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Est. April 5, 2002
July 30, 2015 - Issue 617

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If You Had a Choice of Colors
An Essay on Passing in
American Life and Culture

By Dr. Al-Tony Gilmore, PhD

"For generations most whites have had no
personal memory of those black persons
who passed, because for passing to have
worked, whites could not have become
co-conspirators in the secret."

One incredibly manipulative white woman has done more than anyone else in recent memory to remind this country that race matters as much to black people as it does to white people. Though the NAACP, since its founding in 1909, has been an interracial organization, with significant white leaders, including white presidents of local chapters, it has never had a “certified birth certificate” white woman masquerade as black and serve as the head of a local chapter until Rachael Dolezal appeared in Spokane, Washington. Somehow this white woman assumed that she had the liberty of self-designating her race as black, as well as reclaiming her race as white, whenever it best served her needs. When she filed a reverse discrimination lawsuit at Howard University, she felt comfortable with the same white genealogical origins that she now casually dismisses in her fraudulent claim to be a black woman. Unfortunately, in America you cannot choose your own race. It is a by-product of the ethnicity of your birth parents. You may be multi-racial or a member of an ethnic group, but you must be either black or white. You cannot be both.

Since the 1970s, in sharp disagreement with their 19th-and earlier 20th-century counterparts, leading scientists have agreed that race has no scientific basis. Race as a social construct, however, may, and does, make sense in a country where every element of human existence is factored through the consciousness of race. Yet that consciousness has no applicability for Rachael Dolezal, nor does it uphold her defiant and ludicrous attempts at racial self-determination.

What makes the failed deception an intriguing and perplexing one is not only that she avoided detection for years without changing her name, but that she had the audacity to become a leader of the NAACP with her orchestrated racial identity. When word leaked that she was indisputably white, the NAACP felt betrayed by the lapse in her integrity, while others were simply stunned and could not fathom the reasons a white person would willingly vacate the advantages of white privilege. Though she was not the first “birth certificate” white person to appropriate a black identity, no others were cited by the media, because such examples have been rare and only those of notable individuals would be of interest to a curious American public. On the other side of that coin, the numbers of birth-certificate blacks who have passed as white have been so large that most blacks once personally knew black individuals and even black families who left one community and moved to another to pass for white. That has changed over the past half-century, because blacks have fewer compelling reasons to change racial identity. Moreover, it would be much more difficult to do in a global village where every person has instant access to another and where identifies are recorded and monitored from birth.

For generations most whites have had no personal memory of those black persons who passed, because for passing to have worked, whites could not have become co-conspirators in the secret. This does not mean, however, that whites have been indifferent to passing, because blacks who passed were invisible and could marry into their families and possibly produce children whose physical appearances would be unacceptable to white sensibilities and family heritage. The fear of next-generation possibilities was even stronger among those passing, because they knew of their black heritage. Passing was fragile, and even those who never told their children about the lie they lived worried about their grandchildren. Whites likely know more about whites who pass for black than would blacks, for the same reasons that blacks know more about members of their own race who pass – they knew them before the change.

Rachael Dolezal could have lived her life as a black woman and, other than perhaps her family and close friends, no one, particularly the media, would have cared. But her arrogance, ambition, and ego demanded more. She wanted to be a black leader and, for her, joining the proverbial black church – the NAACP – was not enough; she wanted to lead the choir on the first Sunday. This behavior was so bizarre, that for her to believe that she could sustain such a fabrication may speak volumes about the white woman in her who feels her intellect is superior to that of blacks. Or maybe her problem can be explained as a mental health issue, but that cannot be discounted or summarily dismissed because racism, as argued by sociologist E. Franklin Frazier almost a century earlier, is a mental health issue. Either way, her rendezvous with blackness is useful for beginning the conversation and understanding the complex practice and strange career of passing in American life and culture.

