Novels/memoirs about racial "passing" in the U.S.
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Am beginning the project by reading Nell Irvin Painter's The History of White People, which takes a long hard look at the relatively modern invention of "race."
All recommendations are welcome. I'll use the touchstones at right as my working list. Thank you for your suggestions!
First is An illuminated life : Belle da Costa Greene's journey from prejudice to privilege, by Heidi Ardizzone. Greene was J.P. Morgan's personal librarian. When her mother and father* separated, her mother changed her name and, with her children, lived as white. http://www.librarything.com/work/1109285/reviews/46226103
Passing in the other direction: Passing strange : a Gilded Age tale of love and deception across the color line, by Martha A. Sandweiss: http://www.librarything.com/work/6344266/reviews/46225955
* There's also an interesting book about Greene's father, Uncompromising activist : Richard Greener, first black graduate of Harvard College, by Katherine Chaddock Reynolds
It was probably an obvious suggestion and it may be problematic - I'm not in the states either so maybe I shouldn't say too much at all.
The film touched me though in some way -- and I didn't say in the first post, as my issues are not race issues, but probably because issues of passing are relevant to me (and in fact there too I mainly only know developing experience, i veer away from too much theory - except for theories of compassion, acceptance, forgiveness, for the common good.)
My recs are:
Black No More by George S. Schuyler. It's a satire on the pointlessness of racial categorisation.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
I see that I also used "passing" as a tag for The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson, but I can't remember a thing about it...
If you're not set against looking outside of the US, Bhowani Junction by John Masters and The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru are both superb, but they take place in India and describe Anglo-Indians passing for British.
Your Face in Mine by Jess Row, 2014. Science fiction/spec fiction that explores the possibility of "racial reassignment surgery." Watch this space for comment/review when I've finished the book.
Finished January 16
Plot: Kelly has just lost his wife and daughter, who are Chinese. While walking down a random Baltimore street one day, he recognizes his high school friend Martin, who has had racial reassignment surgery and is "passing" as a black man. Martin wants Kelly, a sort-of journalist, to tell his story and legitimize what Martin and a doctor in Bangkok call racial identity dysphoria. This, Kelly discovers, is just the beginning of a shrewd and unsettling scheme to create a new market in cosmetic surgery.
Assessment: Cerebral and analytical. As a novel, devoid of any emotional kick whatever. Often bogs down in plot cul de sacs or scientific explanations that may be carefully researched legit info about melatonin and facial reconstruction. Or could be total bullshit for all I know.
Worthwhile as a extended think piece about what racial identity means and the extent to which physical features associated with race affect memory, identity, acceptance, and cultural assimilation: Would you, if you changed your physical appearance, still be you? Is there any "you" outside of racial identity? Is racial as strong as gender identity?
It is worth mentioning that the author is a white American, and, at the meta level, asking how does that affect the story? How would the same book have been different if written by a Nigerian? A Pakistani? A Vietnamese? A Native American? Or would someone from another ethnicity and place have found the premise of the book worth writing about?
Nice writing style, intercutting main narrative with emails, reports, and dream sequences.
Would make a good group read.
Finished: January 17
Plot: Irene and Clare were childhood acquaintances. Irene "passes" for convenience--when she wants a cup of tea in a whites-only restaurant, for example--but she lives life as an upper-middle-class black woman in Harlem married to a black doctor. Clare has married a white man who has a deep hatred of black people. She yearns to return to the black community through Irene.
Assessment: Tore through this novella in an afternoon and fell in love with Larsen's style, which is understated and delicate. It skillfully reveals the bubble Irene has made for herself as a genteel black society woman who measures her days in charity and cultural events, pouring tea into expensive china, wearing good clothes, and managing her black servants.
But Irene's bubble of security is held together by insisting that her family indulge her denial about the larger world. There is deep frustration and rage in that bubble that come through clearly but obliquely, the way Irene prefers to see them--if she must see them at all.
Irene's husband is restless. The war "returned him to her physically intact," and she refuses to discuss his idea to go to Brazil. She seems not to want to know about the psychological effects of the war that might make her husband want to live in a more racially tolerant society. She refuses to let her young sons ask questions about lynchings by saying she wants them to have a happy childhood.
Clare may be living a lie that is dangerous to herself and others, and Irene enjoys telling herself that Clare's choice will come with a price. But Irene's determination to ignore the outside world by trying to keep her family in her perfect bubble is also deceptive and destructive.
The book is the more powerful, I think, for letting us readers fill in around the narrative what we know about the way race and gender circumscribed life in 1920s America.
I did find a bio of her, In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line by George Hutchinson.
Not about passing, but harrowing and largely autobiographical novella of the conflicting ethnic allegiances the mixed-race protagonist feels. Also explores the layers of black socio-economic life, and differences between life for black Americans, particularly women, in North and South in the late 1920s. Use of black southern dialect a la Stephen Foster is a bit jarring.
