Passing

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“I could have written your story,” many black people say. And I know that to be true, for what happened in my family happened in most black families. A woman who reported she was “in [my] mother’s generation” wrote: “Your family memoirs brought to the surface long-buried memories of incidents in my life as a Negro who could have chosen to ‘go over.’ I “recall seeine, only once, an uncle who went over; I also recall racial jokes and slurs made in my presence by ones who thought I was white. . . . One of the largest department stores in Pittsburgh hired me as the first black saleslady, unaware that a black lady had been working in its jewelry department for years.”

 
 
 

From the hills of Appalachia came a three-page letter with a bibliography and seven pages of genealogical charts. It began: “Allow me to say on the first line of this letter that I am a seventy-eight-year-old white woman who has lived in Kentucky all my life. ... I noted that your name was Haizlip and at some time your people had lived in North Carolina. As the enclosed chart shows, my husband’s grandmother was born a Haizlip and married a Morris from North Carolina. ... I was completely fascinated with your book and read it from ‘kiver to kiver’ in two days.”

Culver City is a part of Los Angeles where movie studios continue to crank out their versions of the American dream. From there a woman wrote: “I feel that I am probably somehow distantly related to you. Three of my four grandparents were of Irish ancestry. My mother’s grandparents were from County Tipperary, as was your great grandmother. . . . My mother says the name Morris was derived from ‘Moorish,’ which would suggest racial intermixture even before arrival in the New World. ... I would be very proud to have African blood in my lineage, and after reading your book, I now know that I probably do, since part of my family, at least, has lived in this country since colonial days.”

An eighty-nine-year-old woman in Lorain, Ohio, began her lengthy letter by saying: “My grandmother looked like any ol’ white woman. If she was or not, I have no way of knowing, but she had brown children and some light, straight-haired ones. In my own gang three of my brothers in the West passed for something other than black Americans. They married Mormon, at least two Mexicans, and they raised their umpteen children not black, but a few became curious about four years ago and started prying. We have met four of them, and they were as ‘happy as kings.’ The one nephew is a bigwig in the Navy as a white.” She signed it “your ‘Ohio Cousin.’”

I was the keynote speaker at the banquet my thirty-fifth reunion class held at Wellesley College last June. Before the dinner I chatted with my classmates and their spouses, children, and guests. A dark-haired, blue-eyed woman who had retained her college prettiness came up to me, giggling like a freshman. “You’ll never guess what my husband just asked me!” She laughed. “He wanted to know if you were Jewish. Boy, is he going to be embarrassed when he hears your talk.”

During my book tour across the country, hundreds of people volunteered stories about gaps in their identity. In Seattle an ostensibly white broadcaster in his sixties told me on the air that except for the color of his grandfather’s skin, he had always thought his grandfather had what he described as “Negroid features.” When he added that his grandfather’s first name was Washington, I said, “I hate to tell you this, but I never knew any white family that named its children Washington. That was always a popular name with black people.” Startled, my interviewer said he was going to check the census information on his grandfather in the next few weeks.

At a book signing in a Southern California shopping mall, an older woman with dark red hair and amber eyes bought the book, asked me to autograph it, and then said, “I understand this story, because it happened in my family. But it stopped with my father.” I was curious about this gene stoppage and intrigued by this woman’s unconscious denial of her heritage. “You see,” she continued, “I was raised white, but when I went to Texas for Founders’ Day in my hometown, I saw a picture of my great-grandmother for the first time. There was no doubt about it: She was colored. There was no way she could even pass for Indian. I was told she died after giving birth to my grandfather. Later my father was born, and nothing was ever said about his heritage. So everything stopped with him.”