The Theme of Racial Passing in African American Literature. A Strategy to Overcome Obstacles and Gain Social Acceptance?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

30 Pages, Grade: 1.3



1 Introduction

2 Historical Background

3 A Comparison of Passing in J.w. Johnson’s The Autobiography Of An Ex-Colored Man and Nella Larsen’s Passing
3.1 Passing in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography Of An Ex-Colored Man
3.2. Passing in Nella Larsen’s Passing

4 Conclusion

Works Cited

1 Introduction

“You know [...] I’ve often wondered why more colored girls [...] never ‘passed’ over. It’s
such a frightfully easy thing to do. If one ’s the type, all that ’s needed is a little nerve. ”

(Passing, Nella Larsen)

During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, many African Americans passed as white, crossing the “metaphorical line known [...] as the “color-line”” (Bennett 1996: 35). Their reasons were numerous and distinct, but what they all had in common was the hope for a better life as a white citizen. However, for many people who passed, it turned out not to be as “frightfully easy” as the initial quote, taken from Nella Larsen’s novel Passing, suggests. People who passed had to leave behind their homes, families, friends, jobs, and consequently their identities. As Allyson Hobbs phrases it “[t]0 pass as white was to make an anxious decision to turn one’s back on a black racial identity and to claim to belong to a group to which one was not legally assigned. It was risky business.” (Hobbs 2014: 5). Those who decided to pass as white had to establish a whole new identity based on lies, and often faced isolation, loneliness and alienation due to the loss of their heritage.

In this paper, I will examine the theme of racial passing in African American narratives more closely by defining the term ‘passing’ more explicitly, and by giving a brief overview of the historical circumstances that led light-skinned African Americans to pass as white. Subsequently, I will focus on how racial passing is represented in literature written by African American authors. Therefore, I chose two novels that are commonly considered to be quintessential texts dealing with the phenomenon of racial passing, namely James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man and Nella Larsen’s Passing. I will argue that the process of racial passing is an ongoing one, proceeding in three stages: Initially, there is an event that leads to the idea of passing, followed by a phase of happiness because of apparently having overcome social obstacles. But in the end, the persons who have passed are always confronted with their denied identity. Hence, in the short mn, passing as white is a strategy to overcome social and economic obstacles but, in the long mn, it evokes a constant internal struggle for identity.

2 Historical Background

The idea of passing originated during the eighteenth century, more precisely during the antebellum period, when many enslaved men and women passed as white or as free to escape from slavery “with the intention of recovering precious relationships and living under the more secure conditions of freedom” (Hobbs 2014: 5). ‘Passing’, in this context did not necessarily mean that people who passed gave up their lives as blacks but rather ‘passed as free’, i.e. they pretended not to be slaves but free men and women (cf. Hobbs 2014: 34 f., Ginsberg 1996: 1). The term ‘passing’ hints at the ‘pass’, a piece of paper which was sometimes given to slaves by their masters to enable them to move freely without being considered mnaways (cf. Bennet 1996: 36) but “white skin [was] itself a “pass” that allowed for some light-skinned slaves to escape their masters” (ibd.). While Sollors in Neither Black Nor White Yet Both defines passing as “the crossing of any line that divides social groups” (1997: 247, emphasis added), he notes that the term ““[pjassing” is used most frequently, however, as if it were short for “passing for white,” in the sense of “crossing over” the color line in the United States from the black to the white side” (ibd.). Considering this meaning, passing can be regarded as an attempt of assimilation into the white society which is accompanied by adapting to the white culture and habits. This comes along with Ginsberg’s observation that passing is “a transgression not only of legal boundaries (that is from slave to freeman [or from black to white]) but of cultural boundaries as well” (1996: 1).

The genealogy of the term passing in American history associates it with the discourse of racial difference and especially with the assumption of a fraudulent “white” identity by an individual culturally and legally defined as “Negro” or black by virtue of a percentage of African ancestry. As the term metaphorically implies, such an individual crossed or passed through a racial line or boundary - indeed trespassed - to assume a new identity, escaping the subordination and oppression accompanying one identity and accessing the privileges and status of the other.

(Ginsberg 1996: 2 f.)

