Passing and the Problem of Identity in Afro-American Literature

A Study of N. Larsen and J.W. Johnson

Bachelor Thesis, 2008

47 Pages, Grade: 2,6


1. Introduction: The Establishment of the Topic of “Passing” in Afro-American Literature

Before defining the phenomenon of passing in its social, cultural, and historical backgrounds and origins, motives and appearances in former and present times of American society, and, specifically, analysing its representation in literature, it might be fruitful to have a look at the genesis of the Afro American novel throughout the last two centuries, with a special emphasis on the era today known as the Harlem Renaissance as one of, if not the most significant episode in black (literary) culture, also marking the peak in the publishing of “passing novels”. While doing so has the basis function for a better general understanding of this sociological as well as literary theme as one major incident in American culture and history as a whole, it will also contribute to codifying the effect and meaning of the two novels discussed here in context with African American cultural and literary history.

Outlining the first traits of its cultural manifestation, it seems reasonable to locate the beginnings of African American literature as a clearly recognizable, socially dynamic movement, not before times of Reconstruction. This, of course, has to do with the gradual gaining of social and legally assured rights, or, even more essentially, with the liberation from the exploitative system of slavery in the United States. Hence, Göbel identifies the main cause for the late and slowly proceeding genesis of the Afro American novel in the black people’s deracination, suppression, and renunciation in the United States as well as in the predominance of oral communicative means, as being one major characteristic of their culture (2001, 7-8). This “slowly proceeding” progress hints to the fact that still, even after the abolition of slavery, the Afro American novelist, by far, was not as “free” and socially accepted as his white pendant, since “Jim Crow America”[1] and segregation policies in fact meant a continuation and preservation of the degraded status of colored people in U.S. society. Ironically, however, Fabi points out that the fact that Afro American authors had to write their works under the conditions of exploitation, discrimination and, hence, humiliation, has often been used to justify the rather rare and predominantly negative reception (2004, 37). Indeed, as Göbel puts it, the main challenge of the African American author can be illustrated as a kind of ridge walk (2001, 8) between, on the one hand, assimilation as a means of improving career prospects and social recognition, and, on the other hand, documenting the historical and socio-cultural facts of the struggles of their social group such as the ambiguities of crossing the color line in the form of the act of passing for white. This aspect of intra-racial conflict between individual success, and the moral of earnestness and showing loyalty to one’s black fellows will be dealt with later on in the paper (chapter 4.2).

Nevertheless, while the so far mentioned motives and aims are deemed to be of high relevance, also, we shall not forget that one of the aims of the African American novelist “… was (…) to promote intercultural understanding and undermine the prevailing stereotypes of blacks in white minds”, which becomes evident in the fact that his or her writings were “typically (…) multilayered, multiple-voiced (…), aimed at a dual audience” (Fabi 2004, 37-38). This stylistic device, in Afro American literature, symbolizes the typical African American way of thinking in a dual mode, contributing to the merging of the races while, paradoxically, relying upon distinctive racial stereotypes in order to meet the expectations of both races (Boan 2002, 1). Identifying this specific thinking scheme, W.E.B. Du Bois was the first to use the term “double consciousness” (The Souls of Black Folk, 1903) to characterize the black man’s psyche. Interestingly, Frantz Fanon, in his book Black Skin, White Masks, argues that the oppressed black man tends, though more or less forced upon him, to assimilate typical attitudes of the oppressor, that “[t]he black man wants to be white” (Fanon 1991, 11).

This supposed loss of (cultural) individuality and physical consciousness, mounting to abominating one’s own body and soul, has played a central role in Afro American literature and can be seen as one of the driving forces encouraging the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1920s and 30s in trying to establish and celebrate the cultural identity of African Americans (Göbel 2001, 43). Hutchinson gives a revealing definition by classifying the Harlem Renaissance as “[a] movement of black self-assertion against white supremacy”, which also introduced and produced a more positive connotation of the act of passing among people of (mixed) African American heritage themselves. Moreover, it was devoted to such universal questions such as “How should or does or did African American culture articulate with American culture more generally?”, analysing passing motives as a symbol for trying to overcome racial boundaries and trying to melt together the two races into one group of people of equal social status (2007, 1, 2). While there are controversial views concerning when the movement came to an end in terms of contemporary effectiveness, it is widely undisputed that it had, especially in the long run, an immense cultural impact, so that its starting point, the neglected attention towards the African American novel, may have even reinforced the urge for cultural self-assertion through the medium of literature (Göbel 2001, 9).