So much of social history defies traditional documentation, and from a purely quantitative perspective the practice and history of white-skinned black people passing for white presents an insurmountable challenge. No one kept records because, for obvious reasons, when passing was successful it meant record keepers had been evaded. But from the qualitative side, it is different, because stories of individuals and families who left one location and moved to another for the purpose of changing racial identities were once so common, yet so sensational, that those who witnessed those transgressions never forgot them. Those observations and family storytelling became oral history and anecdotal footnotes to history. Almost every black who lived in a Southern community from the turn of the century through World War II knew persons who had left the South to move elsewhere for the purpose of passing.

Being a baby boomer in segregated South Carolina, I remember hearing conversations in my family and among others in my community about black people who left the South and were passing. It was nothing short of scandal, because those fair-complexioned exiles had once lived wholesome black lives in the same communities of people – some of them family members – who were spreading the word of what they considered to be a betrayal of race.

In the late 1950s, I saw “white Negroes” – those who could not be distinguished physically from whites in any way – for the first time. An older relative who lived on my street had brought home with her for spring break, two children close to my age, whose parents she worked for while in college. Other than their friendliness, affinity for black music, and cultural references, nothing about them said “Negro.” Because they were unknown in my hometown, white people were uneasy when they purchased movie theater tickets and sat with us in the colored balcony. The usher rushed to inform them – and not too politely – that they could not sit with us, only relenting when they explained that they were visiting and assured him they were black. We maintained friendships for years through visits and correspondence that lasted until their family moved their dry-cleaning business from South Carolina to Anchorage, Alaska in the early 1960s.

Some years later, in the early 1990s, I had a business trip to Anchorage and sought to reconnect with my childhood friends. I found them by visiting several dry-cleaning establishments until I entered one and saw someone who looked like one of them. Though he did remember me, he fumbled from one excuse to another for not getting together with me. He was cordial but short on conversation. I was later informed by the same relative who had once worked for the family that they had been passing soon after their arrival in Alaska and did not wish to continue any relationships with people who once knew them as black. After that visit, I complied, but I have never forgotten that family, and subsequently learned that they were “semi-passing” which explained why their last name had not changed. They lived basically a “don’t ask, don’t tell” existence. Carolyn Marie Wilkins described what that life was like in her book, Damn Near White, when she wrote about her light-complexioned uncle in Chicago during the 1950s

While never denying his black identity . . . he didn’t exactly shout it from the rooftops either. Visits by my aunt or any of the darker members of the family were quietly discouraged. . . . My uncle didn’t want to raise any eyebrows. . . . Uncle Ernest did not broadcast his black identity; his children received a free education at excellent suburban schools in nice neighborhoods where blacks would not have been welcome.

This was an era, Wilkins explains, when many blacks passed, if they could, because it allowed for better jobs, neighborhoods, and schools. Though if their racial identity was unmasked, the masquerade party was over and all the advantages gained through passing were lost.

Walter White, former Executive Secretary of the NAACP, is perhaps the most well-known black man who could have passed for Caucasian, and often did. But by no means was there a shortage of African Americans whose physical characteristics spoke more to white biological origins than black. In his autobiography, A Man Called White published in 1948, he wrote about the extraordinary number of “white looking” black people, who were crossing the color-line for the purpose of permanently being identified as white.

Every year approximately twelve thousand white-skinned Negroes disappear; people whose absence cannot be explained by death or emigration. Nearly every one of the 14 million discernible Negroes in the United States knows at least one member of his race who is “passing” – the white magical word which means that some Negroes can get by as whites, men and women who have decided they will be happier and more successful if they flee from the proscription and humiliation which the American color-line imposes on them.

Just as C. Vann Woodward in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, exploded the myth that segregation was the natural order of Southern race relations after the Civil War, passing in America has also been more fluid and dynamic than conventional thought would suggest. There were fewer reasons for light-skinned blacks to pass before the late 19th and early 20th centuries, because for such individuals, race was largely determined by location and community. Light-skinned black folk in some locations who could have passed for white were considered black and lived black lives. Though not accepted as whites, they were often provided opportunities not afforded those of darker skin tones. While in other locations, such persons were considered white even though miscegenation was in their family trees. Those race-designated decisions were local and regional. Many fair-complexioned blacks even married whites who had no discernible black biological heritage, as James Hugo Johnson demonstrates through the court cases cited in Race Relations in Virginia and Miscegenation in the South, 1776-1860.

