A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs begins “on a sizzling summer morning in the late 1930s” with the real-life account of a young girl watching the Bud Billiken Parade, a celebration honoring the black children of Chicago’s South Side. Hobbs writes:
The young girl could not have known that this would be her last time hearing the marching bands and the cheering crowds… She looked white, as did both of her parents. At the insistence of her mother, she would move far away from Chicago’s South Side to Los Angeles to live the rest of her life as a white woman apart from her family. It was not her choice. She pleaded with her mother; she did not want to leave her family, her friends, and the only life she had ever known. But her mother was determined and the matter was decided.
It’s a heartbreaking loss for this child and for her family, and it makes me wonder if my own ancestors had similar experiences. In Uncovering Our Roots: Why Does Family History Matter?, I discussed my predominantly Sri Lankan and Irish background, but said:
I wonder sometimes whether it would matter if I suddenly learned, possibly through a DNA test, that we hail from a different area of the world, perhaps through a later migration from Africa, East Asia, or Eastern Europe?
As it turns out, a later DNA test revealed my family’s African ancestry. It’s likely that my great-grandfather, born in 1897 and described by relatives who knew him as having a “perpetual tan,” came from a mixed-race, African American family at a time when the “one-drop” rule assigned racial identity for legal purposes. I don’t know what he knew of his background or what he thought about it. He married a white woman and had children, including my grandmother, whom everyone assumed was white.
So far, the closest I’ve come to understanding what my great-grandfather might have experienced as a racially ambiguous man is through Hobbs’s book. A Chosen Exile highlights the complicated nature of racial identity, underscores the absurdity of racial categorization, and challenges the common presumption that passing as white was an unequivocally beneficial experience. She writes: “Indeed, it is my contention that the core issue of passing is not becoming what you pass for, but losing what you pass away from.”
Many racially ambiguous people chose not to pass as white. As Hobbs explains:
[T]he lion’s share of evidence points to light-skinned African Americans who made the decision to identify as black and who worked tirelessly to build and sustain free black communities.
Others, however, chose to pass (or were forced to) in order to gain the social and economic privileges associated with whiteness. Depending on the era in which it was achieved, benefits of passing included escaping slavery, traveling freely, attending elite schools, and acquiring jobs reserved for white people.
But those benefits came at a steep price, as the experience of that young girl from Chicago so painfully illustrates.
By passing as white, individuals lost their black identities, their families, their communities, and their cultures. Their ancestry became a secret handed down through the generations. A DNA test or genealogical research may uncover the truth, as it did for my family, but a test result is a poor substitute for lost heritage.
To satisfy the nostalgia that arrives annually with my birthday, I revisited Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly, a 1966 coming-of-age novel that won the Newbery Medal in 1967. I read it for the first time in the early 1990s, when I was in the fifth grade. I stumbled across it in my school library on one of the lower shelves by the window facing a vegetable patch. I loved that vista, and I loved this book. It reminded me of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, another sentimental and gracefully-written story featuring a strong-willed young woman navigating the challenges of growing up.
Up a Road Slowly was Hunt’s second novel, published two years after her first, when she was almost sixty. The novel’s Aunt Cordelia is similarly mature, a woman who uses the lessons she’s learned in her life to guide her young niece, Julie Trelling.
When I first picked up this novel, I was only a few years older than little Julie was when she moved in with her Aunt, and much of Aunt Cordelia’s advice applied to me too. Julie is a child who makes mistakes, a child who can be cruel sometimes, a child who is learning. In other words, she’s a typical kid who shouldn’t be defined by the follies and missteps of childhood. As Aunt Cordelia explains to her, “You’re neither cruel nor mean; basically, you are a very good child. You’re just young.”
It’s a point I appreciate even more now that I’m a parent guiding my own children to adulthood. They will make mistakes, just like I did (and still do).
However, like virtually all classics, aspects of this novel are problematic, something I see more clearly now than I did when I was eleven. It’s a book from a time when people, even relatively enlightened ones, willfully ignored or actively suppressed society’s complexity and diversity. Reflecting this oppressive world, Up a Road Slowly makes no mention of racial, ethnic, or religious diversity. It is also hetero- and cisnormative, terms coined many years after the novel first appeared on the shelves. As a result, this book quietly promotes messages that cannot go unchecked, messages that could be especially painful for children who do not identify with these so-called norms.
For example, Aunt Cordelia, commenting upon a child she once taught, says, “Now that one was bound for trouble from the first. She was boy crazy before she was quite aware that there were two sexes.” She also says, “A woman is never completely developed until she has loved a man.”
Plus, while Julie is a young girl who embraces the freedom of blue jeans (instead of dresses) and questions her older sister’s behind-the-scenes research supporting the work of a man, she largely accepts that it’s “a man’s world.” She does her best to follow her Uncle Haskell’s advice to “learn how to play the game gracefully.”
