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AfriGeneas World Research Forum

White Passing for Black


A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line

By Martha A. Sandweiss

King, you see, was a white man who for 13 years passed as black. For many, that is unimaginable. Didn’t pigmentation give him up? It didn’t, because, as King’s story reaffirms, race is not really about skin color. If it were, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Walter White, for instance, could never have identified himself as “a Negro,” served as executive secretary of the N.A.A.C.P. or written this paradoxical sentence: “The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.” Race is the emperor’s new clothes: we don’t see it; we think it.

So goes the unspoken mantra behind the spate of books related to racial passing that have surfaced in the past decade or so. Philip Roth’s “Human Stain,” Bliss Broyard’s “One Drop,” Brooke Kroeger’s “Passing” — all suggest that passing is hardly passé; it’s new and improved, embracing narratives not just of the “traditional” black-to-white variety but also of the white-to-black, gay-to-straight and female-to-male kind. Like these, Clarence King’s is “a peculiarly American story.” Sandweiss, a professor of history at Prince­ton, says it represents “the possibilities and limitations of self-­fashioning, the simultaneous rigidity and porousness of racial definitions, the fluidity of urban life.”

Clarence King

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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