‘A Chosen Exile,’ by Allyson Hobbs: review

‘A Chosen Exile,’ by Allyson Hobbs: review

San Francisco Chronicle

Imani Perry, Professor, Center for African American Studies
Princeton University

Allyson Hobbs, A Chosen Exile: History of Racial Passing in American Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014)

Family across the color line: It is now a popular enough theme that it qualifies as a subgenre of memoir. This contemporary motif has a companion in American literary history. Fiction writers beginning in the 19th century took up the phenomenon of black people so light-skinned that they chose to cross over into whiteness permanently. Passing narratives are what such stories are called. In those works, it was an almost universally tragic choice, marking an essential loss of identity.

Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs’ book “A Chosen Exile” lies between those two genres and yet is something else altogether. It is a book that is at once literary, cultural, archival and social, crossing the borders of various approaches to the study of history in order to create a collage of a fascinating yet elusive phenomenon. Intrigued by the story of a distant relative who crosses the color line, Hobbs has followed this interest to explore the practice of passing with detail and rigor. Her writing is elegant, bubbling with curiosity even as it is authoritative and revelatory.

In order to cover this subject, Hobbs had to be innovative. It’s impossible to know how many African Americans passed for white, and how many crossed back over. A creative intellectual, she uses unpublished family histories, anthropological projects, sociological journals, personal papers, correspondence, court cases, newspapers, literature and film to reveal an important set of stories caught in the thicket of race in the United States…

Read the entire review here.

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