The aim of this paper will be, firstly, to describe the main conflicts of African American history and culture. Secondly, it will point to the impacts resulting from these struggles before. In a third step, the act of passing as a means to fight these struggles will be closely examined in its origin and multiple ways of happening, in context with cultural processes within American society as well as its representation in literature, mainly the Afro American novel. The main part will be the study of two selective novels by the two authors listed in the title of this paper, James Weldon Johnson (The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, 1912), and Nella Larsen (Passing, 1929), for several reasons. Considering the time in which their literary works gained literary reputation it can be argued that they both belong to the main advocates of the Harlem Renaissance. Moreover, the two novels under scrutiny here can be considered two of the most relevant “passing novels”, which found in the topic of passing one of their most significant theoretical inputs as well as expressive outputs in the history of this sub-genre of Afro American literature.

Next, after this general introduction, will be the examination of the so-called “color line” drawn between white and, by definition of the one-drop-rule later to be explained here, black people, holding on to the division of the nation on the basis of biologically raised, racial distinctions used for the manipulative vindication of social inequalities in the midst of white supremacist dominion.

1.1 Introducing the “Color Line”: Race and Identity in Afro-American Literature

As already indicated, the faith in the existence, and correctness of a color line, even after the times of slavery, was expressed by the release of anti-miscegenation laws, supplementing to the essential one-drop rule that had already been one of the main explanatory patterns for defending the ideology of the slave system (Davis 2001, 41). Obviously, these laws were passed because miscegenation was believed to be the main source – from a white supremacist point of view it would seem legitimate to say the major peril – of the gradual blurring of visible physical distinctions, personified in the breeding of mulattoes, or basically, people of mixed blood. While these laws had a history going back to the 17th century, there was an accumulation of them in legal activities by the end of the 19th century, launching the era of “Jim Crow America”. This is why the centuries after the Civil War, often called the Reconstruction period, may, more accurately, be declared the “Restoration” era, since, apart from the fact of a small number of legal activities in order to lift up the status of African Americans to some degree of equality, such as the passing of the 14th and 15th Amendment, most of the energy was aimed at the obliteration of the color line for the sake of stopping further expansion of racial intermingling (Belluscio 2006, 146).

In spite of these white supremacist commitments, Sollors, by referring to the variety of controversially connoted etymologies concerning the debate of interracial relations – such as the terms “mulatto”, “miscegenation”, “mixed race”, “hybrid”, and, also, “black” and “white” – and, furthermore, by outspokenly putting the emphasis on the syllable “inter” rather than on “racial”, he indirectly and subtly tries to smudge the view of a distinct and clear-cut color line between the races (1997, 3). Indeed, as Piper adds, there is a tendency, on both sides of the color line – black and white – to conceal the possibility of mixed blood. In case of colored people, this makes sense in order not to be reminded of the often humiliating and discriminating causes of originating their ancestry, and also, to focus on a perspective of regained “blackness” which motivates “self-worth and self-affirmation”, thus laying the foundation for African American identity (1996, 254). In this context, one may even claim that “the denial of legitimacy to biracial individuals” forms “important building blocks in the construction of ‘race’” (Sollors 1997, 3-4). On the one hand, this persuaded a number of African American writers to spend the most part of their energy to the effort of questioning the reasonableness and respectability of color-line-based ideology (Belluscio 2006, 147). On the other hand, despite the necessity of doing so and revealing the arbitrariness and “color-blindness” of society in proclaiming the continuance of racial borders, according to Huggins, we must keep in mind that, in many cases, “still one felt the need to hold onto some claim of distinctive Negro character” (2007, 151).

Nevertheless, the majority of black artists, such as Langston Hughes, tended to emphasize the commonness between the races, trying to give their contribution to the constant process of defining and establishing “Americanness” rather than looking for the specific in Negro identity (Huggins 2007, 179). James Weldon Johnson, too, believed “that art and poetry would be the bridge between races in America” (Huggins 2007, 156). In his true autobiography Along This Way, first published in 1933, Johnson stated that

“… the ‘race problem’ is paradoxical; and, with all my inexperience, I could not fail to see that

this superior status was not always real, but often imaginary and artificial, bolstered by bigotry

and buttressed by the forces of injustice” (2008, 119).

