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Passing & Racial Identity in the Harlem Renaissance: The Ult

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Ellery Johnson

on 19 April 2014

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Transcript of Passing & Racial Identity in the Harlem Renaissance: The Ult

Passing & Racial Identity
in the Harlem Renaissance:
The Ultimate Performance

Iola Leroy
: Noble Refusal

Scholar Randall Kennedy, who wrote
Racial Passin
g: multiple scenes for protagonist to refuse the chance to pass as white
Harper wanted to reiterate that this was the 'noble' and correct decision
Imitation of Life (1959)
One-Drop Rule
in United States
Hypodescent (children of a mixed race union were classified as belonging to the so-called 'inferior' race)
Harlem Renaissance
African American voices were being heard in a new, unexplored light
: Two Sides to One Issue
Nella Larsen (on left): author of
Positive View of

Scholar Lori Harrison-Kahn, of
Her "Nig": Returning the Gaze of Nella Larsen's Passing
,: Clare was not necessarily a tragic mulatta figure
She did not allow society's gaze to define her
Francis Ellen Watkins Harper
So how can race be determined in this world of little permanence and few absolutes?
After slavery was abolished, there was a migration North, especially into urban areas
Closer proximity to white neighborhoods
Passing became a more possible, and attractive, opportunity
As well as displaying talents, stereotypes were also being created
Tragic Mulatta
Concept of
became popularized through literature and film
Image above: Palmer Hayden, "Jeunesse"
(date unknown)
Image to right: Joanna Mary Boyce, "Head of a Mulatto Woman" (1861)
Author of
Iola Leroy
An anti-passing ideology was perpetuated in this novel
"Harper cautions against individualistic ambition . . . Harper celebrates black solidarity, champions black racial pride, affirms blacks who recognize racial duties and lauds those who, though they look white, choose to stand with "their" people" (Kennedy 7)
Anti-Passing Critique: Clare was a tragic mulatta figure
Tried to surpass her 'station' and was punished through death
"The soft white face, the bright hair, the disturbing scarlet mouth, the dreaming eyes. . . the whole torturing loveliness that was Clare Kendry" (Larsen 272).
Clare's story
end in death - yet, "[she] is not simply 'passed' over, but, on the contrary, becomes the focus of conversation" (Harrison-Kahn 127).
"Tragic Mulatta"
Peola (played by actress Freddie Washington in 1934 version of film, shown on left) passes as white to benefit herself economically and socially
Passing only brought her tragedy and suffering
Her boyfriend is horrified to hear of her true race
Her mother is heartbroken by her betrayal
Helped shape society's opinions on passing
Appears to be an immoral action, shown through:
Abandonment of parents
Lying to potential spouses

Separating Fact from Fiction
The fiction of passing (spread in novels, film, and word of mouth) did create many of the opinions that society held on the act
Did passing really lead to tragic ends for light-skinned women?
Or, as scholar Harrison-Kahn proposed, was passing a subversive strategy that allowed a disenfranchised group to gain traction in a white, male dominated society?

Examination of Consequences
Scholar Maria Balshaw (
Black was White: Urbanity, Passing and the Spectacle of Harlem)
: main consequence was a "
testing of the limits of racial and sexual identity
" (322)
Pushing boundaries is essential for social progress of society
The Rhinelander's Case
Historical Background
: Alice Jones & Leonard "Kip" Rhinelander wed in 1924
The Rhinelanders were one of New York's oldest and wealthiest families
A month after marriage, Rhinelander filed for divorce on grounds that Alice had deceived him about her true race
Walter White
Passing in the Present
Today, there are legal protections for all races to have equal rights
This makes passing less of a necessity
Scholar William A. Darity: main consequence was having to cut all ties to family and friends in full-time passing cases
Lack of Belonging
His passing was highly subversive and strategic
Goal: discover "inside information about mob psychology . . . show whites in particular the fallacy of racial stereotyping" (Janken 18)
Criticized by segments of African American community (led by W.E.B. DuBois) who did believe he could be a fit leader for their interests
Unlike vast majority of passing cases, White did not pass for personal gain
Believed race was socially constructed
Self-identified as African American
However, racial identity is still being debated
"Passing as Black: How Biracial Americans Choose Identity" by Meredith Melnick
2010 TIME Magazine released an article about a study published in Social Psychology Quarterly by sociologists Nikki Khanna and Cathryn Johnson
Their view: passing still occurs, it has just reversed direction
Why the reversal?
". . . to fit in with black peers in adolescence, to avoid a stigmized white identity, and, in the post-civil rights era of affirmative action, to obtain advantages and opportunties sometimes available . . ." (Khanna and Johnson)
Race affects us all
Modern society, just like the Harlem Renaissance, relies on stereotypes in media to learn how certain races are 'supposed' to behave
Passing during the Harlem Renaissance gave certain groups more opportunities for a better standard of living
Yet, today, no one should feel compelled to pass for for those reasons
People should feel comfortable identifying with the race of their choosing instead of having society's gaze choose for them

Race Identification
"Doctor, were I your wife, are there not people who would caress me as a white woman who would shrink from me in scorn if they knew I had one drop of Negro blood in my veins . . . No Doctor, I am not willing to live under a shadow of concealment which I thoroughly hate as if the blood in my veins were an undetected crime of my soul" (Harper 233).

Characters who chose not to pass were ultimate protagonists, thus influencing society into classifying those who did choose to pass as
of their race
Image on left: Predominately African American attendees
Image on right: Predominately white attendees and in a more lavish setting
Clare, being an African American passer, had the opportunity to attend both
African American dancers at the Cotton Club in Harlem
Image, 1919, of an African American family arriving in Chicago
Image on top right: Alice Rhinelander during the case
Image on left: Alice Rhinelander after the divorce settlement
Race was performed for public in various ways
; love letters were read out loud and Alice Rhinelander had to partially disrobe
Above: Walter White
Reality TV show "Black. White." follows a white and black family who swap races and discover what life is like on the other side of the color line
Skin color was changed with makeup
However, clothing and other indicators played a large role in identification
Shows how race is ultimately a performance
In Hollywood, race is also a huge factor in casting decisions
Darker skinned African American actresses believe there is obvious "colorism" that plays a role
Image: Halle Berry, a light-skinned African American actress
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