In Other Words
A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs
A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs, Harvard University Press, 382 pages
In the first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 treatise on race, he famously refers to the “veil” that separated black and white America. Du Bois writes about what becoming aware of the veil means: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Though Du Bois is referring to individuals who are recognizably black, the difficulty of maneuvering dual identities was particularly potent for racially ambiguous Americans — and especially those who chose to “pass” as white, either temporarily or permanently. The complicated practice of passing is the subject of Stanford history professor Allyson Hobbs’ book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life. In the book, Hobbs traces the history of passing from the 18th century until roughly the end of the civil rights movement, examining the choice to pass and its consequences.
The author makes the point that conceptions of race in America aren’t static but have changed dramatically depending on the era. She reveals, for example, that race and slavery were not as inextricably intertwined in the 18th century — both free blacks and whites who were indentured servants were part of society — as they would become in the 19th, and passing in pre-1800 America was less urgent than it was in the decades leading up to the Civil War, when passing as white could mean the difference between freedom and slavery. Similarly, fewer African Americans chose to pass as white during the brief Reconstruction years following the Civil War, when black men held prominent positions in government and public life. This changed again during the Jim Crow era, when passing as white again became economically and socially advantageous, and again during the Harlem Renaissance and in the 1960s and ’70s with the rise of black power and pride.
Throughout A Chosen Exile, Hobbs emphasizes the loss that accompanied passing. “To pass as white meant to lose a sense of embeddedness in a community or collectivity,” she writes. “Passing reveals that the essence of identity is not found in an individual’s qualities but rather in the ways that one recognizes oneself and is recognized as kindred.” Hobbs’ delivery often takes an academic tone and can be stilted and repetitive; her prose is most engaging when she illuminates the stories of individuals like writer Langston Hughes or Caroline Bond Day, a mixed-race early-20th-century anthropologist who gathered data on and studied other mixedrace families, teasing out the complexities of genetics and chosen identities.
While the topic could fill another book, Hobbs spends little time (mere paragraphs) on what racial identity means at the beginning of the 21st century. She touches on the rise of hybridity (rather than passing) and why race still matters in America, which should be evident to anyone familiar with the names Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or Freddie Gray. Still, the post-World War II sections of the book are rushed and condensed, especially considering the careful analysis and minute consideration given to other eras. While it’s undeniable that passing became much less common as its necessity decreased, its legacy of fundamental inequality is with us still.