To further compound the race equation, the hundreds of thousands of pre- and, to a lesser extent, post-Civil War children born out of illicit interracial sexual relationships were not all racially categorized as black. Some remained white, as defined by their communities, and most married white and produced offspring who were considered white. In an America that was largely rural and agricultural those decisions were local. Thomas Jefferson, for example, fathered at least four children by his fair-complexioned slave Sally Hemmings. This is where the irony begins for Monticello. Those children were considered slaves because of hypo descent – the default assignment of children of a mixed union between different racial groups to the group with the lower status. But owing to “blood percentage” definitions of race, Jefferson’s children were legally white under Virginia law at the time. Three of his four slave children, when freed, were accepted and assimilated into white society as adults, married white, and all of their descendants subsequently identified as white. Physical appearance alone allowed many mixed-race people to become members of the white race, as long as their invisible black did not surface. On occasion this invisibility became embarrassingly visible in the appearance of their offspring, often a generation or more later.

The movement towards legal codification for defining race in America occurred during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period that historian Rayford Logan has framed as the nadir for black life in America following slavery.

After Reconstruction and well into the 20th century, the white supremacy movement took control of America and laws were established to both separate and define the races – one superior and the other inferior based on “scientific” research from some of the nation’s leading intellectuals and scholars. The prospects of blacks – even those who were well-educated - being treated equal were dashed. Nowhere in America could blacks find refuge from the onslaught of race-restrictive laws, discriminatory practices, and the restoration of white rule in the South. Pauli Murray, the black activist, feminist, lawyer, priest, and poet, remembered Charles Morton Dame, who had a promising future when he married her aunt, Pauline Fitzgerald, the mixed-race offspring of a wealthy white, but caring, North Carolina family. Fresh out of Howard University Law School, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Dame became frustrated by being unable to practice law in Durham and support his family there. He suggested to his wife Pauline that he would have more employment opportunities if both would move elsewhere and pass for white. She refused to consider the proposition even when he decided to make the move. Dame disappeared into whiteness and was never seen again. To pass or not to pass was the central question of their lives, and their irreconcilable responses to passing destroyed a marriage.

The Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1896, the Constitutional Conventions of the former Confederate states, and an epidemic of severe local statutes all combined to deny the 14th and 15th Amendments to black people, and to deprive them of basic human and civil rights. Definitions of race were in the forefront of this movement, and all Southern states and many outside the South soon passed laws preventing interracial marriages.

But those laws could not erase memory, and one legislator, George T. Tillman, who spoke up at the 1895 South Carolina Constitutional Convention understood that the one-drop rule, which defined whiteness as forever lost if “tainted” by a single drop of black blood, presented insurmountable problems for the Negrophobes who espoused it. Tillman explained,

It is a scientific fact that there is not one full blooded Caucasian on the floor of this convention. Every member has in him a certain mixture of   . . . colored blood. It would be a cruel injustice and source of endless litigation . . . to annul or forbid marriage for a remote, perhaps obsolete trace of Negro blood.

Time would not prove to be on Tillman’s side. One by one, several states began adopting the one-drop rule as law, first Tennessee did so in 1910, and in 1924, Virginia enacted the Racial Integrity Act, which would not be overturned until 1967 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Loving v. Virginia case that interracial marriages could not be forbidden by law. Still, those harboring suspicions about race were loath to abandon them, just as Tillman feared. In 1907, residents of Albany, Georgia expelled Peter Ziegler, who had been effortlessly associating with some of Albany’s best white people, because a visiting lady thought she recognized him as a black person who had formerly lived in her own city. But Ziegler re-whitened and returned to Albany escorted by a host of white relatives and influential friends from his native state of South Carolina. This incident underscores the local nature of race definition, and the fragility of being white in early 20th-century America. Earlier, during slavery, Mark Twain weighed in on passing in his novel The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. The plot involved a slave woman who could pass for white, who, to save her son from ever being sold away from her, switched him with the child of her white master, who looked exactly like her son. For over 20 years, the black child lived a white life, and the white child lived the life of a slave, both passing and neither having a clue about his true identity. When through a series of circumstances, the baby switch is revealed, the ignorant white child raised as a slave inherits his father’s fortune and becomes head of the plantation, while the black child raised as white is returned to slavery. The plot is implausible, but demonstrates the reality: race and not skin color determined who was black during slavery.

