Race Passing and American Individualism

By Kathleen Pfeiffer | Go to book overview

Introduction

In the narratives I examine here, mothers lie to their children, friends delude each other, wives deceive their husbands, one woman abandons her sister (helpless and alone in Grand Central Station, no less), and children betray their parents. When a light-skinned black character passes for white, it seems that social chaos erupts. The drama of passing is rich with literary possibilities: it involves mystery, betrayal, suspense, and subterfuge; it generally includes illicit sexual liaisons; and insofar as passing is predicated on the secret of one's birth and the renunciation of one's family, it relies on the promise of both revelation and reconciliation to provide a happy ending. Apart from their ability to offer exciting fodder for narrative intrigue, however, passing novels necessarily include pointed social criticism and resonant political commentary. Because motivation for passing was heightened after the Supreme Court's 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson1 and the subsequent enforcement of federal segregation, many passing narratives appeared in the three decades following that important legislation, and it is those novels, those characters, and those experiences that I examine here. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an ostensible social, cultural, and familial upheaval was documented in passing narratives, and now, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, cultural and literary critics have turned considerable attention to the phenomenon.2

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1
Homer Plessy, one-eighth black and visibly white, refused to sit in the Jim Crow section of an intrastate railcar and was arrested under a Louisiana law that mandated separate but equal accommodations for blacks and whites. When Judge John H. Ferguson of the Criminal Court for New Orleans ruled to uphold the state's law, Plessy appealed, alleging, among other things, that Ferguson's ruling violated his equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. By upholding racial segregation as constitutional, the Plessy decision allowed for the expansion of laws restricting social contact between blacks and whites.
2
See Ginsberg, ed., Passing and the Fictions of Identity (1996), which grew out of a Modern Language Association meeting panel on the topic and which, as Ginsberg reports, elicited an “overwhelming number of submissions” (vii). Major recent studies of passing include Gubar, Racechanges, Caughie, Passing and Pedagogy, and Wald, Crossing the Line. In addition, Sollors, Neither Black nor White yet Both, devotes a substantive chapter to the issue.

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Race Passing and American Individualism
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Passing and the Sentiment Novel 18
  • 2 - Passing and the Rise of Realism 39
  • 3 - Passing and the Fictional Autobiography 58
  • 4 - Passing and the “fast Yellowing Manuscripts” 82
  • 5 - Passing and the Rise of Mass Culture 107
  • 6 - Reading Passing Through a Different Lens 128
  • Epilogue: Passing in the Present 147
  • Acknowledgments 153
  • Works Cited 155
  • Index 163
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