I wasn’t so impressionable at age eleven to adopt Up a Road Slowly’s old-fashioned world view, and today, I am a public interest lawyer devoted to changing the discriminatory rules of “the game” through litigation, education, and public policy. I wish I could say Aunt Cordelia and Uncle Haskell wouldn’t recognize their norms in our society anymore, but that’s certainly not the case. It will be someday, though. I wouldn’t do the work that I do if I weren’t an optimist at heart.
Currently, the NEA receives a tiny fraction of the federal budget — less than one-hundredth of 1% — to give “Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.”
In the field of literature, for example, the NEA’s most recent Annual Report (PDF) states:
In FY 2015, the NEA awarded 36 NEA Literature Fellowships in creative writing for poetry, totaling $900,000, out of 1,634 eligible manuscripts. Proving that poets come from all walks of life, each with a different story and unique perspective, this year’s poets include a photographer who worked in factories and the mental health field, a professional rollerblader, and a combat engineer who served six years in the Army National Guard. In addition, the NEA awarded 20 NEA Literature Fellowships in translation to support new translations of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry from 11 different languages into English.
Critics of the NEA have struggled to figure out what art “is” and whether controversial works are worthy of government funding. As Justice O’Connor explains in National Endowment for the Arts, et al v. Finley, 524 U.S. 569 (1998):
Throughout the NEA’s history, only a handful of the agency’s roughly 100,000 awards have generated formal complaints about misapplied funds or abuse of the public trust. Two provocative works, however, prompted public controversy in 1989 and led to congressional revaluation of the NEA’s funding priorities and efforts to increase oversight of its grant-making procedures. The Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania had used $ 30,000 of a visual arts grant it received from the NEA to fund a 1989 retrospective of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. The exhibit, entitled The Perfect Moment, included homoerotic photographs that several Members of Congress condemned as pornographic. See, e.g., 135 Cong. Rec. 22372 (1989). Members also denounced artist Andres Serrano’s work Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine.
Critics of the NEA repeatedly point to these controversial examples, even when they pretend to move beyond them. One of those critics is George Will, who simply harbors contempt for art in general. In his opinion piece in The Washington Post, he proclaims:
Let’s pretend, counterfactually, that the NEA no longer funds the sort of rubbish that once immersed it in the culture wars, e.g., “Piss Christ” (a photo depicting a crucifix immersed in a jar of the artist’s urine) and “Genital Wallpaper” (don’t ask). What, however, is art? We subsidize soybean production, but at least we can say what soybeans are. Are NEA enthusiasts serene about government stipulating, as it must, art’s public purposes that justify public funding? Or do they insist that public funds should be expended for no defined public purpose?
Mr. Will downplays the benefits of art, including the promotion of “civically valuable dispositions,” “community and connectedness,” “diversity,” and “self-esteem,” ultimately concluding that art is the equivalent of macaroni and cheese, a tasty but largely empty food. He says snidely:
The idea that the arts will wither away if the NEA goes away is risible. Distilled to its essence, the argument for the NEA is: Art is a Good Thing, therefore a government subsidy for it is a Good Deed. To appreciate the non sequitur, substitute “macaroni and cheese” for “art.”
Personally, I agree that food, like macaroni and cheese (though preferably more nutritious), is actually a good thing that deserves government subsidies, but that’s not the point of this post. The point is that art deserves encouragement and support from the government. Sure, many artists will continue to produce art without government support — that’s always been the reality for the vast majority of artists — but is that the way it should be? The message defunding the NEA sends is that art isn’t important. Is that what the American public really believes?
I can think of hundreds of ways I benefited from arts programs, which helped me get through elementary school, a relatively tough time in my life academically. Research shows us that the arts make us better students and better thinkers, and history and life experiences tell us that the arts soothe, inspire, engage, entertain, educate, and unite us. In the divisive Trump Era, all of these benefits are more important now than ever.
*The image is from Todd Parr’s It’s Okay to the Different, which is what comes to mind whenever I think about macaroni and cheese. I am a big fan of Todd Parr’s work, even though I don’t think it’s okay to eat mac n cheese in the bathtub!
As I braced myself for the inauguration of the Trump Era, the first book I read in 2017 was Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit. With each attempt by the GOP to strip Americans of our rights — including by passing HR 985 to protect civil rights violators* — I return to Solnit’s book to remember why I shouldn’t feel as helpless as I do.
Her book encourages me to look at our present moment with fresh eyes, searching for glimmers of hope. As she writes in Chapter 1:
There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognize what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital but by dreams of freedom, of justice, and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of. We adjust to changes without measuring them; we forget how much the culture has changed.
