A Chosen Exile

A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life

Allyson Hobbs
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 350
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    A Chosen Exile
    Book Description:

    Countless African Americans have passed as white, leaving behind families and friends, roots and communities. It was, as Allyson Hobbs writes, a chosen exile. This history of passing explores the possibilities, challenges, and losses that racial indeterminacy presented to men and women living in a country obsessed with racial distinctions.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-73581-1
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[xii])
  3. Prologue: To Live a Life Elsewhere
    (pp. 1-27)

    On a sizzling summer morning in the late 1930s, a young girl waited on the curb of South Park Boulevard on Chicago’s South Side for the Bud Billiken Parade to begin. The heat was relentless, but on the second Saturday in August, it made no difference to children who leapt from their beds in search of the best spot to view the parade. The young girl joined a crowd that numbered in the thousands, and she cheered as drum majors, baton twirlers, and celebrities in convertibles passed by. She ran out to the floats to touch the parade’s anointed king...

  4. 1 White Is the Color of Freedom
    (pp. 28-70)

    In the spring of 1859, a Philadelphia newspaper published a humorous account of a slave trader’s sudden reversal of fortune. The trader had earned the nickname “Black Matt” because of his dark complexion and reputed skill in breaking recalcitrant slaves. He had recently purchased Sam, a “bright mulatto” who could “scarcely be distinguished from a white man” in that he was “so far removed from pure African,” at a reduced price because of his “bad qualities, such as thieving, lying and drunkenness.” Despite these flaws, Sam was described as intelligent, literate, and particularly adept at “ape[ing] the airs of a...

  5. 2 Waiting on a White Man’s Chance
    (pp. 71-123)

    Walking along the road in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on the afternoon of July 31, 1875, the African American novelist Charles Chesnutt was “taken for ‘white’ ” at least three times. Chesnutt identified as black, but he had fair skin and sandy hair. His racial composition—seven-eighths white—legally classified him as white in several southern states. At the pond, one man said that “ ‘he’d be damned’ if there was any nigger blood” in Chesnutt; another man saw Chesnutt buying trunks at Colonel Coleman’s, a general store, and assumed that he was a white student on his way to school....

  6. 3 Lost Kin
    (pp. 124-174)

    In the December 1926 issue ofOpportunity,Radcliffe-trained anthropologist Caroline Bond Day published a semiauto-biographical story about Sarah, a “Negro woman of mixed blood,” who enjoyed countless courtesies while wearing a pink hat. The hat was plain and made of straw, but it metamorphosed into a “magiccarpet” and an “enchanted cloak,” remaking Sarah’s drab life into one of possibility and adventure. A gentleman offered her a seat on the train, a young man helped her off of a railway car and retrieved her lost gloves, and a salesgirl addressed her as “Mrs.,” a respectful title reserved for white women only....

  7. 4 Searching for a New Soul in Harlem
    (pp. 175-216)

    In a 1932 letter to Carl Van Vechten, Nella Larsen described a real-life exploit reminiscent of a scene in a Harlem Renaissance novel. In the company of Grace Nail Johnson, James Weldon Johnson’s light-skinned wife, and without her own identifiably black husband, Fisk physicist Elmer Imes, Larsen easily passed as white:

    You will be amused that I who have never tried this much discussed “passing” stunt have waited until I reached the deep South to put it over. Grace Johnson and I drove about fifty miles south of here the other day and then walked to the best restaurant in...

  8. 5 Coming Home
    (pp. 217-265)

    Shortly after New Year’s Day in 1932, the news of a lieutenant’s fatal car crash created a commotion at the Presidio in San Francisco. Lieutenant William J. French was found on a desolate road near Gilroy, California, with his pistol nearby and a bullet wound to his head. The police ruled that his death was a suicide. But military personnel were far more startled by another revelation. An article on the front page of theNew York Times, “Army Man’s Suicide Reveals He Is Negro,” reported that French had spent eighteen years “masquerading” as a white man. After his death,...

  9. Epilogue: On Identity
    (pp. 266-278)

    The woman who wrote this family history claimed to be certain of only two things: her mother was a colored woman born in Virginia around 1875, and her father was a white man born in Virginia in 1865.¹ Her family adhered to the social conventions of the Jim Crow South and lived in a black neighborhood. In their father’s company and beyond the neighborhood limits, the children could easily pass as white. As one daughter explained, “When we went places with our father and left our mother at home, we could go wherever we wished without question as to race.”²...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 281-364)
  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 365-372)
  12. Index
    (pp. 373-382)