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.