Passing as white became especially frequent between the end of the Reconstruction era and the many years of racial segregation, known as the Jim Crow era. During this period, African Americans had to face “daily frustrations, humiliations, and indignities; political disenfranchisement; economic discrimination; widespread racial violence in threat and in fact” (Hobbs 2014: 125), starting with the ‘Black Codes’ in 1865, continuing with the violence performed by the Ku Klux Klan, and reaching its peak with the passing of the Jim Crow Laws, which restored the ‘Black Codes’ in the 1890s (cf. Field 2011: 48 ff.). Although the Thirteenth,

Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments de jure guaranteed freedom and equal protection under the law to all African Americans, as well as equal voting rights to male African Americans, white supremacy pursued the objective to restrict those rights by legalizing segregation and excluding blacks from public places, like for example hotels and restaurants, washrooms, and Pullman cars (cf. Belluscio 2006: 41, Hobbs 2014: 125). The so-called Mississippi Plan of 1890 made voting nearly impossible for black people, assuming for example the payment of a high poll tax two years in advance of an election, and the passing of literacy tests (cf. Hobbs 2014: 126). But even worse than this, African Americans had to live in constant fear of being violated, or even lynched by race riots. “[Bjetween the years of 1890 and 1917, two to three black Southerners were murdered each week” (Hobbs 2014:127), and it could happen to anyone since those people were killed without any reason. In James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography Of An Ex-Colored Man, the sight of one such lynching is the reason leading to the protagonist’s final decision to, from that moment on, pass as white. In this period, passing was literally used as a strategy to survive.

The idea of passing as white is based on a rule which was unique to the Unites States, a rule commonly known as ‘the one-drop mie’. This mie legally defined “a white person as one with “no trace of other blood”” (Hobbs 2014: 129, emphasis added), and, resulting therefrom, a black person was defined as one by having the slightest drop of ancestral black blood. Furthermore, the law prohibited interracial marriage “between whites and anyone with even the slightest amount of racial mixture” (ibd.). The ‘one-drop mie’ “gathered state-by-state acceptance in the nineteenth century and became “uniformly accepted” by the 1920s” (Bennett 1996: 5), after the 1896 u.s. Supreme Court decision Plessy vs. Ferguson. In this landmark case, Homer Plessy, who was by one-eighth of African American descent and, according to the white supremacists’ common understanding, legally black, had bought a railroad ticket and boarded the first-class ‘whites only’ car (cf. Hobbs 2014: 12). When the conductor instmcted him to move to the ‘Jim Crow Car’, which fulfilled the maxim of ‘separate but equal’, Plessy refused referring to the Fourteenth Amendment, and was arrested for violating Louisiana’s Separate Car Act of 1890 (cf. Gates/Yacovone 2013: 149, Hobbs 2014: 12, Wald 2000: 12). The case was heard at the Supreme Court and “[wjhen Homer Plessy lost, so did a much larger class of black elites” (Hobbs 2014: 112) because this decision reinforced racial segregation and gave African Americans a profound reason to pass as white, attempting to escape from intensifying racial segregation and oppression (cf. Belluscio 2006: 41).

The ‘one-drop mie’ points to one of the most important factors to being able to pass for white, which is the physical appearance of the passing individual (cf. Ginsberg 1996: 3). Not every African American was predestinated to pass as white, but only those of mixed race, the so- called ‘mulattoes’, with a very light skin pigmentation. The Plessy case proved that even the white supremacy was not able to reliably detect the “one drop” of black blood in light-skinned African Americans that had no visible features, and hence, illustrated the fuzziness and instability of the ‘color line’. “[Pjopular white discourse categorized blackness based on stereotypical physical features that people who could pass did not possess” (Rothmel 2015: 2).