When W.E.B. DuBois organized an Exhibit of American Negroes at the Paris Exposition of 1900, his intention was to display to an international audience through documents and photographs of organizations and individuals the progress and diversity of blacks in America. The photographs of the dignified individuals, unlike those of the organizations and institutions, lacked captions. The images, nonetheless, required reflection and were only capable of being interpreted one by one, as each spoke entirely and explicitly for itself. DuBois’ intention was to challenge and put to rest gross universal stereotypes and misrepresentations of American black people that were associated with inferiority. The exhibit won numerous awards, presenting likenesses of dignified black people that many had never seen or thought possible. The most sensational of the photographs were the hundreds of images of black people who looked white. Without a single sentence on passing, DuBois’ exhibit demonstrated that race in America meant more than complexion and refinement, while speaking volumes about the extent of miscegenation and the significance of known blood-lines.

The industrial revolution, railroads, automobiles, the telephone, unionized workers’ wages, and rising literacy rates all combined to give Americans more psychological and geographical mobility up to World War I, but it was the Great Migration of World War I continuing through World War II that did the most to accelerate the demographic phenomenon of white-skinned Negroes disappearing from the black race to become white. Untold numbers of white-looking blacks who for generations had lived in small communities perpetuating their own appearances and family lines through selective marriages to light-complexioned individuals, joined the migration and found more opportunities outside the South when changing their racial designation. The exile from race did not come without sacrifice. All of the past had to be publicly erased; all friendships and associations that might reveal their true identities had to be broken; close family ties, including those to darker-complexioned brothers and sisters, had to be kept secret; and each passing person without fail had to become a credible pathological liar. Otherwise, the deck of race-deceptive cards would disintegrate, and the consequences of the truth would destroy careers and fabricated lives.

The Senator and the Socialite, a book by Otis Graham that chronicles three generations of the family of Blanche K. Bruce, a black U.S. senator during Reconstruction, until his grandchildren crossed the color-line and vanished from the race. Graham also writes about a light-skinned childhood friend of Roscoe Bruce, son of the senator, who on graduating from a prestigious law school, passed for white and became a highly successful attorney in the 1920s. While comfortably living a white life, he learned that a considerable sum of money had been left to him in the will of a relative. To collect his inheritance, he traveled to Washington, D.C. where he was known as black. Word of his true racial identity got back to his white wife of many years, who promptly filed for divorce, ruining his legal career and eviscerating his social world. Every person passing for white lived in fear of being exposed and the humiliation it would bring.

Perhaps the most celebrated passing incident of the 1930s, well-known throughout the U.S., involved Wilmeth Sadat-Singh, star quarterback for the Syracuse University football team. Up until his junior year in 1937, he was thought to be a Hindu. But Sam Lacy sportswriter of The Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, disclosed that he had been born to light-complexioned black parents, though his mother had later married a Hindu and moved to Harlem, where Wilmeth adopted the surname of his stepfather. The story broke a week before Syracuse was to play the University of Maryland in a game at College Park. Sadat-Singh was cornered by Lacy who argued that he could run and “pass” but could not hide from his racial identity. When Maryland officials learned that Sadat-Singh was black, they demanded that Syracuse withdraw their quarterback from the game, and Syracuse complied. That practice, known as the “Gentleman’s Agreement,” was often used when all-white colleges scheduled games with integrated schools that recruited black athletes. But what the Sadat-Singh incident illustrates about passing is that blacks often passed for races and ethnicities other than white. The skin tones, facial features, hair texture, and racial mixture of many blacks may not have appeared white, but were considered unique enough for some to pass for other racial and ethnic groups. And some did. All blacks who disappeared did not necessarily become white. Sadat-Singh became black again, and during World War II, he served as a Tuskegee Airman.

