Faking Black identity: An American tradition

Faking Black identity: An American tradition

The New Pittsburgh Courier
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Robert Fikes Jr., Reference Librarian
San Diego State University, San Diego, California

The recent case of Rachel Dolezal, the White woman who reinvented herself as African American and headed the Spokane, Washington NAACP, is just the latest sensationalized instance of “passing.”  Though reports of Black and mixed-race individuals pretending to be White far outnumber reports of Whites masquerading as Black, curiously, this rare but persistent case has attracted considerable attention.

In the 1800s there were documented cases involving poor Whites kidnapped, declared mulatto, and sold into slavery. In the 1900s the typical scenario presented Whites as intimate partners of Blacks or Whites who lived among them and found it convenient to either manufacture Black ancestry or did nothing to rectify the misconception folks had that they were part Black. A well-researched example, detailed in the acclaimed biography Passing Strange in 2009 by Martha Sandweiss, is that of blue-eyed Clarence King who in the late 1800s was a renowned white scientist by day but by evening resumed his fake identity as James Todd, a Black Pullman porter who lived with his Black wife and their two biracial children in Brooklyn, New York.

More widely publicized was journalist John Howard Griffin who in the late 1950s managed to darken his skin sufficiently to pass as Black in order to report on the ordinary treatment of Blacks in the Deep South.  His experiences resulted in the both a bestselling book and movie of the same title:  John Howard Griffin “Black Like Me.”…

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