Yet not only African American authors, but also white authors such as William Faulkner, and also a number of white patrons such as Carl Van Vechten, who strongly supported the Harlem Renaissance movement, were engaged in working towards the convergence of the races in all possible aspects. Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom!, for instance, demonstrates that “racial mixing (…) ultimately smudged the color line” (Bergner 2005, 89). While this novel approaches the topic rather realistically, due to the fact that white society firmly believed in and lived by the codes of color line, some African American writers, such as George S. Schuyler, in his novel Black No More, applied to the fact that “the color line is a completely arbitrary social construct used to justify social dominance”, turning to the topic in an all-but subliminal, openly satirical way, as the novel offers the opportunity of passing for white “by virtue of a medical procedure and imitation” (Belluscio 2006, 165, 167).

In order to understand the upcoming and manifestation of the color line, and the eagerness of white society to secure its upholding, as well as the cultural phenomenon of passing for white resulting from it and made possible by the mixing of the races, we must further take a look at the history of dealing with these topics in American society.

2. Historical Context: The Roots of the Socio-Cultural Phenomenon of “Passing”

It is hard to say when exactly the phenomenon of passing first evolved, since the very nature of the act lies in actually hiding its taking place. However, most likely one may well argue that it coexisted with the cultivation of miscegenation more or less right from the beginning.

No longer could the performance of passing be ignored – as a reflection of the social and cultural differences due to the fact of one’s skin color in the United States – from, approximately, the 1880s on. This also marks the starting point of the aforementioned period of “Jim Crow America”[2], and the system built upon this animal-like prejudice aimed to keep up the picture of the black man preserved from times of slavery by restoring their social position through the ratification of laws reinforcing segregationist tendencies in American society. Alain Locke, a major African American leader in the 1920s and publisher of the magazine The Crisis, recalled those decades before the turn of the century in an aggravating “general social hysteria, which gave an almost biological significance to the race problem” (2000, 273), and caused a tremendous increase to the number of mulattoes passing for white, since they were not only seen as inferior to whites, but also to the unmixed black, “who was already defined as deviant and inferior” (Saks 2000, 77).

All in all, “Jim Crow America” prevailed for more than half a century, finally being defeated by the efforts of the civil rights movement (Davis 2001, 78). Yet, miscegenation has never disappeared, and passing is still a theme in contemporary literature (chapter 6), proving that no legal law whatsoever can finally prevent the law of nature, and the invincible power of love against socially imposed differences in general, from succeeding. Therefore, now, it makes sense to trace back the history of the mulatto in American culture.

2.1 The Mixing of the Races or the “Evolution” of the Mulatto

Who is black? Who is white? And, even harder to determine, who is a mulatto? According to the Webster Dictionary, we must first be sure about the first two questions, since it defines a mulatto as “being the first generation offspring of a pure negro and a white”. However, a more convenient and broader (though not necessarily less confusing) description offered by Bullock insists that a mulatto ought to be “a Negro with a very obvious admixture of white blood” (2000, 280).

The hype about the mulatto figure in terms of white supremacist ideology is due to the paradox it reveals about it. The mulatto was conceived as a tragic danger for upholding racial ideology based on the color line, since “the mulatto undercuts the belief that racial difference is obvious, natural, and visible.” And, even more ambiguously, “the mulatto is, at once, a product and a refutation of that ideology”, since miscegenation offered the mulatto the chance of passing for white, thus, however, proving the ideological dogma of racial barriers as practically false (Bergner 2005, 55). Still, the whole perception of the mulatto in American society was quite controversial, as Sundquist elaborates:

“[M]ulattoes (…) were often held to be the most degenerate of the black ‘species’ at the same

time they were, because of their white blood, seen to be most capable of social and

intellectual development. (…) [H]owever, for the destruction of Southern slavery entailed the

replacement of failed theories of providential design with psychological theories that

(…) made ‘the Negro’, as person and particularly as self-projected white image,

something always to be feared and kept at bay, often to be hunted down and killed, at

times to be made the object of ritual public sacrifice.” (1983, 139-140)

