More Than Passing Strange
It is, according to one analyst, a “deception that enables a person to adopt specific roles or identities from which he or she would otherwise be barred by prevailing standards”; it “requires that a person be consciously engaged in concealment.” By this standard, Lawrence Dennis —whose mother was black—was “passing,” since according to U.S. standards, he should have been viewed as a “Negro.” I should add immediately that I do not view it as an offense or sin of any type that one chooses to escape persecution by “passing”—or by fleeing abroad or elsewhere for that matter. I say this not least since the definition of “race” is sufficiently tenuous that Dennis had as much claim to “whiteness” as any.
For definitions of “race” in the United States have been rather malleable over the years. In Ohio “racial” categories were ambiguous, at least until 1859, when the state decreed that anyone with discernible “colored” ancestry was to be deemed “colored.”1
A precondition for “passing,” it has been suggested, is a kind of “'social and geographical mobility'” particularly as it prevails in “environments such as cities” that “'provided anonymity to individuals, permitting them to resort to imaginative role-playing in their self-presentation.'” Cities are accustomed to diversity and the offbeat and oft times are too wrapped up in hustle and bustle to stop and ask, “is that fellow really 'white'?”2 Dennis, born in Atlanta, raised in Washington, D.C., and a long-term resident of the suburbs of New York and the liberally minded region surrounding the Berkshires, steered well-clear of small towns in the South where his authenticity was most likely to be challenged.
There was a similar flexibility among presumed antiracist stalwarts. William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist with the flaming tongue, begrudgingly accepted intermarriage between black and white but did not endorse it with enthusiasm, while Wendell Phillips was more embracing