However, to pass successfully, people had to abandon their habitual environment and family background, which was simplified during the time of the Great Migration, starting in the late 1890s. Since circumstances were far worse in the South than they were in the North, masses of African Americans moved towards the northern cities, which, thus, “saw an unprecedented explosion of growth in their black populations” (Gates/Yacovone 2013: 156). Several critics, amongst others Elaine K. Ginsberg, indicate that “metaphysical passing necessarily involved geographical movement as well; the individual had to leave an environment where his or her “true identity” - that is, parentage, legal status, and the like - was known to find a place where it was unknown” (1996: 3). The anonymity of the big cities, where people did not know each other, simplified passing, and “the possibility of social mobility provided the impetus for many to pass” (Belluscio 2006: 19). This “shift in location meant a shift in identity, both for the collective black identity and for the black individual” (Rothmel 2015: 1) and “by the 1920s the “Great Migration” had created both new and vital black communities as well as new and vital black identities” (ibd.). With the latter, Rothmel refers to the Harlem Renaissance, during which a new self-confidence and race pride were experienced within the ‘Negro society’, and during which “a veritable explosion of literature on passing as a product of the cultural flowering of the Harlem Renaissance” (Hobbs 2014: 26) was witnessed. Notwithstanding, there was still a lot of social injustice between the races, and thus, passing was still prevalent although its shapes were beginning to develop.

Particularly during this period, the distinction between different types of passing seems appropriate, since there were not only people who passed permanently, or in other words twenty-four hours a day, but also some who passed occasionally, especially those who passed ‘for convenience’, for example to sit in a restaurant for white people, or the so-called ‘nine to five’ passers, who passed during working hours to get access to jobs designated for whites only (cf. Sollors 1997: 251, Hobbs 2014: 151). Other occasional passers passed ‘for fun’ to mislead white supremacy, or ‘unintentionally’ by being mistaken for white and not clarifying it (cf. Belluscio 2006: 44, Hobbs 2014: 151). In those cases of occasional passing, passers did not, or only culturally assimilate into the white society, what Belluscio describes as “freely willed by the individual” (2006: 51), while people who passed permanently with the intention to survive, or out of economic necessity or advantage, beyond that, aimed at a structural assimilation that lay “beyond the reach of the individual” (Belluscio 2006: 52) and depended upon “the willingness of the primary group to give full acceptance to the assimilating individual” (ibd.).

Passing was not only used as a survival strategy anymore, but also as a “site of resistance to white supremacy” and “an attempt to grapple with an ambiguous and fluid black identity” (Rothmel 2015: 1), the latter which was characteristic for people of mixed race, or put differently, people with two inherent origins and two ancestral heritages. As Pfeiffer points out, “the passer often demonstrates ambivalence about whiteness as well as blackness” (2002: 2) and this is why “[m]any passing narratives focus on the experience of disconnect between the character’s inner (supposedly black) self and his or her outer (ostensibly white) self [and the] disconnect between interior and exterior worlds” (2002: 3). “[T]he passing narrative served as a framework for not only a realistic depiction of the black experience but also an examination of the limits of the idea of race itself’ (Belluscio 2006: 3), in which blacks could cope with their life secrets, and draw attention to the circumstances in both the black and the white society. The passing narrative was often used “in order to imagine the African American’s attempt at full assimilation” (Belluscio 2006: 13). Like several other critics, Ginsberg notes that the term ‘passing’ has been extended to “other elements of an individual’s presumed “natural” or “essential” identity, including class, ethnicity, and sexuality, as well as gender” (1996: 3; cf. also Belluscio 2006: 14), which will not be examined in this paper but, of course, also imply the crossing of a socially imposed border. Although there are no reliable statistics, since otherwise the secret of those people who passed would have been uncovered, critics assume that each year between 1880 and 1925, an average of “ten thousand to twenty-five thousand African Americans” (Belluscio 2006: 43) passed as white.

In a nutshell, as Hobbs points out, “[pjassing took shape under the slavery regime and later functioned as a response to the laws and changing political environments that defined and regulated racial identities” (2014: 25).

3 A Comparison of Passing in J.w. Johnson’s The Autobiography Of An Ex-Colored Man and Nella Larsen’s Passing

In the following chapters, I will focus on how racial passing is thematized in the quintessential works by J.W. Johnson and Nella Larsen.