Makes an interesting comparison with Passing, published just a year later, which is more psychologically complex and stylistically refined.
In-progress observation: You don't have to get too far into this book before some of the themes of Nella Larsen's novellas--identity dissonance and extreme stress caused by passing--emerge.
Interesting discussion of Louisiana's weird racial categories (that existed until 1984) and the notion of "white Negroes," apparently the bane of eugenicists eager to preserve racial purity.
Henry Louis Gates was on a "Fresh Air" segment today saying that "race is a social construct but genetics is real." In one episode of this book, a woman who is mixed race and doesn't know it has a child with sickle cell, which is how she discovers her mother and grandparents were passing.
Self-searching: Why am I drawn to this topic? All my ancestors were born roughly along the 55th Parallel, between Belfast and Copenhagen. Can't get more lily white than that. Maybe it comes from the fact that we never knew exactly who my dad's real father was until Dad was past 70. We knew we must look like him because dad and I didn't look like most of the rest of our pale, blue-eyed family. Maybe the theme of family secrets is something that clicks with me. My dad had and I have a rare blood cancer that can lead to massive clotting or bleeding if left untreated. I was surprised to learn that his father died at age 60--of a massive coronary thrombosis.
Plot: Dr. Crookman, a black scientist invents a process that will turn black people into Caucasians in this speculative fiction/bitter farce. Black people flock to the process en masse--an idea that might seem offensive, even genocidal, to many Americans, though Schuyler is a provocateur of the first order and it helps to have some context (hopefully provided below).
The novel follows Max Disher, a formerly black man, who is the first individual to go through the whitening process. Mayhem ensues as society at-large attempts to clings to its notion of racial superiority.
Assessment: This is an incredibly engrossing, sometimes funny, maddening, and often unsettling read. Americans are always talking about how we need to "start a conversation about race," but it seems to me that that conversation started centuries ago, and Schuyler's book introduces an important new question: What if there is really no such thing as "race" as white Americans had defined it up to the 1930s (i.e., the "one drop rule") and made laws about it?
Schuyler admits to cultural differences among people who share ethnicity and proximity, but he rejects the notion that race exists except as a social construct imposed by white racists.
Schuyler himself believed that the best way to solve the race problem was through racial intermarriage. To that end, he married a white woman, and their daughter, Philippa, committed suicide after brief attempts at passing. Composition in Black and White: The Life of Philippa Schuyler is on my reading list.
Schuyler worked with H.L. Mencken at the American Mercury, and they shared a contempt for popular piety and prejudices. You get a sense of Schuyler's tone before you even get into the novel just by reading his dedication, "to all Caucasians in the great republic who can trace their ancestry back ten generations and confidently assert that there are no Black leaves, twigs, limbs or branches on their family trees."
Like many novels of social criticism (thinking of 1984), Schuyler alternates between keeping the narrative "camera" focused on his protagonist--Max Disher gets whitened, and marries the girl of his dreams, an ignorant white Southern belle whose daddy runs a white supremacy group, and worries constantly that his wife will give birth to a black baby--and then pulling the "camera" back for long shots of what's going on in society at-large.
Schuyler is at his best in these long shots. Here, he outlines the domino effect that racial confusion, thanks to the whitening process, has effected: "The colored folk, in straining every nerve to get the Black-No-More treatment, had forgotten all loyalties, affiliations and responsibilities. No longer did they flock to the churches on Sundays or pay dues in their numerous fraternal organizations." Back-to-Africa societies wither, black businesses making skin lighteners and hair straighteners go bust, black beauticians who applied these cosmetics go out of business. Black newspapers that relied on advertising revenue from lightening and straightening services and products decline. Black areas in towns and cities begin to disappear, and black politicians from those districts are no longer able to get "fat and sleek" on messages about racial solidarity. Schuyler points out similar chaos in white society.
The idea, of course, is to highlight how much social and business capital--both black and white--is tied up in maintaining American ideas about race ... and how absurd it all is.
There is a godawful and prolonged description of a lynching of two white men who are trying to pass as black in order to flee the country, and a highly ironic ending in which Americans attempt to continue to make racial distinctions where they no longer really exist. That canny Dr. Crookman manages to keep his biz going by publishing an article that claims that those who have been through his whitening process can actually be identified because they are slightly MORE white than white people.
I'm not an expert in Schuyler, but I would like to know more about him.
Back on theme: Caucasia, A Life in Black and White (bio of Phillippa Schuyler), and Oreo.
Hope to catch up with reviews soon.
Just that, in retirement, I'm just trying to make more of an effort to pursue reading programs that I always thought would make interesting lit classes. (And they never will in my lifetime, given the way education funding favors STEM over liberal arts. But one tries to keep the flame alive.)
