A wife lives in constant fear that her husband will discover she's not who she claims to be. A black aspiring architect is mistaken for an ethnicity other than his own and is offered a job he never would've accessed had he corrected the error. A pregnant mother prays nightly that her baby's skin won't betray a bit of brownness. Such are the predicaments of characters in the early 20th century "passing narratives" I've loved since my days as an undergraduate English major.
To “pass,” as African American writers in the early 1900s defined it, was to choose to escape from the violence and discrimination attendant to blackness — a privilege possible only for those whose skin was light enough to pull it off. Peaking in popularity by the 1930s, passing narratives were often melodramatic and cautionary, detailing the myriad dangers of abandoning one’s black identity in order to take cover amid the white communities that systemically oppressed black citizens.
The penalty for being caught passing could be as merciless as emotional and physical abandonment or as cruel as a violent death. In Nella Larsen's 1929 novel Passing, for instance, one of the story’s protagonists, Clare, either falls or is pushed from the top floor of a building during a party. Unbeknownst to her, her racist white husband has discovered her blackness through her light-skinned friend, Irene, who isn't exactly passing. When he charges toward her stumbles out to her death.
Passing narratives not only interrogate the fluidity of racial identity and assess the stakes of racial allegiance, but also double as slow-burning thrillers: Race itself is the stalker, an implicit threat skulking in the backgrounds of seemingly contented, white identified lives.
When I first encountered the works of writers like Larsen (1928's Quicksand, 1929's Passing), Jessie Redmon Fauset (1928's Plum Bun: A Novel Without A Moral), and Charles Chestnutt ( 1898's The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line) in an African American Lit class in college, I thought I’d hit on an outdated, niche fascination. Passing, at least in the handkerchief-clutching, life-or-death manner in which these stories often portrayed it, seemed to belong to a bygone era. But passing, in its many permutations, is as topically relevant in 2015 as it was in 1915.
Race as both shackle preventing “crossover” success, as well as a tether to an underrepresented culture, is an idea that’s quite familiar to contemporary black writers. Readers who are aware of a writer's ethnic background before approaching our work often seem to expect race to be used as explicit themes or plot points. It’s difficult for most writers of color not to internalize that expectation, and there can be a feeling of guilt in rejecting it. In a letter to The Root’s "Race Manners" column in April 2014, a young black fiction writer agonized over whether or not to make her novel’s characters white. She wondered if doing so would make her a “traitor to her race,” before posing the following query:
What if I write them as white, but I use a pen name? And if I did take that road, would I be encouraging other black authors to stay in the shadows and hide their brilliance?
What the black fiction writer was touching on is the same sort of ethical anxiety that belied the decision to pass or not to pass at the turn of the 20th century. Those contemplating the practice gravely calculated the assets and liabilities: was the prospect of success and insulation from marginalization worth the suppression of cultural identity or the fear of being “found out” and facing the consequences, however dire? For today's black writer, "passing" has come to connote many things, and writing without acknowledgement of race is one of them.
Last year, Leonce Gaiter wrote at The Boston Globe that there's radical merit to a black novelist writing stories with white characters, even though the mainstream success for black writers whose books feature predominantly white characters is rare. Gaiter also claimed that “There remains in publishing a very Jim Crow notion of what black authors should write.” British novelist Zadie Smith touched upon this same idea while promoting her novel, NW, in 2012:
"In novels where the characters are white, nobody thinks the race is being obscured. They just don't think the races exist, because of this idea of neutrality when it comes to white characters."
Gaiter’s and Smith’s observations aren’t exclusive to the fiction market. Journalists and essayists feel the same pressure to tow the race-writing line, as Cord Jefferson discussed in his piece “The Racism Beat” at Matter last June:
I anticipate that I’ll always write about race and racism in some professional capacity. Still, wouldn’t it be wonderful if writers and creatives on the periphery were welcomed in from anonymity, not thanks to their accounts of woe, but simply because they have things to share—tales of love, joy, happiness, and basic humanity—that have nothing to do with their race and also everything to do with their race.
Being "welcomed in from anonymity" is a favorite daydream of mine. I've tried pitching and writing essays that don't explicitly discuss my race and some of those pieces have been published. During the writing process, I definitely felt a sense of new sense of freedom. “I don’t have to do the ‘as a black woman, I…’ thing!” I whooped, while banging out the words with ease. But afterward, as I revisited those pieces, they rarely felt as reflective of my personality and voice as work that didn’t intentionally leave my blackness on the cutting-room floor.
There is something distinctly pitiable and fascinating about obscuring your identity in pursuit of greater personal gain. Much of what makes me unique as a writer is owing to my experiences as a black woman, raised by black women, in America. I am sloughing essential parts of myself away when I try not to bring those experiences with me to the writing desk. Passing narratives, while melodramatic in tone, remind me of the psychic costs I will pay, if I make that choice. Every time I sit down to a blank, white page, I bear those lessons in mind.
Emory University professor Rudolph P. Byrd and Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates’ examined the life of biracial author Jean Toomer in a 2010 edition of his 1923 book about black life in the early 20th century South, Cane. Toomer was known to have insisted on racial ambiguity, never publicly denying his blackness or claiming he was white, but after the publication of Cane, Byrd and Gates believe he exclusively identified as a white man. According to The New York Times’ Felicia R. Lee, “Toomer did not want to be featured as a Negro in the marketing of “Cane” and later did not want his work included in black anthologies.”
Gates spoke of the artistic toll passing took on Toomer’s later projects, echoing the cautionary tone of the fictive passing narratives I so enjoyed reading back in college:
He was running away from a cultural identity that he had inherited. He never, ever wrote anything remotely approaching the originality and genius of Cane. I believe it’s because he spent so much time running away from his identity. I feel sorry for him.
I do too.
Stacia L. Brown is a writer and mother in Baltimore, MD. She blogs and tweets about pop culture, social justice, her kid, and the Shondaland empire.