Lost Boundaries: How a UNH student inspired one of America’s first “race films” and why we’re still talking about it

Posted in Articles, Biography, Communications/Media Studies, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2022-05-09 02:34Z by Steven

Lost Boundaries: How a UNH student inspired one of America’s first “race films” and why we’re still talking about it

New Hampshire Magazine

J. Dennis Robinson
Portsmouth, New Hampshire

A Johnston family portrait. From left to right, standing: Albert Sr. and Albert Jr. From left to right, seated: Thyra, Paul, Ann and Donald.

How a UNH student inspired one of America’s first “race films” and why we’re still talking about it

Albert Johnston Jr. was 16 when he found out he was Black. His fair-skinned African American parents had been “passing” as white, they told him, since moving from Chicago to rural Gorham, New Hampshire, and later to Keene. His father had been the town’s country doctor with 2,500 white patients. He was an active member of the school board, the Masons and the Rotary. His mother Thyra was a two-time president of the Gorham Women’s Club and active in the Congregational Church.

Born in 1925, growing up skiing the White Mountains, Albert had only a single Black acquaintance in high school. In an era of widespread racial segregation and discrimination, he felt a seismic shift as he adapted from a dark-skinned Caucasian to a light-skinned Negro. Formerly gregarious, he drew inward. He attended and then dropped out of Dartmouth College. He enlisted and left the Navy, talked of suicide, battled with his parents, and spent time in a psychiatric ward.

Then Albert took a road trip. Decades before Ken Kesey and “Easy Rider,” with only a few dollars in their pockets, Albert and an old school chum named Walt hitch-hiked and hopped freight trains from New Hampshire to California. For Albert, it was a spiritual journey into the homes of his long-lost African American relatives and into the roots of Black culture. For Walt, who was white, it was a great adventure with a good friend. After odd jobs, a love affair and a stint at the University of California in Los Angeles, Albert found his way home. Renewed and focused, he enrolled in the well-regarded music program at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. And there in a UNH college lounge in front of 20 fellow students, Albert (Class of ’49) finally laid his burden down. During a seminar on the “race problem” in America, the topic turned to “cross-bred” people. He could offer some insight on that topic, Albert told his classmates, because he, himself, was a Negro. The room got very still, he later recalled, like the sudden silence after the climax of a concerto.

“Why not tell everybody?” Albert said. “Why carry a lie around all your life?”…

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‘Pinky’ and the Origins of Interracial Oscar-Bait

Posted in Articles, Communications/Media Studies, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-03-03 17:36Z by Steven

‘Pinky’ and the Origins of Interracial Oscar-Bait

Bitch Flicks

Hannah Graves
Department of History
University of Warwick, Coventry, United Kingdom

This guest post by Hannah Graves appears as part of our theme week on Interracial Relationships.

Twentieth Century-Fox’s Pinky is far from the first Hollywood feature film that depicts an interracial relationship. Despite the evolution of various censorship codes that forbid depicting “miscegenation,” Hollywood has a rich history of mining the salacious or elicit potential from interracial pairing on screen, from Broken Blossoms to Duel in the Sun, Showboat to Imitation of Life. Yet, Pinky was quite distinct in tone from the films that came before it.

Produced by Fox’s studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, Pinky was part of a spate of post-war social problem films that earnestly sought to address topical issues. Studios promoted these films as evidence that their medium was maturing, littering their advertising with exaggerated claims about the power of their pictures. As one of Pinky’s screenwriters, Phil Dunne, wrote in a New York Times article, “What we say and do on the screen in productions of this sort can affect the happiness, the living conditions, even the physical safety of millions of our fellow citizens.” Pinky is best understood at the starting point for a new Hollywood trajectory for interracial relationships onscreen: the worthy Oscar-bait drama that claims to enlighten as it entertains and serves as a conduit for fostering tolerance in the presumed white audience. It is a tradition that informs films from A Patch of Blue and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to Monster’s Ball and the forthcoming Loving

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Consolidated Colors: Racial Passing and Figurations of the Chinese in Walter White’s Flight and Darryl Zanuck’s Old San Francisco

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2012-11-30 22:40Z by Steven

Consolidated Colors: Racial Passing and Figurations of the Chinese in Walter White’s Flight and Darryl Zanuck’s Old San Francisco

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S.
Volume 37, Number 4, Winter 2012
pages 93-117
DOI: 10.1353/mel.2012.0064

Amanda M. Page, Visiting Assistant Professor of English
Marywood University, Scranton, Pennsylvania

Narratives of racial passing frequently investigate how the boundaries of race can be reimagined. In these texts, the dominant black-white binary construction is often under scrutiny for its failure to accommodate the identifications of people who do not fit easily in either category. Throughout US literary history, many passing narratives have also challenged the logic of the “one-drop” rule, codified into law in the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson. Gayle Wald explains how the “one-drop” principle shapes racial categorization in US culture:

By representing “whiteness” as the absence of the racial sign, [“one-drop”] has perpetuated the myth of white purity (a chimera that colors contemporary liberal language of the “mixed-race” offspring of “interracial” marriages). In a complementary fashion it has rendered the political and cultural presence of Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans invisible (or merely selectively and marginally visible), thereby enabling the hyper-visibility of African Americans as that national “minority” group most often seen as “having” race. (13–14)

This construction presents whiteness as raceless, while the burden of racialized identity is shifted to African Americans. With this belief in white purity comes the expectation that racial impurity is something that visibly marks the black body. The passing subject, however, often challenges the expected hyper-visibility of the African American by subverting the cultural assumption that racial identity is visible. Though “one drop” is legally significant for a mulatta/o subject, the act of passing can resist the confines of legislated racial categorization by crossing the racial barriers meant to deny the full rights of citizenship to nonwhite peoples.

Just as the “invisible” passing subject often threatens the purity of white identity, so, too, does the existence of those other “invisible” peoples Wald describes. Because Native Americans, Latina/os, and Asian Americans do not fit into the black-or-white construction of race as defined in Plessy,1 these groups, like mulatta/o passing subjects, create problems of racial categorization. Authors of passing narratives frequently use characters from other binary-disrupting groups to draw parallels between the racial ambiguity of these groups and the passing subject. In one such passing narrative, Walter White’s novel Flight (1926), a Chinese figure is used to disrupt the conventional trajectory of the passing narrative and to offer an alternative vision of racial solidarity. In Flight, the heroine, Mimi Daquin, crosses the color line to gain the economic opportunity that would be denied to her if she continued to live as a black woman. Instead of permanently “crossing the line” to live as a white woman at the conclusion of the novel, however, White’s mulatta heroine returns to living as a black woman because of an encounter with a radical Chinese intellectual, Wu Hseh-Chuan. This Chinese intermediary, like the mulatta heroine, disrupts the US’s narrative of race as either black or white; White’s strategic deployment of these two characters works as a double challenge to the dominant construction. Furthermore, White draws on the connection of these characters as outsiders with subversive potential when Hseh-Chuan advocates for an international unity of people of color against global white supremacy. This encounter directly leads to Mimi’s racial reawakening, as Hseh-Chuan makes her realize the value of African American culture in its resistance to white racism.

Yet White’s move toward internationalism in his passing narrative does not indicate a trend toward greater inclusiveness in the culture, as even the passing trope—often a tool of African American activist authors trying to undermine racism—continued to serve contradictory agendas. Released only a year after White’s novel, the 1927 Warner Brothers film Old San Francisco puts a unique twist on the usual black-to-white passing narrative by depicting a Chinese American passing subject as a dangerous alien threat to (white) American identity. Written and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and directed by Alan Crosland, Old San Francisco tells the story of a Spanish…

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