>33 rolandperkins: There really is quite a large catalogue of American books about racial passing, and I think this topic deserves a place in American literary instruction. I'm trying to focus on novels and memoirs by black authors, who, I think, understand the nuances, impetus, and ramifications of passing better than white writers. But Lewis is on my list.
Reading about passing also makes me more alert to other kinds of passing that occur in the U.S. and how/why it happens. In the aforementioned Stephen King novel, Salem's Lot, there is a brief paragraph about Mr. Glick, whom everyone thinks is Jewish. In reality, his Italian grandparents changed their name from Glicciocci to anglicize it. Even though the small town has heard this real story, everyone seems to have decided that Glick is Jewish, and what people think or assume becomes reality. It's not an important part of the story, but it's a casual acknowledgement of how Americans reinvent themselves all the time, even to giving themselves--or having others impose upon them--a wholly fictitious heritage.
Getting my second Shingrix (shingles) vaccine tomorrow, I so expect to be down with a low-grade fever for the weekend and just watching TV. Mild distress worth not getting the shingles.
I found it amusing.
(it contains a lot about Black and Asian trans experiences)
Books about racial passing not yet mentioned:
Am nearly done with Plum Bun, written in the 1920s. Excellent soaper. It would make a wonderful movie. Two sisters, one who passes and one who doesn't, in NYC at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Wrestles with the notion of racial pride.
Cane is not about passing per se, but one of the loveliest early 20th century experimental novels. Why isn't this better known?!
A Chosen Exile, nonfiction, that looks at passing throughout American history and as a uniquely American phenomenon.
The Gilded Years fictional biography of Anita Hemmings , a student who passed to attend and graduate from Vassar in the 1890s.
Our Nig, not a book about passing, but follows the story of a mixed race child put into indentured servitude in the North of the 1800s. A moving and enlightening look at how American municipalities dealt with abandoned children.
Light in August is Faulkner's exploration of racial passing in the Deep South. Faulkner understands racial dynamics from a white Southerner's point of view, but that view seems quite limited compared to that of authors of color.
Dodger Clever and entertaining novel using blending real and fictional Victorian characters that doesn't amount to much. Pratchett seems to have learned a lot of Victorian slang and needed a book to dump it in.
Good Omens Also by Pratchett and Gaiman. Somewhat entertaining, but overly long.
The Strain Trilogy about a vampire plague with lots of gory fights. Highly entertaining and kinda forgettable when it's all over.
The Farm Surrogate mothers are bullied and cosseted on breeding farms. It owes something to Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, but places surrogacy in the context of immigrant women and poverty. Quite good.
As to your theme, here, I would like to suggest the excellent family memoir, The Color of Water. In a way, you could call it a mirror image of what you're reading about, as the book's sub-title, "A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother," attests.
I liked The Human Stain, though am not an across-the-board Roth fan. Never saw the movie.
I have The Color of Water on my list.
They Called Us Enemy George Takei writes a clear, strong, and moving memoir about his time as a child in the Japanese internment camps during WWII. The drawings are very engaging b/w.
Angel Catbird Margaret Atwood seems to have had fun with this, judging from the interviews she gave. Too bad it's not as much fun for the reader, though it has its moments. Jarring to see Atwood heroines tricked out as impossibly well-endowed Barbies fighting evil in stilettos and push-up bras. I suppose this has its funny side, though ...
>46 nohrt4me2: Think I will skip that Atwood.
I looked up a photo of the statue. It is lovely and made me a little teary. It restores her book and her little boy.
I fear that, given the title, too many people will glibly assume it is racist and reject it.
On a happier note, I learned that Jessie Redmon Fauset has written more books, so will be starting them next week. Also Toni Morrison's last book, God Help the Child.
I think I could have died without regrets for not reading Atwood's graphic novel.
As noted elsewhere, the Testaments in on the dining table pouting because I'm not giving it any attention. I feel the need to tidy up my reading before I settle down with that. I'm not expecting it to have the effect that the first book had on me...but still.
I think Atwood is uneven if you are looking at her work from a strictly literary standpoint.
From a psycho/socio POV, she is always interesting. At the heart of each book is a woman or women in straits, straits that she does not try to solve by resorting to pat responses from a particular ideology.
Now reading The Corner that Held Them. Nuns, Black Death, social upheaval. A good deal of dark humor. Enchanting.
Also read Stephen King's The Institute: A Novel, not bad, but King does not write credibly about young people. They do not, for example, wisecrack about figures from the Nixon administration.
Slowly moving through The Crone in bits and Ursula LeGuin's essays, No Time to Spare about aging.
Holiday reading program: Fiction/speculative biography about Marilyn Monroe.