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Archive for the ‘passing for white’ Category

Anatole Broyard in 1971 at age 51

Anatole Broyard (1920-1990), an American writer, was the first black literary critic for the New York Times – but the thing was, they did not know he was black! He passed for white. His daughter, Bliss Broyard, wrote about it in “One Drop” (2007).

Broyard was born in New Orleans into a Creole family that was a liberal mix of both black and white. Going by his daughter’s DNA test, Broyard was about 34% black and 56% white – a common mix for Puerto Ricans. Growing up in New York he got into fights because he was too black for the whites and too white for the blacks. In his high school picture in 1937 he looks black.

But then a year later on March 2nd 1938 he went to the Social Security office to apply for a government tax number so he could work. Right there on the form, which we still have, you can see him make his decision: he marks Negro but then scratches that out and then marks white!

Before he went off to fight in the Second World War he married a black Puerto Rican woman and had a daughter by her, Gala. But when he came back from the war he divorced her. He then proceeds to make a name for himself as a white writer, marries a white woman and moves to a white neighbourhood in a very white town and brings up his son and daughter as white. They had no idea he was part black till he was on his deathbed (though his wife and some friends knew).

The New York Times would not have hired him as a literary critic if they knew he was black: blacks, after all, can only write about “black” subjects! It is the same reasoning that Hollywood uses too: black actors can only play “black” characters. Blacks are not seen as “universal”, but whites are.

Broyard thought that he did not need to be black or white, that he could just be himself. But to succeed as a literary critic he had to present himself to society as a white man, which meant turning his back on his mother and two sisters, who lived as black (one sister could pass but not the other).

One time his mother wrote him a letter begging to see her grandchildren before she passed away. He let her see them – once. They did not understand who she was.

That makes him sound ice cold, but his daughter says he was a loving family man. She says the way he had to keep the two sides of his family separate tore him apart inside.

When his daughter found out she was part black she thought it was cool, but did not like how her father had kept it a secret from her for 25 years. She supposes that he wanted to spare her the pain he went through growing up.

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The Rhinelander case (1925) was news across America, it was on the front pages of the New York Times for a month: Leonard “Kip” Rhinelander, son of one of the richest men in New York, took Alice Jones to court for tricking him into marrying her by passing for white.

Her love letters were read in court and she was made to show her breasts to the judge and jury (in private), but she won: from her breasts Rhinelander would have known she was black. And while Jones looked white, acted white and lived white, her father was clearly part black, which made her black too by the One Drop Rule. So either way Rhinelander had to know.

She won, but the Rhinelanders got her to agree to give up all rights to the Rhinelander name and fortune in exchange for a nice sum of money. But, as she was the last of them to die, she put “Rhinelander” on her gravestone all the same.

Mixed marriages were not against the law in New York. But if Jones had presented herself as a white woman then Rhinelander was not marrying who he though he was, making the marriage no good.

Alice Jones became the first black person ever to marry into New York high society. The Rhinelanders were not just rich, they had been rich longer than even the Vanderbilts. Jones herself was a servant, the daughter of a taxi driver.

It is clear that Rhinelander was in love with her, but his father was against it and threatened to cut him off from the family and its fortune.

Both sides in the trial agreed Jones was black. The question was not that, but whether Rhinelander knew it at the time of marriage.

Yet the case would never have gone to trial unless Jones stood right on the colour line between black and white: she was white – yet not white.

Both sides in the case took advantage of this by using stereotypes to persuade the jury of white men:

  • Rhinelander’s lawyers wanted the jury to think of Jones as a black woman: black women were (and still are) seen as loose, as using sex to get their way with men: the Jezebel stereotype.
  • Jones’s lawyers, on the other hand, were able to get the jury to see her mainly as a white woman and apply the pure white woman stereotype. This kept her off the stand and made Rhinelander look like someone who was taking advantage of her – instead of the other way round. It worked.

The NAACP had this to say:

If Rhinelander had used this girl as concubine or prostitute, white America would have raised no word of protest; white periodicals would have printed no headlines; white ministers would have said no single word. It is when he legally and decently marries the girl that Hell breaks loose and literally tears the pair apart. Magnificent Nordic mentality!

Blackface entertainer Al Jolson was at the trial to watch and give testimony.

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Written: 1929
Read: 2008

“Passing” (1929) is a novel about passing for white. It was written by Nella Larsen in the days of the Harlem Renaissance. It tells the story of Clare Kendry, a light-skinned black woman who passes for white and marries a white man who hates blacks. It is the tale of a tragic mulatto, of someone who tries to escape her race and comes to a bad end.

Because Nella Larsen herself, the author, could pass for white and because she lived in the Harlem Renaissance, the book gives you an insider’s view of both. That alone makes it worth reading.

Black high society in Harlem in the 1920s seems surprisingly English: a thing of drawing rooms, tea parties and beautiful dresses. The book has that general cast to it, even the spelling! (Ntozake Shange calls her writing “exquisite”. I did not find it so, though it did have its moments.)

It is also a book about blackness and what it is, about the nature of race in America – which is probably why I have been writing so much about those things lately.

What makes you black? Is it in your blood – that one drop, as they say. Or is it a matter of your background and upbringing? Maybe it is a little of both – or something completely different.

Clare Kendry looks white, but she is dark like a Gypsy or a Jew. You would never think she was black unless you saw her with other black people – even if she does have “Negro eyes”.

Clare thinks that if she can live as a white woman she will be happier. She will have more money and life will be easier. People will not look down on her. She can go wherever she wants, eat at the nicest places and so on.

Her friend Irene Redfield could also pass for white, but she chose to marry a black doctor and live as a black woman in Harlem. There is something inside her that does not let her turn her back on her race.

She thinks Clare is playing a dangerous game: if she is ever found out she will lose everything: her husband, her daughter, her wealth, maybe even her life. Clare knows it is dangerous but she likes to live on the edge.

Whiteness does not buy happiness, as Clare finds out. Instead it makes her unhappy. She always feels out of place, she does not feel like she belongs, she does not feel free. She wants to be with black people, if only to hear them laugh again. And with blacks she can be free in a way she never can with whites.

So even though Clare acts white and talks white and even looks white and lives white, something deep inside her is still black. And that in the end is what counts.

– Abagond, 2008.

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