A Family Secret

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.

22 thoughts on “A Family Secret

  1. Allyson Hobbs presents no evidence that her “passing cousin” ever existed. The truth is that the people you and Hobbs accuse of “passing for white” are indeed white and not black. I applaud people who have the pride and self-esteem to reject “one drop rule” nonsense.

    1. In the context of their world, in which the “one drop rule” existed, they were passing. This isn’t about what their race “really” is–I don’t purport to know how they should identify–but about how they had to reject part of their ancestry because of legal definitions and cultural norms.

  2. Some of my ancestors “passed” on my grandmother’s side of the family. They were very “fair” in complexion. They moved from Missouri to Connecticut and Minnesota. I met one of my great aunts and I was fascinated by her life story. I never met my other great aunt who was an evangelist, and the irony of her life, as she was living a “lie” and I totally understand why. She would have been born around 1890 and life was hard for African Americans. My grandmother always spoke fundly of her and they communicated throughout their lives. I will read this book you tell us about.

  3. Passing by Nella Larsen is a great fiction book to read on this subject. Also, this post reminded me that I recently talked about passing my my English 101 class. We’re reading Malcolm X, and a lot of people are surprised when he writes the following:

    I’m right with the Southern white man who believes that you can’t have so-called “integration,” at least not for long, without intermarriage increasing. And what good is this for anyone?…So what’s bound to face “integrated” marriages, except being unwelcomed, unwanted, “misfits” in whichever world they try and live in?…I’m told that there are in America today between two and five million “white Negroes,” who are “passing” in white society. Imagine their torture! Living in constant fear that some black person they’ve known might meet and expose them. Imagine every day living a lie. Imagine hearing their own white husbands, their own white wives, even their own white children, talking about “those Negroes.”

  4. What a fascinating sounding book that is, and thank you for sharing your story. I was going to recommend Larsen’s “Passing” to you but someone else got in there first.

    I am just waiting for my Ancestry DNA test results to come back. I have always known that my Gran’s grandfather was Spanish, and my cousin has the proof through genealogical research. However, the fact that me and that set of cousins are all extremely olive-skinned (I regularly get parsed as “Mediterranean” when travelling, esp with my husband when he has a beard, even though he has a very different ancestry to mine, and have been asked where I’m from by a lady in a hijab and told in Tunisia that I have an “Arabian aspect”). suggests to me that there’s more to it than 1/64 Spanish blood and I’m really hoping that we actually hail from North Africa, possibly through the Moorish invasion of Spain. I’ll be so proud of that, but of course the distance means the only effect really is an interest and explanation as to my amazing tanning capacity. I hope that doesn’t come over trite – on this Article 50 signing day I’ll be so proud to, through my blood, be not only a person of Europe but a person of the world!

  5. P. Adams

    In my family of ten children, we represent a variety of skin coloring. myself and two others are of the more ‘olive-colored’ skin and tanned very dark in summer. Our grandmother told us she was half-Native American. My mother told me (us) to never mention the possibility of this blood ‘taint’ as it would cause us to have a difficult time getting jobs and/or acceptance out in the world. Mother was often mad at me because I refused to wear the head to toe, white sack clothing and bonnets and white gloves she insisted we wear while working in the fields. I loved my skin color and the changes that came about in the summer sun and it was much cooler without this head to toe covering. One day, I will have my DNA run, but as of now, I accept myself as ‘a half-breed’, as the community believes a mixed-race person to be. I continue to hope the world will also be accepting that we re all humans created by God and hopefully find love and peace among us all.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment and for sharing a little bit about your background. It sounds like the area where you live might not be quite as accepting of diversity as mine is (though maybe I’m wrong). Where I live, it’s very common to have mixed race identities and to be proud of it, even though challenges due to racism certainly still exist for people who don’t look white.

  6. Man’s inhumanity to man sometimes seems to know no bounds. It’s not just little kids who don’t want to share! If there isn’t an obvious or visible way of setting people apart, people seem to be able to make up other ways of distinguishing “us” from “them”, driving wedges, being cruel, working hard to keep the goodies for themselves. It breaks my heart. But if “becoming as one” is the only way to eliminate these perceived differences, we run the risk of losing the richness of different languages, cultures, arts, and customs, including cuisine. Assimilation is not the answer; education, tolerance, and celebration of diversity has to be the answer. Thank you, A.M.B., for this profoundly thought-provoking post.

  7. This book sounds fascinating – I’m overloaded with non-fiction at the moment but have added it to my TBR. I’ve read a few novels that deal with the idea of passing, but have never seen a non-fiction work like this.

  8. If you want to retain your culture and heritage, it seems you must publicly claim them by stating “I’m black” or “I’m Irish” or “I’m Native American,” if that isn’t readily obvious, yet doing so binds you to a tribe and all the baggage that comes with it. It may be more important to align with the larger group: humans. Only in that way will many be able to leave behind their racism and fear of “other.” I’m greatly bothered by the intense distrust and hatred some tribes feel toward another, and all because an accident of birth left them in one group and not another, or gave them a skin color currently unpopular.

    I was born with fair skin, and I occasionally wonder what my life would have been like if I’d been born with red, yellow, or black skin. Or what if the world had turned differently, and fair skin was seen as something undesirable?

    But it shouldn’t matter, right? Under that skin, we are all the same and mostly want the same things. It’s sad that so many humans seem to be incapable of celebrating their culture without becoming intolerant of the culture of others. 😦

    1. Thanks for this comment, Fen. I wish how we looked–and where those characteristics come from–didn’t matter, but it continues to affect how we are treated and the opportunities we have in life. I think retaining culture and heritage requires more than proclaiming it. I can’t exactly say what else it involves, but when I think about my great-grandfather, I wish I knew more about the beliefs, customs, and cuisine passed down to him (but not to his kids).

  9. As a dark-haired child, I remember my great-grandmother telling me that she had “Indian” blood. My parents later took me aside and told me that’s what southern people of her generation said to explain the “negro” features that occasionally showed up on their new babies.

    1. Your comment reminds me of when I met two of my great-aunts at a family wedding in the 1990s. I asked them about their father (who passed away in 1980, shortly before I was born). They shared with me that they always thought he was Native American, but didn’t know for sure. He never talked about his ancestry with them.

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