Passing

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Every census has measured race differently, and the same people in my family have been listed as mulatto, black, or white.
 
 

There are infinite ways of dealing with denial. Some are not subtle. In Boston I knew there was no balm I could offer the black man with freckles, green eyes, and blondish brown hair—the tightly coiled hair some call “rhiney.” Clutching my book to the middle of his chest as if protecting an ancient wound that would not heal, he told me that he remembers as an eight-year-old holding his mother’s hand while walking through St. Louis on a summer afternoon. An apparently white man came strolling toward them, and as the three drew close enough to see one another’s faces, the boy’s mother began to tremble violently. At that moment the man bolted and ran across the street. He sprinted around the corner and out of sight. At this point in his story, the book holder took a deep breath, clearly close to tears. “My mother, who was also light-skinned, had turned red and was crying silently as she looked at the corner where the man had just vanished. ‘That was my brother,’ she said. ‘He’s passing, and I haven’t seen him in twenty-two years.’ That was their last encounter. I never saw him again. But I will never, ever forget the deep pain and the tears on my mother’s face.”

Chicago welcomed me during 1994’s coldest weather. Only a little less frigid was the greeting from the media aide assigned to me during my visit, who met me at the airport. This young woman quickly informed me that she had graduated from Princeton and that her father and grandfather also had graduated from Princeton. I thought surely that she would add that her greatgrandfather had founded Princeton, but she didn’t. On my second day, however, her personal freeze began to thaw. She said excitedly that she had begun reading my book and had just discovered that she was probably related to me. “How’s that?” I asked. “Well, I see that you are related to Martha Washington, and so am I, so I guess that makes us distant cousins.” She continued, “When I told my father about it last night, he was excited until I got to the part about your being black.” Then he said, ‘Maybe this explains that lost branch Aunt Suzie hasn’t been able to find.’”

The themes of these tales create a story quilt of repeated patterns. And between the patches, strong connecting seams began to emerge. From a city slowly recovering from racial paroxysms, a Los Angeles resident wrote: “Our families are so similar. Like yours, we are racially mixed, predominantly European (Irish) and African. And we too had many members who passed for white. . . . To have America confront the fact of black genes in the white population, as you have done, is also therapeutic. Why should a person, on learning he has black ancestry, feel distressed about it? And why should the person in question face betrayal from associates who learn of his black heritage? Thank you for your contribution to racial healing.”

A black Detroit woman suggested she felt ethnically liberated: “It validated my right to wonder and even to discuss my multi-ethnicities. Like you, I am proud to be a black American, but why should that mean I have to deny what is not black? Most black Americans descend from at least one white relative, yet many blacks are offended when one discusses anything but one’s blackness. You have announced, ‘It’s OK.’”

Obsession is often the word used to describe the American fascination with race. Just as I wondered all my life about white people I thought might be related to me, so too did this black woman: “Growing up in central Virginia, I often wondered which of the white people I knew as neighbors were related to my black family.”

One letter said, “To confront the fact of black genes in the white population is therapeutic.”
 

And a black woman from Maryland wrote to me about the time she first learned about passing. “I must have been about ten years old when one day our doorbell rang and my mother told me to answer it. Standing there was a tall, pale man with gray eyes and thin blond hair. He asked for my mother. ‘Mama, mama, there’s a white man at the door looking for you.’ My mother went into the door and then led the man into the parlor. She called me in. ‘This is my brother and your uncle Ted,’ she said. After the visitor had left, she told me that her brother was living as a white man in another place and could come to see us only every once in a while. I don’t remember ever seeing my uncle again.”

Frequently citing the phenomenon of “Passing for Gentile,” Jews have responded to The Sweeter the Juice in similar ways. My mother accompanied me to a signing at a bookstore in an Orange County mall. Sitting on the floor was a cherubic, curly-haired young woman who immediately brought to mind romantic images of a European Gypsy. When she spied my mother approaching behind me, she jumped to her feet, grabbed my mother’s hand, and began sobbing. My mother, who wears her emotions just under her skin, also began to cry. Seeing this stranger and my mother hold hands and silently weep, I, too, began to cry. There we were, a mother, a daughter, and a woman unknown to either of us, wailing as if we were professional mourners at an Irish funeral. Finally the young woman cleared her last sob and poured out her story.