3.1 Passing in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography Of An Ex-Colored Man

James Weldon Johnson’s fictional autobiography The Autobiography Of An Ex-Colored Man, first published anonymously in 1912, is about a nameless protagonist who reflects upon his struggle for identity as a mixed-race man, and the circumstances which led him to his decision to pass as white. Although the narrator, at the beginning of the first chapter, does not name the “great secret of [his] life” (5) by its name, the adjective ‘ex-colored’ in the novel’s title alludes to a ‘colored’ man giving up his life as ‘colored’ by becoming ‘ex-colored’ and, thus, escaping from categorization. However, Bennet mentions that the term “‘ex-colo[]red’ is simply another form of ‘colored’” (1996: 16) and during this period of racial categorization based on binaries, simply implied ‘white’, which is a color again. The fact that the term ‘white’ is not used, though, could mirror that the protagonist still has not completely arrived in the white society since he is still experiencing a common feeling of passers, which is nostalgia. The protagonist points out that “it is a curious study to [him] to analyze the motives which prompt [him] to do it” (5) and that he is aware of the fact that he is “playing with fire” (ibd.) but hopes to “find a sort of savage” (ibd.) in writing, and seeks relief from his “vague feeling of unsatisfaction, of regret, of almost remorse” (ibd.) by turning the events, that for him were highly tragic, “into a practical joke on society” (ibd.). The passage already indicates that the narrative is focused on the motives leading to the decision to pass as white, and thus “represents a perfect formal answer to the theme of passing” (Sollors 1997: 264) but it also shows that the protagonist does not seem happy at all about his decision when looking back at his life. Nevertheless, he wants to release his secret to draw attention to what is happening to people like him in a society of segregation and oppression. The first-person narrator states that he “shall not mention the name of the town” of his birth to avoid any possible drawing of connections to people it might affect, and he sticks to keeping the secret as covered as possible by not mentioning any exact names of locations or people, but rather categorizing them due to characteristic physical features, and even the protagonist himself remains nameless throughout the whole story. The protagonist’s namelessness, on the one hand, might be strategic, to avoid other people being detected as being connected to him, for example his children for “there is nothing [he] would not suffer to keep the “brand” from being placed upon them” (109), on the other hand, it could symbolically stand for the narrator’s struggle for identity. The fact that he is nameless undermines that he is a complete individual having a strong identity to stand for. This idea is encouraged by Pfeiffer stating that “[¡]dentity crisis concurs with racial indeterminacy, and so namelessness - a signal of identity crisis - abounds in The Autobiography69 :2002) ׳). As an individual seeking freedom from all sorts of being categorized and restricted (cf. also Pfeiffer 2002: 2), it seems ironic that exactly the Ex-Colored Man, who obviously wants to remain unnamed, names other people by categorizing them due to their outer appearance or “their roles or occupations” (Pfeiffer 2002: 70), for example his friends “Red Head” and “Shiny”. “Despite his sense that classificatory thinking misrepresents reality, the Ex-Colored Man understands his world through classification” (Pfeiffer 2002: 64).

Born “in a little town of Georgia a few years after the close of the Civil War” (5), the protagonist grows up in a town in Connecticut, living together with his mother “in a little cottage which seemed to [him] to be fitted up almost luxuriously” (7), becoming a “perfect little aristocrat” (ibd.) without ever caring for his origin. This carelessness about his roots, however, changes at the age of nine, when one formative day at school, the principal wishes “all of the white scholars to stand for a moment” (11), and when the protagonist stands up the teacher tells him to “sit down for the present, and rise with the others” (ibd.). At first, the protagonist does not understand why the teacher wants him to remain seated, but “sat down dazed. [He] saw nothing and heard nothing. When the others were asked to rise [he] did not know it. When school was dismissed [he] went out in a kind of stupor” (11). Never before considering it, the protagonist has to realize that he himself belongs to the group “looked down upon” (ibd.), to those kids that some time ago, he himself had called “niggers” (ibd.), being “indoctrinated into racial prejudice by other children” (Fabi 2015: 376). After learning what “their status was” (15), he learns that “theirs was [his]” (ibd.). “Blackness is produced in this shift of perspective: he forms his idea of what it is [like] to be colored by seeing others who are marked as colored. Learning that he also is colored, he translates that status and condition to himself’ (Kawash 1996: 64). Kawash describes this as “a form of specular identification: the narrator sees blackness in others and then identifies himself with that blackness. It is only through the image of these others that the Ex-C010[]red Man knows himself as black” (1996: 65), and this specular image is symbolized through the protagonist’s look in the mirror. Hence, “identity does not originate in some internal core of the self but rather emerges in the distance between self and other (ibd.). It might not even only be the fact that he is black, which stupefies him, but the way he has to find out the truth about his roots, in public, seems to highly aggravate his feeling of humiliation, especially when the white boys jeer him saying “[0]h, you’re a nigger too” (11). Coming home, the protagonist rushes into his room and for the first time looks at himself in the mirror consciously. He is “seeking to understand his inner self by interrogating his exterior appearance” (Pfeiffer 2002: 3). This shows how much these few words by the principal and the teacher have affected and shattered the boy’s world view. For the first time, he recognizes the ivory whiteness of [his] skin, the beauty of [his] mouth, the size and liquid darkness of [his] eyes, and how the long black lashes that fringed and shaded them produced an effect that was strangely fascinating even to [him], [He] noticed softness and glossiness of [his] dark hair that fell in waves over [his] temples, making [his] forehead appear whiter than it really was (12).