Elsie Roxborough has to be among the most perplexing cases of a black who passed for white. Born to upper-class black parents, she was a Detroit socialite who enjoyed a lifestyle of luxury. She was the first black student at the University of Michigan to live in a dormitory, where she was known on campus for her striking beauty and academic brilliance. Graduating in 1938, she established a reputation as a playwright, producing a number of plays on black life. She dated such luminaries as Joe Louis, Stepin Fetchit, and Langston Hughes. She soon moved to New York where she began to pass in order to secure employment consistent with her training, though at night she became a fixture in Harlem nightlife. She dated white men, but none long enough for her race to be discovered. She moved to California and became Pat Rico, a white woman involved in the fashion and beauty industry. She then returned to New York where she gained some marginal notoriety as Mona Monet, a writer and owner of a modeling salon. After her father disowned her because of her name change and determination to pass, she became depressed and committed suicide in 1949. Langston Hughes, who kept a photograph of her in his office throughout his life, wrote a poem, “House in the World,” which deals with Elsie’s conflicts.

I’m looking for a house
In the world
Where the white shadows will not fall
There is no house Dark Brother
No such House at all

Both bandleader Johnny Otis, of rhythm and blues fame, and singer and actor Herb Jeffries, renowned for his dance band and roles in all-black movies, are interesting, because each was born of white parents but had such strong affinities with black culture and black people that they crossed over and led incredibly full black lives. They were different from Rachael Dolezal, since no one cared and no one questioned them about race. For whatever reasons, entertainers have had more liberty and less scrutiny about their racial identity. Even Carol Channing caused only a minor stir when, after a 60-year career as a white woman, she admitted that her father was black. No one white and no one black cared much about it at all.

Otis and Jeffries became icons of black music in the 1940s and ‘50s. Jeffries was once the lead male vocalist with the Duke Ellington orchestra, recording some of that group’s biggest hits, and becoming perhaps better known as the first motion picture black cowboy and one of the first matinee idols of black women. Otis had his own all-black revue, and as a song writer produced hits for Esther Phillips and a young Gladys Knight and the Pips. Both dressed, walked, talked, and socialized exclusively black. Yet, neither ever publicly claimed to be black, and the black media never probed them with the question of racial identity. The white media did not cover the personal lives of black entertainers and could not have cared less about Otis and Jeffries, though when they performed in the segregated South they maintained low public profiles, avoiding social contact with white authorities, preferring only to be seen on stage. Black hotels, tourist homes, and restaurants in the black Green Book were the places they patronized. They were welcomed in such venues and fraternized freely with black people in the South. Throughout their remarkable careers, not a single tabloid made an issue of their racial identity. Being a white man and passing for black was rare and with few advantages, and no one monitored those two race transformations. Had they been white women passing for black, the resistance would have been stiff owing to white disapproval of potential interracial liaisons between white women and black men.

Mainstream Hollywood first introduced the passing theme when Fannie Hurst’s book, Imitation of Life was made into a movie in 1934. When it was released at the height of the Great Depression, a time of such economic distress that passing must have offered an incentive for those who could pass and hoped passing might move them up several notches in unemployment lines. Interestingly, the black actress, green-eyes Fredi Washington, played the role of Peola, a black woman who decided to pass because of her white physical features, after having lived a life of intimate contact with wealthy white people, and having experienced the embarrassment caused by her mother’s dark complexion and limitations in life. It was good casting and brought audiences closer to the dilemma of being black but looking white. Years later, in 1959, the movie was remade with a white actress being cast in the role first played by Washington. The casting decision prompted white audiences to consider the unthinkable: those who passed were not only exact facsimiles of whites, but people who could be among their personal friends or relatives.

