Book Review: A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life By Allyson Hobbs

Reading A Chosen Exile reminded me of an incident I experienced as a young lady. When I was growing up-I’m a Baby Boomer–there were several very fair skinned black families who attended my church–so fair skinned they could have been easily mistaken for white.  In one family of three sisters, the youngest girl fell for one of her high school classmates who was considerably darker than she.  Knowing that her father would disapprove, they carried on a secret romance, for the most part seeing each other when they changed classes or right before they left school at the end of the day. As I recall, he gave her a ring which she wore only at school.  The young man even joined our youth choir so that they could see each other at the weekly rehearsals.  I remember many of us girls in the choir felt sorry for her and helped her keep the relationship a secret.  Eventually the pressure of sneaking around soon got to both of them, and they broke up.
          As far as I know, none of the families in my church deliberately passed for white in their daily lives, even though they were certainly fair enough to do so. So just how does one make the decision to leave one racial identity for another?  And what are the consequences of that decision?
          Allyson Hobbs tells us that, “Racial indeterminancy lies at the core of passing; it is the precondition that made passing possible.”  Race in America is not fixed, but fluid; the definition of it changes in every age and under myriad circumstances. The practice of miscegenation haunted white men and made it extraordinarily difficult to determine who was and was not black.  Historically whites spent an enormous amount of time and energy developing formulae, rules, and laws in an effort to define race. Thomas Jefferson came up with a mathematical formula so finely parsed  that I burst into derisive laughter upon reading it.
          Hobbs states that there are three historical eras during which people in the black community seriously considered or engaged in passing for white, and she show us that each of these eras had distinct reasons for and consequences of engaging in the practice. 
          The first era of passing occurred during slavery.  The thought of being sold was ever present in the minds of slavery; contemplating being separated from family was almost worse than death.  Black slaves who were able to pass generally engaged in the ruse solely for the purpose of escaping bondage and reconnecting with their loved ones.  The story of Ellen and William Craft is a great example of this.  Ellen Craft, who was so light skinned she could pass for white, dressed up like a man and traveled with William as her personal servant.  They escaped America and made their way to England, where they lectured and published about the evils of slavery.  The second period occurred immediately after the end of the Civil War.  Blacks who could pass for white during this time often felt they would have better opportunities in all facets of their lives if they crossed over to the other side.  They could also blend in with long established free black communities, especially in such places as New Orleans, with no or few questions asked.  Yet blacks who knew these people looked upon them with scorn and derision.  Finally, during the eras of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, passing was an act of taking on a new identity and leaving everything else behind.  It was often done in shame and fear–fear of getting caught, fear of losing everything held dear.  It is this era which is most familiar to the black community.  Thousands upon thousands of black families have people who have disappeared, never to be heard from again.
         Since passing is a secret phenomenon, it isn’t as though there is a lot of primary source data for researchers to check.  Yet Hobbs has done an excellent job at teasing out clues from many sources including literature, film, demographics, and unusual family stories.  Perhaps even more than history, these sources show that behind every story of opportunities fulfilled and bright futures expected, there is a story of extraordinarily painful loss.  Indeed, she speaks of two people who eventually committed suicide.  While their reasons for this cannot be specifically determined, Hobbs’ research shows her–and us–how pretending to be something one is not can be fraught with real danger and heartbreaking consequences.
           A Chosen Exile is a trenchant analysis of a barely investigated cultural practice that forces us to rethink the one-drop rule that has for so long defined America’s racial boundaries.