This scene seems almost narcissistic, but for the protagonist, it is substantially important trying to see what others see when looking at him. Giving a detailed description of his face, what is striking is that he sees the beauty in both his black and his white features, which in exactly this combination make him the beautiful boy he is. Notwithstanding, his outer appearance does not give him any clear evidence for his presumption since shortly afterwards, he runs downstairs to his mother, burying his head in her lap and blurting out “Mother, mother, tell me, am I a nigger?” (12). The use of the word “nigger” shows his alienation, as he does not feel any connection to the black society. Calling it a “transition from one world into another” (13), that day changes the protagonist’s life completely

for [he] did indeed pass into another world. From that time [he] looked out through other eyes, [his] thoughts were colored, [his] words dictated, [his] actions limited by one dominating, all-pervading idea which constantly increased in force and weight until [he] finally realized in it a great, tangible fact (13).

As Sollors points out it is quite ironical that the word “passing” is used in this context of being “introduced into the black world” (1997: 266), because from the narrator’s point of view there is no incentive to pass as black, it is rather a feeling that he is expected to behave according to his black heritage.

The protagonist’s alienation from the black race becomes even clearer when he describes the racial status of black people in the U.S., apparently objective but rather from his point of view as an ‘ex-colored’ man.

And this is the dwarfing, warping, distorting influence which operates upon each colored man in the United States. He is forced to take his outlook on all things, not from the viewpoint of a citizen, or a man, nor even a human being, but from the viewpoint of a colored man (13).

By using the personal pronoun “he” instead of “we”, the protagonist excludes himself from his observations about the black race which is strengthened by the comment that “[i]t is wonderful to [him] that the race has progressed so broadly as it has” (ibd.), but this honest statement downgrading the black people as not even being humans with a sad undertone can only come from a person who has experienced what it means to be colored. Nonetheless, Fabi indicates that the narrator “is legally black because of his ancestry, phenotypically white, and ideologically a white supremacist” (2015: 383). Looking at his racial ancestry through the eyes of a white man and stating that every colored man has “a sort of dual personality” (14) and can understand the white people better than they know and understand the black people (cf. idb.) recalls the Du Boisian concept of double-consciousness which connects the ambivalence of African Americans with the habit of seeing oneself through the eyes of someone else (cf. also Sollors 1997: 266, Belluscio 2006: 152). Although his schoolmates do not change so much towards him, the protagonist, after the incident, grows reserved, suspicious and withdrawn towards them (14) and becomes “something of a solitary” (15), except for having his two friends “Red Head” and “Shiny”.