We can’t return to the past, not completely, and even Republican leadership in the House seems to understand that fact to some small degree. The Republicans’ American Health Care Act — also known as Trumpcare thanks to Donald Trump’s enthusiastic support for the plan — keeps a few features of Obamacare, a plan they claimed in their 2016 Platform was “invalid in its entirety” (PDF). For example, the current version of Trumpcare continues to bar health insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions. It also maintains Medicaid expansion for a limited time.
Of course, Trumpcare isn’t Obamacare (here’s a good analysis of the differences via The Atlantic). It’s a far worse deal for the American people that will ultimately cause millions of Americans to lose insurance coverage. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office published a report on March 13th (PDF) indicating that:
[In] 2018, 14 million people would be uninsured under [Trumpcare] than under [Obamacare]… [and] the increase in the number of uninsured people relative to the number under current law would rise to 21 million in 2020 and then to 24 million in 2020 [as a result of changes in Medicaid enrollment].
After this report, some Republican lawmakers have backed away from Trumpcare. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican congresswoman from Florida, tweeted:
The concept of Americans losing health coverage somehow seems “un-American” now, with 60% of Americans saying the government should be responsible for ensuring health care coverage. Government-supported access to affordable health insurance is a victory that has been “consolidated into [our] culture’s sense of how things should be,” to borrow a phrase from Solnit.
GOP leadership will do as much damage as they can to our access to affordable health care, but they can’t simply turn back the clock, not without fearing calls, protests, and ultimately retribution in the ballot box. That gives me hope.
*HR 985 passed the House on March 9, 2017 (220 yeas to 201 nays). Fourteen Republicans voted with all of the Democrats against the bill. It wasn’t enough to stop it. Now, the bill is in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Fair access to the justice system should not be a partisan issue. I hope our Senate Republicans will stand up for what’s right by defeating HR 985.
An update on HR 985, a bill that protects corporations and civil rights violators by making certain types of lawsuits virtually impossible: It passed the House on March 9, 2017 (220 yeas to 201 nays). This is very bad news. The next stop is the US Senate.
Many civil rights and mass torts lawsuits, including cases similar to the one at the heart of Amelia Elkins Elkins, could never happen if Congress passes H.R. 985, the so-called “Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017.”
In Amelia Elkins Elkins, a “courtroom drama” retelling a Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the Elkins family turns to the courts for justice after the matriarch’s untimely death. This fictional lawsuit is similar to real lawsuits happening across the country that stem from unsafe vaginal mesh products made and/or marketed by companies like Johnson & Johnson, Ethicon, and Bard. H.R. 985, if passed into law and signed by Trump, would make it harder to bring these types of cases to court by changing the procedures for multidistrict litigation, including by imposing new requirements on where cases can be filed, forcing trial courts to stop cases mid-way through for endless appeals, hampering…
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Arkansas State Representative Kim Hendren thinks Howard Zinn’s books are so dangerous that he’s introduced state legislation to prohibit public and charter school children from reading them.* Zinn’s most famous book, A People’s History of the United States, presents a view of history that focuses on the experiences of marginalized groups that mainstream history has forgotten or mischaracterized.
I don’t know the basis of Hendren’s problem with Zinn’s books, though I have my suspicion that it’s rooted in racism and sexism. Why else would a legislator target only Zinn’s books, which try to focus the spotlight on the experiences of people of color, the working class, and women? Some people have criticized Zinn’s book as “biased,” but really, what history book isn’t skewed in some way? As Zinn writes in the Afterword of A People’s History:
I know that a historian (or a journalist, or anyone telling a story) was forced to choose, out of an infinite number of facts, what to present, what to omit. And that decision inevitably would reflect, whether consciously or not, the interests of the historian.
Zinn’s method is no different from what any historian does. He’s just more honest about it than most.
Hendren is free to disagree with Zinn’s perspective of history, but he wants to do more than that. He wants to ban it. He wants to make sure that children in his state are only exposed to a limited, politically-approved version of history because, I presume, he believes new or “different” ideas will infect the impressionable minds of Arkansas’s youth.
Well, as I said in Please Stop Parenting My Children:
All I can say to folks like that is this: exposure to many different ideas doesn’t brainwash people. It’s the exposure to only one idea or belief system that does. If the mere exposure to new ideas is enough for those old beliefs to crumble, then its proponents should stop to consider why their beliefs aren’t more persuasive. In my opinion, an idea that can’t withstand a fair debate isn’t an idea worth passing onto the next generation.
If Hendren’s colleagues actually pass this short-sighted piece of legislation, they will probably find the law challenged in court under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (and other laws) — assuming Paul Ryan’s and Mitch McConnell’s Congress and Donald Trump don’t make civil rights lawsuits impossible by then (I’m serious about that; see Lawmakers Want to Take Away Your Right to a Fair Trial).
*Here’s a link to Hendren’s legislation, HB 1834 (2017): http://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/assembly/2017/2017R/Bills/HB1834.pdf