In Other Words

A Cho­sen Ex­ile: A His­tory of Racial Pass­ing in Amer­i­can Life by Allyson Hobbs

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - —Adele Oliveira

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.

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