While the mulatto, for most whites, was usually “‘just another nigger’”, the controversy of his or her whole persona was also reflected by his or her self-perception, as “the slaves did value white as the color of those with power and accomplishment but did not despise their own blackness” (Genovese 1976, 429, 430). After the Civil War, freed mulatto slaves, who in the meanwhile had adopted many of the behavioral patterns of their white ex-owners, spread those white-associated values, which were seen as the key to higher life standards, among Negro communities in the urban cities, thus trying to establish an upper-class in the black population (Davis 2001, 39). Indeed, in a way this could be seen as a race-dividing tendency within the black population itself and also as a disparaging act of the black culture and a move toward the white culture, as exemplified by the invention of so-called “blue-vein societies” (see Schuyler’s Black No More), who would only permit very light-skinned mulattoes.

The tragic role of the mulatto, however, took its roots even earlier in times of slavery, and, once again strikingly paradoxical, while this very system depended upon a demarcation line between the white and the black race in order for the first to exploit the latter, its legal organisation neglected the fact that there was no law prohibiting sexual exploitation of black women slaves, so that in a way, “the collapse of racial distinctions is built into the very structure and ideology of the slavery system” (Bergner 2005, 90). This naivety, often due to the white man’s almost animalistic lust – curiously enough, a widespread stereotype of the black man among white people –, according to Davis had the consequence that shortly before the Civil War, “nine-tenths of those counted mulattoes were slaves”, and while the mulatto child “was not only no threat to the system but also a valuable economic asset, another slave”, yet one cannot overlook that “white men were increasingly enslaving their own children and grandchildren” (2001, 39, 40). The more conscious the white society became of this dilemma, the more public opinion merged into the social hysteria aforementioned by Locke.

So far the worries of the white men concerning the numerical advance of the mulatto, which were all about keeping intact a system of white supremacy over their black inferiors. The struggle of the black men, and the mulattoes in specific, however, was of much more elementary, vital nature, since, as Sollors remarks, “the ‘mixed race’ is cleared in favor of a monoracial occupancy” (1997, 6). Of course, Bergner moves on, it seems inevitable that “an ideology of race (…) cannot accommodate the concept of a mixed-race individual” (2005, 55), and, as pointed out before, this notion also compasses intraracial conflicts in the black population itself. All these sceptical views on the matter of a mixed race, on part of the whites, went so far that the mulatto was claimed to be “physically and mentally degenerate – even sterile – in order to ‘prove’ that race mixing was unnatural (and racial difference natural)” (Bergner 2005, 56-57), Referring to Davis, however, the various scientific “[e]fforts to improve on racial classification by using blood types have not proved very successful” (2001, 20). Under these circumstances, the invention of such laws as the one-drop-rule becomes even more understandable, so that in order to maintain social standards and orders aimed to keep black Americans in their place, “not even one drop of ‘black blood’ was needed to define a person as a ‘white nigger’ – and race became entirely a social category with no necessity for any biological basis” (2001, 56).

Concluding this chapter, once again making clear that the whole system of race differences was and is socially constructed, ruled by arbitrariness, and, yet, buried in itself – while meant as a humiliation for the black population – a self-destructive component threatening the white American society, one should consider the following contemporary comment by a anonymous person during the times of the Harlem Renaissance:

“There’s a moral in these cases for Southerners, who seem so very bent upon lynching

Negroes: be careful how you do it – the man may be your brother.” (Anonymous 1931,

reprinted ´in Kaplan 2007, 125)

Nevertheless, while having highlighted all the negative aspects of the mulatto life in a white dominated nation, still, and this can already be measured as one of the motives leading to miscegenation and, finally, the act of passing for white (see also chapter 4.1), Genovese hints to the fact that mulattoes, compared to unmixed blacks, “had greater success in education and skills and provided a natural leadership among the blacks during and after the war” (1976, 431). Logically, then, the next step will be to provide a closer scrutiny of miscegenation throughout American history.