In 1937, in One Mile from Heaven, Fredi Washington would be cast as a black woman. This was the first movie whose theme was about a white person passing for black. It begins with a newspaper woman believing she has a scoop when she finds a single black woman, played by Washington, raising a child whom the reporter thinks is white. The child is indeed white, though Washington claims she is the biological mother. Through a series of circumstances, the reporter discovers the child’s racial identity and learns that she had been left in the custody of the black woman, by her destitute white biological mother in hopes that the child will not be placed in protective child services. An interesting point about the plot was that the black woman’s neighbors alerted the reporter about the child. They knew the woman to be virtuous but could not reconcile the child’s white complexion with the appearance of the woman’s boyfriend, played by dark-complexioned Bill Bojangles Robinson.

Of all the decades, the 1920s may have witnessed more passing than any other, and it created much interest and curiosity. With white-skinned blacks moving from communities where for generations their blackness had been well-known, and relocating to new towns and cities where their families were unknown, opportunities to pass were not difficult to find. Sometimes to experience life without a black designation, sometimes to secure employment, housing, or educational opportunities not open to blacks, and sometimes just simply to escape from being associated with the most despised, deprived, and hated race in America, people passed. Writers of the Harlem Renaissance, most notably Nella Larsen, (Quicksand and Passing), Jesse Fauset (Plum Bun), and George Schuyler (Black No More), wrote books on passing, and black filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux produced a large number of popular low-budget movies on passing. Micheaux found that black movie audiences enjoyed that theme more than others, and he knew that most of his Northern urban audiences could personally identify, though not necessarily agree with the “secret” of their brethren. It came to be his best ticket-selling genre. The plots were essentially the same with minor variations. Passing as white, the protagonists tragically wavered and were split between two worlds and unable to come to terms with the duality of their existence and alliances, though most of them, after suffering conflict, pain, and anguish, ultimately repented and rejoined the black race. Art imitated life, but that life must not have been as uncomfortable as the writers and filmmakers intimated, because all indications are that most black folk who passed stayed white, as Walter White observed. But some walked a tightrope, living low-profile lives as white by day for employment and black by night for reasons intimately related to social, family, and friendship identification.

Jean Toomer, another Harlem Renaissance novelist, had white physical features but could not easily escape his black background. The scion of a prominent black family, and a grandson of P.B.S. Pinchback, the Reconstruction-era Governor of Louisiana, his adult world was one of white people, those liberal enough to accept his race, well-read enough to respect his exceptional writing abilities, and compassionate to the lifestyle he desired to live. He traveled to Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1922 with Waldo Frank, the celebrated white writer, to learn more about Southern life and the “bite and crudity of pure Negro.” Both valued being more authentic about the black characters and life represented in their writings. Toomer went South as a black man, having darkened his complexion with extended time in the hot summer sun, and Frank did the same; as a result, both were seen as fair-complexioned blacks. It worked and facilitated their staying in black homes, attending black churches, and mingling with ordinary black laborers. It was a clever ploy, and after two months, both writers got what they wanted. Toomer used much of the material he collected to write Cane, still considered by many to be the best novel of the Harlem Renaissance. When the trip was over, both returned North where Frank resumed being white, and Toomer, somewhat reluctantly, became black again.

Waldo Frank passed for black for a few months to inform his intellect and make his writings more authentic. Clarence King, the 19th century geologist, explorer, and writer whom Secretary of State John Hay considered “the best and brightest man of his generation,” passed for a black man, James Todd, during the last 13 years of his life, only confessing to his wife in a letter written on his deathbed that he was white. When his estate was being contested, his wife was represented by a reputable black lawyer who had once passed for white. Todd/King’s two children did not know their father’s race until he had died, but when he died the race conundrum continued, because his children passed for white. The book, Passing Strange, by Martha Sandweiss, is the only book on a prominent white man who passed for black solely because he fell in love with a black woman whom he felt would not accept him otherwise.

