Passing for White, Passing for Jewish: Mixed Race Identity in Danzy Senna and Rebecca Walker

Passing for White, Passing for Jewish: Mixed Race Identity in Danzy Senna and Rebecca Walker

Volume 30, Number 1, Indeterminate Identities (Spring, 2005)
pages 19-48
DOI: 10.1093/melus/30.1.19

Lori Harrison-Kahan, Associate Professor of the Practice of English
Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts

Imitation of Life, one of the classic narratives of racial passing, originated as a 1933 novel by Jewish writer Fannie Hurst, but it is perhaps best known as the 1959 melodrama directed by Douglas Sirk inducing finale of the Sirk film, the prodigal black daughter, who has crossed the color line and passed for white, returns home for her mother’s funeral, collapsing in tears on the coffin as she blames herself for her mother’s death. Despite the progress of racial politics between the publication of Hurst’s novel and the release of Sirk’s film, whiteness continues to be positioned as the privileged identity, a positioning that the 1959 adaptation successfully critiques. In the film, the light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane Johnson, reviles her blackness as an object of self-hatred from a young age. Given a black doll by her white playmate, Susie, Sarah Jane throws the gift to the floor, crying, “I don’t want the black one.” The camera seizes upon the image of the rejected doll, foreshadowing the inevitable events to come: Sarah Jane’s forsaking of her dark-skinned mother in order to reinvent herself as a white woman. With her story’s heartbreaking ending, Sarah Jane becomes yet another tragic mulatta, joining the ranks of mixed race women in American literature and culture who typically meet bitter fates for their transgressions of the color line.

Almost forty years later, however, the narrative of passing does, finally, experience a significant shift. In contrast to most literary and cultural representations of passing, Danzy Senna’s 1998 novel,…

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