2.1.2 Miscegenation

The matter of miscegenation, in a social context, was not wholly undisputed, as becomes evident in the fact that sexual partners of mixed blood could still serve to contribute to the provision of the slave system with slaves of mulatto background. However, once one was asked about the issue in a more private dimension, such as “Would you like your daughter to marry a Negro?”, the question carried almost a rhetorical quality, since without even expecting a response it would be clear that most white men would have answered distinctively negative. That in fact the whole drama about the question was redundant, even beyond any reference to actual reality, was once clearly expressed by James Baldwin responding to a white Southerner during a television debate in the mid-60s: “You’re not worried about me marrying your wife’s daughter. I’ve been marrying your daughter ever since the days of slavery.” (Killens 1965, 127, reprinted in Genovese 1976, 414)

While it is quite obvious that “miscegenation occurs when there is sexual contact between unmixed African blacks and mulattoes, and between mulattoes and other mulattoes, not just when there is mixing between whites and African blacks or whites and mulattoes” (Davis 2001, 23), the most important fact about it is that one who actually engages in the act also takes the risk of committing a crime, as defined in the American Jurisprudence in 1941 (Saks 2000, 62). The first anti-miscegenation law in America was passed in 1661 in the state of Maryland (Zabel 2000, 56). The process of the distribution of these laws throughout the American continent, and later the United States, will be examined more closely in chapter

While many authors, as, for instance, Werner Sollors, focus very much on the evil and inhuman act of rape and incest as often being the germ causing miscegenation – proclaiming that “since miscegenation must be avoided at all cost, incest (racially enlarged) becomes an ideal almost by necessity” (Sollors 1997, 318, 322) – as, for example, reflected in Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom!, Genovese, quite differently, claims that

“[t]he tragedy of miscegenation lay, not in its collapse into lust and sexual exploitation, but in

the terrible pressure to deny the light, affection, and love that so often grew from tawdry

beginnings.” Also, according to Genovese, the “frequent charge that slaveholders and

overseers seduced or forced most of the young, sexually attractive slave girls appears to be a

great exaggeration and an injustice to blacks as well as whites” (1976, 419, 422).

This, of course, once more underscores the impression that the division of American culture into two races and the implied domination of the one over the other is, at least to a high extent, externally enforced by building up a social, binary system based on biological hypotheses and lawfully implanted statutes that, over the generations to proceed, more and more penetrated and finally became deeply rooted in white American consciousness.

Even though Genovese offers here an additional perspective, which reminds us of the actual potential of miscegenation to bridge the gap between the two races, he still remains conscious of the fact that “rape did not have to occur everywhere or every day to add up to an overpowering indictment against the regime as a whole” (1976, 423). Yet, taking a look at demographics in terms of heritage of the members of U.S. society at the beginning of the 21st century, Davis, come to the conclusion that “[a]t least three-fourths of all people defined as American blacks have some white ancestry, and some estimates run well above 90 percent” (2001, 21). Kennedy, therefore, figures that “the color spectrum among the black population ranges from ebony to lighter than most whites” (2000, 151). Hence, and in spite of the fact that such big names as former U.S. President Harry S. Truman vehemently insisted “that racial intermarriage ran counter to the teachings of the Bible” (Zabel 2000, 54), it may well be argued that miscegenation, as an act of reciprocal approach between the two social or ethnic groups, has prevailed over all endeavours by white supremacist ideology to reduce it to a minimum. No wonder, then, that “more literary works about “forbidden” couples and their descendants have been written, published, read, and debated than is usually assumed” (Sollors 1997, 8).


[1] Another term used to describe U.S. history in times of segregation

[2] The name “Jim Crow” referred to a common stereotype of blacks among (especially Southern) white

people at that time, “a blackface singing-dancing-comedy characterization portraying black males as

childlike, irresponsible, inefficient, lazy, ridiculous in speech, pleasure-seeking, and happy” (Davis

2001, 51).

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Passing and the Problem of Identity in Afro-American Literature
A Study of N. Larsen and J.W. Johnson
Technical University of Braunschweig  (Englisches Seminar)
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Sehr ausführliche kulturhistorische Analyse des Phänomens des "Passing", Bsp. der literarischen Verarbeitung anhand eines Vergleichs der Roman "The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man" (von James Weldon Johnson) und "Passing" (von Nella Larsen)
Afro-American Literature, Passing., Nella Larsen, James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man
Quote paper
M.A of Education Robert Wetzorke (Author), 2008, Passing and the Problem of Identity in Afro-American Literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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