The protagonist’s ambivalence appears for the first time when talking about his childhood and recurs constantly throughout the story. Having a special devotion to music already in his early childhood, the protagonist says that “[t]he evenings on which [his mother] opened the little piano were the happiest hours of [his] childhood” (7). As Fabi points out, “the mother who plays by ear ‘some old Southern songs’ [...] functions as a cultural mediator and vulgarizer by reproducing folk and religious melodies” (2015: 386). Moreover, the piano can be interpreted as a metaphor for the protagonist’s inner ambivalence, its keyboard reflecting the binary of black and white, albeit he remembers that he “had a particular fondness for the black keys” (7; cf. also Sollors 1997: 269). As a little boy, he was probably unconscious about it but his preference for the black keys could be seen as a particular inner connection to his black heritage. Furthermore, the black keys usually sound a little more dissonant and sad compared to the white ones, which could be mirroring the oppressed life of the black society during these days. Later, the narrator states that even though he had learned the names of the notes, he preferred playing the piano by ear instead of being “hampered by notes” (8), which mirrors his later longing for personal freedom. This can also be seen in his “strongly individual” (18) ideas of interpretation when playing the piano. When being sent to public school, the protagonist befriends with “Red Head” and “Shiny”, the first obviously a white boy with very red hair, and the latter a black boy, later turning out to being the best scholar in the class (cf. 9 f.). The protagonist seemingly can be located in between the two of his friends, both considering his intellectuality and his outer appearance, being a fairly good student and having “ivory [...] skin” (12; cf. also Pfeiffer 2002: 58). From his early childhood to his early adulthood, the protagonist experiences his life “divided between [his] music and [his] school books” (8), although “[m]usic [takes] up the greater part of [his] time” (ibd.). He is caught between two passions, music and reading, the first connecting him with his black roots, the latter mirroring the literacy of the white society and connecting him with his white ancestry. Although the protagonist might not have been aware of it at that time, the way the narrator represents several events in retrospective suggests that the feeling of ambivalence is still present at the moment of narration.

Although never feeling to be a real part of the black community, when the protagonist meets his father for the first time, he does not feel any connection to him, albeit he is “just the kind of looking father [he] had wishfully pictured him to be” (20). It seems as if the lack of “any considerable feeling for a need for a father” (ibd.) is due to the incident that one day at school. Now that everybody knows he is black, his wish to know who his father is has vanished, since meeting him means getting in direct confrontation with his two different roots, of which one is suppressed at that time.

The older the protagonist gets, the more his interest in the question of race and his and his mother’s relation to the world grows (cf. 23), and he starts to read a lot of books on history but only gets a feeling of enlightenment when reading ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ which “opened [his] eyes as to who and what [he] was and what [his] country considered [him]; in fact, it gave [him his] bearing” (24). His literacy and knowledge on the subject may be a reason for his distinct sense of the aforementioned double-consciousness and also seem to evoke in him a feeling of superiority. When “Shiny” gives his speech on the day of their graduation from grammar school, the nameless protagonist for the first time experiences a feeling of race pride and feels “leap within [him] pride that [he] was colored” (26), and even begins “to form wild dreams of bringing glory and honor to the Negro race” (ibd.). This euphoric change in the protagonist’s way of thinking can be interpreted as his complete acceptance to embrace his black roots, and thus as a kind of beginning to pass as black since now he feels to have an incentive to be black, which is being “a great colored man, to reflect credit on the race, and gain fame for [him]self’ (ibd.). When later it comes to the decision for a university, he chooses to move south and register at Atlanta University, a historically African American university, and thus turns his back on his white father’s wish to go to Harvard or Yale, and hence on his white roots (cf. 29). Notwithstanding, this decision is ambivalent in a way, because the narrator does have a “peculiar fascination” (ibd.) for the South but mainly chooses Atlanta University for financial reasons, and not as a first step to fulfill his earlier aim. In the South, the protagonist catches

“[his] first sight of colored people in large numbers” (31) which arouses in him “a feeling of almost repulsion” (ibd.) and he feels pretty relieved when his companion tells him that the people are of the lower class. This scene shows that once again, the protagonist excludes himself from the black society by downgrading the people he sees and observing their behavior from a distant point of view. As Belluscio points out,

[t]his is not the only time the protagonist speaks of fellow African Americans with the cool, objective gaze of a sociologist. In a detailed passage, he describes what he considers to be the “three classes” of African Americans: the desperate class, domestic servants, and the black middle class - an important factor in the book’s irony in that this “detachment” reveals the ex-colo[]red man’s reluctance to believe he is truly black (2006: 153).

Even his friendship with the black Pullman car porter bores and embarrasses the protagonist, since with him, he can only go to places in town where colored people are accepted, and he very soon realizes that these places are a lot shabbier than places for white people (cf. 32 f.). When all his money is stolen, the “whole course of [his] life” (35) changes, and it is remarkable that it is a black guy who is responsible for this change.

