Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Near Black

Near Black: WhitetoBlack Passing in American Culture

Baz Dreisinger
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 192
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Near Black
    Book Description:

    In the United States, the notion of racial “passing” is usually associated with blacks and other minorities who seek to present themselves as part of the white majority. Yet as Baz Dreisinger demonstrates in this fascinating study, another form of this phenomenon also occurs, if less frequently, in American culture: cases in which legally white individuals are imagined, by themselves or by others, as passing for black. In Near Black, Dreisinger explores the oftignored history of what she calls “reverse racial passing” by looking at a broad spectrum of short stories, novels, films, autobiographies, and popculture discourse that depict whites passing for black. The protagonists of these narratives, she shows, span centuries and cross contexts, from slavery to civil rights, jazz to rock to hiphop. Tracing their role from the 1830s to the present day, Dreisinger argues that central to the enterprise of reverse passing are ideas about proximity. Because “blackness,” so to speak, is imagined as transmittable, proximity to blackness is invested with the power to turn whites black: those who are literally “near black” become metaphorically “near black.” While this concept first arose during Reconstruction in the context of white anxieties about miscegenation, it was revised by later white passers for whom proximity to blackness became an authenticating badge. As Dreisinger shows, some whitetoblack passers pass via selfidentification. Jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow, for example, claimed that living among blacks and playing jazz had literally darkened his skin. Others are taken for black by a given community for a period of time. This was the experience of Jewish critic Waldo Frank during his travels with Jean Toomer, as well as that of disc jockey Hoss Allen, master of R&B slang at Nashville’s famed WLAC radio. For journalists John Howard Griffin and Grace Halsell, passing was a deliberate and fleeting experiment, while for Mark Twain’s fictional white slave in Pudd’nhead Wilson, it is a nearpermanent and accidental occurrence. Whether understood as a function of proximity or behavior, skin color or cultural heritage, selfdefinition or the perception of others, what all these variants of “reverse passing” demonstrate, according to Dreisinger, is that the lines defining racial identity in American culture are not only blurred but subject to change.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-083-3
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Whendowhite people lose their whiteness? Consider four scenarios:

    In hisPicture of Slavery, published in 1834, George Bourne describes the case of a seven-year-old white boy who is stolen from his parents and “tattooed, painted and tanned. Every other method was also adopted which wickedness could devise, to change the exterior appearance of the unfortunate creature, into one uniform dark tinge. In this wretched and forlorn condition, he grew up to maturity; driven, starved, and scourged, like the coloured people with whom he was forced to associate.” Twelve years later, Bourne continues, the boy is stolen again, this...

  5. 1 White Panic and White Passing: Slavery and Reconstruction
    (pp. 15-40)

    In his 1816 antislavery tractThe Book and Slavery Irreconcilable, the Reverend George Bourne declared that “slave-holders would wade through seas of the blood of white men, as well as black men, to gratify their despotic propensities if they were not restrained.”¹ Bourne may not have realized that slave owners werenotrestrained: cases of white slavery—the first recorded incidents of white people being taken for black—were a reality. White children were kidnapped and sometimes dyed black, immigrants placed on the market, and orphans shipped south. Most evidence of this is anecdotal.² In 1835 Edward S. Abdy reported...

  6. 2 Dy(e)ing to Be Black: “Mars Jeems’s Nightmare,” Black Like Me, and Watermelon Man
    (pp. 41-70)

    Socially speaking, white passing involves a move from the center to the margin. Why might such a move be made? In the texts discussed in chapter 1, it was made by slaves, who had this shift foisted upon them; they were products of what Jane Gaines has called “coerced passing.”¹ In this chapter I consider the move from center to margin as made by those who do possess varying degrees of power over their fate. These passers also possess another fundamental characteristic that differentiates them from the white passers of chapter 1: an altered skin tone.

    The narratives I discussed...

  7. 3 Black Like She: Grace Halsell and the Sexuality of Passing
    (pp. 71-92)

    During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, miscegenation was broadly conceived in terms of its transformative power: it could potentially turn white babies black. In the popular imagination, however, more than the baby could be blackened by sexual proximity between black and white. In 1732 theSouth Carolina Gazettepublished a poem, “The Chameleon Lover,” which envisioned miscegenationists as “imbib[ing] the blackness of their charmer’s skin.”¹ At least as far back as the eighteenth century, interracial relationships were credited with such “magical” powers: through repeated sex with a black partner, it was believed, whites could find themselves turning black.

    This popular...

  8. 4 Contagious Beats: Passing, Autobiography, and Discourses of American Music
    (pp. 93-120)

    In 1926 the Salvation Army of Cincinnati received a court injunction to halt the construction of a movie theater next door to one of its homes for expectant mothers. It was not the sights emanating from this theater that so vexed Cincinnati residents but rather thesoundsthat might seep out of its doors. In a statement members declared that they were desirous of avoiding “the implanting of jazz emotions by such enforced proximity to a theater and jazz palace.” Although today we might wonder just what a “jazz emotion” is, many Americans in the early part of the twentieth...

  9. 5 Is Passing Passé in a “Post-Race” World?
    (pp. 121-140)

    Is passing passé? Evidence to the contrary abounds. Recent years have witnessed an upsurge in racial passing narratives, the theme remaining central to at least three highly touted novels—Danzy Senna’sCaucasia(1998), Colson Whitehead’sThe Intuitionist(1999), and Philip Roth’sThe Human Stain(2000)—as well as to the screen adaptations of Roth’s novel, starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman (2003), and Walter Mosley’sDevil in a Blue Dress, starring Denzel Washington (1995). Poet Clarence Major’sCome By Here: My Mother’s Life(2002) delivered a true-life passing saga; so did Brooke Kroeger’s 2003 collection of case studies,Passing: When...

  10. Epilogue: Hits and Misses of a Racial Free-for-All
    (pp. 141-150)

    Not all white-to-black passing scenarios make for poignant memoirs or become gripping films. Some make headlines and become talk show fodder. In 1988 theNew York Timesreported on Philip and Paul Malone, “fair-haired, fair complexioned” twins who applied for jobs as firefighters in Boston in 1975 but were rejected because of low civil service test scores. They reapplied two years later and were hired—not because their scores had changed but because their race presumably had. As they explained twenty years later when they applied for promotions and faced a barrage of questions about their initial applications, after their...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 151-178)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 179-184)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 185-185)