95. Literature of Passing

When I was very young, I learned a lot from things that weren’t openly said. Not that anyone was shy about their opinions on race, but they didn’t talk much about sex, and the two subjects seemed joined at the hip.

I someone was having a baby, and there was some doubt about who the father was, someone would mention that there was a nigger in the woodpile. Even if the father was white and known, there was a racial subtext.

I rarely saw any black people, but there was one woman we saw occasionally in Claremore whose arms were mottled brown and pale. I heard my parents say, “That’s what happens when you mix the races,” with the silent implication of God’s disapproval.

At the drive-in one evening, we saw the theatrical trailer for Imitation of Life while waiting for another movie to begin. I was only seven or eight and it didn’t make any sense to me, but my parents looked knowingly at each other and I knew that there was something sexual and forbidden in the dark skinned girl’s passing – whatever that was.

Thirty years later I read what Mark Twain said about how his book Huckleberry Finn was doing. He said, “I feel like the lady felt when the child came out white.”(see post 90.) How interesting that the lady was worried. To put it bluntly, had she been fooling around with someone black, or was she worried that some ancestor had, and that the genes would show themselves?

Everybody knows that most American blacks are partly white, even though it is no longer politically correct to say so. Everybody should know that most American “whites” are at least slightly black, because of blacks who have passed into the “white” gene pool throughout our country’s history. Mark Twain apparently knew it, but the “white” half of our common race has been trying for four hundred years to convince themselves it just isn’t so.

Or at least that it shouldn’t be so.

I have to admit that I hadn’t thought of Imitation of Life since childhood, and had to look it up on the internet. I must have seen the trailer for the 1959 remake, but in both movies the light skinned black girl who passed for white came to a bad end, drove her saintly black mother to an early death, and repented in tears at her mother’s funeral that she had been passing.

Yeah. Right. Sure. Doesn’t that sound a lot like a movie made by white folks to show to other white folks?

Passing is a novel by Nella Larsen, published in 1929. It treats the subject of passing seriously and has been accepted as a classic by literary scholars. I have to admit that it has been sitting on my to-read shelf for about a year and I am reporting on it from research. If it seems racist that I have not gotten to it yet, you need to know that my to-read shelf is groaning under the weight of books by authors of all creeds and colors. Blogging is incredibly time consuming, so the shelf keeps growing.

I have read Pudd’nhead Wilson, 1894, Mark Twain’s last novel.  In it a black slave woman is given a white infant to nurture. She has only recently had a child of her own, who is seven-eights white. By coincidence (shades of Prince and the Pauper) she looks at the two of them side by side and they are identical. Thinking of the beautiful life that lies in store for the “white” baby and the horrors that lie in store for her “black” child, she switches them.

Need I say that things go badly after that? At the end of a long and angry life, Twain wrote Pudd’nhead with vicious dark humor. Raised to the privileged life of a slave owner, the passing “black” grows up to be an unmitigated villain, and the unwillingly and unknowingly passing “white” grows up as a battered and passive embodiment of slave mentality.

Critics call Pudd’nhead Wilson unreadable. I did not find it so, but then critics need something to complain about. I did find it tangled and unpleasant. I don’t recommend that you read it for pleasure, but I suggest you take this away from it—

In 1894, Mark Twain knew that there were a lot of blacks who looked white. He knew that passing would be easy to accomplish. Twenty years later there was a massive migration of blacks to the cities in the north where, unlike the small towns and villages from which they came, they would be anonymous. In America, in the early twentieth century, it was easier to live white than to live black.

You do the math.

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