stand on behalf of racial justice and offered himself up to the cause by sitting on that train and identifying himself as black.
Where Plessy chose to assert his racial identity, an act of radical solidarity, others chose for themselves and their children to pass as White. For every Lena Horne, there is a Carol Channing. And for every Carol Channing, there is also an Elsie Roxborough who struggled through life in the in-between. The choice, where it existed, defined how they would walk through life.
For white supremacists, there may be visceral distress is the knowledge that they have a grandparent or a great grandparent who passed and that they are the product of that choice. They are the product of an environment in which human connection was betrayed by a social and political structure that forced their great grandparents to actively choose barbarism over civilization. Their ancestors had to lie in order that they could be treated as fully human. But that black ancestor is there and probably not too far in the past. The greater discomfort is in knowing that because someone before them could pass, they might have turned around and taken part in lynchings and white power rallies simply to throw other people off the track of their own ancestry. They adopted white supremacy ideas to purposely negate their own identity, knowing that white supremacy is a lie and that their very presence in that arena proves it. Knowing that they are a case study in the absurdity of believing that white and black should not mix and that one race is superior to any other.
Or maybe they don’t know and don’t want to ask. Maybe they just accepted it as a personal peccadillo that their grandparent obsessively avoided the sun. Or maybe they thought it logical when their parent warned them to obsessively avoid the sun for fear of looking “dark.” It never occurred to them that the reason for that fear was a black grandparent whose genetic code passed down to them might kick in after an hour on the beach. Possibly, when looking at old pictures of grandparents or great grandparents there was that one person who everyone said, oh s/he was “Italian” but they never say from where. That was a person who passed and was able to adopt the identity of an acceptably “white” European ethnicity to explain some anomalous physical traits.
Perhaps they have a great grandparent or grandparent who never knew their dad but there’s that nice old gentleman who was a good friend and even though he’s black everyone seems to like him. That nice gentleman is in their family tree.
And for some who have thought to ask, they can trace back their family line on one side more than the other. That empty branch features a black great grandparent that no one wants to know.
While the absurdity of white supremacy is not in the genetic argument but in the cultural and political one, it is possibly helpful to think about some of the conditions under which it is a provable lie.
My son could walk into a KKK rally and no one would think twice. He could pass, if he wanted to. He could give me up, if he decided it was easier to hate himself and us. If he chose to, he could pass through the world without the joy of recognizing his diverse lineage. I hope he never makes that choice. The mothers who gave birth to young people who rallied on behalf of whiteness, many of them felt that they had no choices and so their grandchildren and great grandchildren rally against them and against themselves. For all that supremacy, we are all the weaker.