The protagonist only feels his “real entrance into the race” (40) after becoming “acquainted with the best class of colored people in Jacksonville” (ibd.), but constantly distinguishes between the “refined” (44) and “better class of colored people” (ibd.) to which he counts himself, and the way more common uneducated black people, which shows that passing and social mobility are highly intertwined to be considered successful by the passer (cf. also Hobbs 2014: 30, Belluscio 2006: 16). “This transformation into privileged insider accentuates his position as outsider; he must be initiated into the race because he is not truly of the race” (Kawash 1996: 66). Nevertheless, shortly after his “real entrance” into the black society, he decides to move on to New York. The many changes of location, and in his later years also of his job, mirror the inner instability of the Ex-Colored Man and his search for identity and attempt to find his place in the world. “The race-passing plot of The Autobiography of an Ex- Colo[]red Man is embedded in a narrative line structured by the Ex-Colo[]red Man’s passage through the North, the South, and Europe” (Kawash 1996: 63) and “lays out two trajectories of travel: a psychological journey through whiteness and blackness and a physical journey through the United States and Europe” (ibd.). New York finally seems to be just the place the protagonist was looking for his whole life. For the first time, he experiences black and white people being together and enjoying the pleasures of life (cf. 55 ff.). It is noticeable that it is music that brings them together, and symbolically unites the two races, and as the protagonist points out “[o]ne thing cannot be denied; it is music which possesses at least one strong element of greatness; it appeals universally; not only the American, but the English, the French, and even the German people, find delight in it” (54). But although being in the core of this melting pot, the protagonist does not get in contact with any black people (cf. 60) and befriends with a white millionaire who regularly hires him to play music for him. First, the fact that the millionaire does not want the protagonist to play any engagements “except by his instructions” (64) and occasionally even loans him to some of his friends (cf. ibd.) recalls a picture of modern enslavement, but it is this white millionaire who becomes the protagonist’s savior after the “Widow”, a wealthy white woman, is shot by her black companion because of flirting with him (cf. 65 f.). This shocking event, which leads the protagonist to change his location again and move to Europe, can be interpreted as the reason for his break with his black roots, because in Europe, he internally and externally assimilates into his white friend’s lifestyle, for example by wearing even the “same kind of clothes” (68) as his white friend. It is ironic that in Europe, the protagonist is taken for an “American” (71), because this is just the thing he was longing for when being in the United States, to be considered an ‘American’ without having to choose either side of his ancestral roots. The reason for this, as Hobbs states, is that “[migration allowed racially ambiguous people to travel and try on different identities once they were no longer associated with or known in a particular place” (2014: 134). When being on the ship to Europe, the protagonist is fascinated by a large iceberg they pass because it “constantly changed its shape; at each different angle of vision it assumed new astonishing forms of beauty” (66). The iceberg symbolically stands for the protagonist himself, who is constantly changing his identity and withdrawing parts of it ‘below the surface’. After having lived in several European cities, the protagonist remembers his former plans “of bringing glory and honor to the Negro race” (26), and decides to return back to the United States to finally fulfill them. When he tells his white millionaire friend, he says in a big-brotherly way

[m]y boy, you are by blood, by appearance, by education and by tastes, a white man. Now why do you want to throw your life away amidst the poverty and ignorance, in the hopeless struggle of the black people of the United States? Then look at the terrible handicap yo[u] are placing on yourself by going home and working as a Negro composer; you can never be able to get the hearing for your work which it might deserve. [...] This idea you have of making a Negro out of yourself is nothing more than a sentiment; and you do not realize the fearful import of what you intend to do.

What kind of a Negro would you make now, especially in the South? If you had remained there, or perhaps even in your club in New York, you might have succeeded very well; but now you would be miserable. I can imagine no more dissatisfied human being than an educated, cultured and refined colored man in the United States (75 f.).


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The Theme of Racial Passing in African American Literature. A Strategy to Overcome Obstacles and Gain Social Acceptance?
University of Freiburg
Hauptseminar African American Literature
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Racial Passing, African American Literature, J.W. Johnson, Nella Larsen, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Passing
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Julia C. Hartenbach (Author), 2016, The Theme of Racial Passing in African American Literature. A Strategy to Overcome Obstacles and Gain Social Acceptance?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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Title: The Theme of Racial Passing in African American Literature. A Strategy to Overcome Obstacles and Gain Social Acceptance?

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