Beginning in the early 1950s and continuing through the civil rights era, the motion picture industry, at first persuaded by the NAACP, produced a series of films addressing racism and discrimination in American society. A number of these productions explored the theme of passing. Among them were Pinky, Lost Boundaries, Band of Angels, The View from Pompey’s Head, the remake of Imitation of Life, Black Like Me, I Passed for White, and, more recently, The Human Stain. Curiosity about race and passing continues to intrigue the American reading public. And over the past score of years, The New York Times Best Seller List has been literally flooded with multi-racial autobiographies and books about passing. Those well-known volumes represent only a fraction dealing with passing and multi-racial identity. One excellent and innovative recent book, the prize-winning A Chosen Exile by historian Allyson Hobbs, represents the best study on passing to have emerged from the academic and intellectual community. Hobbs becomes the historian as detective and investigates individuals and families who have passed and helps us understand what is for some the grief, loneliness, and pain of self-detachment from their race. She even coins a phrase, “pass out” to describe those individuals who, after the civil rights movement and black power era, came back to reclaim their black identities. For those individuals, she balances the rewards of passing with the psychological agony of isolation from the race, and assesses the “passing cup” as being as much half-empty as half-full.

The reasons that persuaded those who came back to reclaim their blackness, were likely the same reasons why those who may have considered passing chose not to do so. But those numbers combined remain smaller than the numbers of those who crossed over and never came back, because many of those passing families passed for generations without sharing that secret with their children. In a piece in The New Yorker in 1996, scholar Henry Louis Gates shocked the literary intelligentsia when he discovered that Anatole Broyard, the esteemed literary critic of The New York Times was black but passed his entire professional life as a white man, unbeknownst to his wife and children until after his death in 1990. There must be untold numbers of such people who passed without ever sharing their secret, even as a deathbed confession, and equally large numbers of people who have known but never exposed the family secret. Only DNA can reveal for sure, and there is a short line of white people eager for such examinations. More than anyone, these beneficiaries of white privilege know that race matters. The risk of finding out the truth is too great. Refugees from the race, known and unknown, may never relocate with the black race. The totals for those who have passed will never be known. Blacks have tended to exaggerate the number, without any scientific basis, because they view passing as indicative of oppression and because it is a fitting revenge for white exclusiveness. But there are also mixed emotions about passing, owing to the desertion of the race and the capacity of that desertion to destroy families forever.

The civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s and beyond reached and affected more black people than the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and the black cultural consciousness that those movements advocated profoundly changed black America. Both agitated for and gained momentum from fair housing, public accommodations, and equal opportunity and anti-discrimination legislation, all of which were what those who were passing were seeking through racial transformation. The climate produced by those two movements resulted in few disclosures and anecdotes of black people passing. But aside from those factors, passing would have been more difficult in the last quarter of the 20th century than in the first quarter. Technology, the Internet, more sophisticated systems of communications and record keeping made it incredibly more difficult to pass by simply moving from one location to another, in what has become the global village.

Historically, black people have been much more flexible in accepting expanding definitions of who is black and their traditions and experiences have prepared them to accept one-drop persons as black, as long as those one or a few more than one-drop black people prefer to remain black and live the black experience. In most instances, such individuals have had no choice other than to identify with black people or pass, because legal definitions of white people have insisted on Caucasian purity.

Absent a DNA examination, Rachael Dolezal has no legitimate argument about being black, and she has insulted blacks and perplexed many white people. Passing has been occurring for millennia, since intercultural and interracial conflict began in ancient Greece, as well as in North America of millennia ago, but the white to black transitions in America have not been monitored, primarily because no one cares and because no one believes passing will ever constitute a trend. Passing is counterintuitive to the American mind. Had Rachael Dolezal not tried to lead a large local branch of the NAACP or filed a reverse discrimination suit at Howard University, she may never have been revealed. By all accounts she was a credible NAACP leader. Her miscalculation was her underestimation of the possibility that someone from her past would learn of her racial identity. Her life must have been no different from those of millions of black people who have passed but lived constantly in fear that their pasts would catch up with them. Hers did. It is misleading to judge her solely by the color of her skin, though she manipulated it egregiously. It is the content of her character where she most fails. She made a critical error: she mistakenly thought she had a choice of colors on both sides of the color-line. The persistent problem of the 20th and now 21st century has not yet been solved. Dr. Al-Tony Gilmore, PhD. is a noted historian of American social history, and the author of several books. He is Historian Emeritus of the National Education Association, and most recently served as a Visiting Scholar in the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Research Center of The George Washington University. He may be reached at [email protected].

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