Passings That Pass in America: Crossing Over and Coming Back to Tell About It

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2010-12-15 19:44Z by Steven

Passings That Pass in America: Crossing Over and Coming Back to Tell About It

The History Teacher
Volume 40, Number 4 (August 2007)
32 paragraphs

Donald Reid, Professor of History
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

TEMPORARILY PASSING as an other is a universal fantasy and a not uncommon practice. From Arab potentates dressed as commoners to check on the governance of their realms, to women going into combat as male soldiers, it has a long history, and passing is a phenomenon of particular resonance in the contemporary United States. In the affluent postwar decades, the belief that the middle class would come to encompass all was challenged by white middle-class exclusion of African-Americans from membership in this classless utopia, and of women from a patriarchal order. Today, this ideology of prosperity has changed; it is now predicated on the permanent existence of extremes in wealth and poverty, the unrelenting insecurity of an unconstrained market society and the emotional costs of gender norms. These are the contexts for the appearance of a number of widely-read accounts of race, class, and gender passing in the United States. 

 American culture glorifies the self-made man and this self-making extends to individual identity. The United States celebrates geographical and social mobility and the very anomie this produces is also the site of secular rebirths. In this essay, I will examine a literary genre that draws upon the American faith in self-transformation in an effort to confront the social boundaries that define its limits: narratives of white middle-class individuals who seek to live as an other for a while with the aim of revealing to their social group of origin its role in creating and sustaining the marginalization and oppression of the other whose identity they temporarily assume. John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me and Grace Halsell’s Soul Sister and Bessie Yellowhair were products of an era when the challenges that racial integration presented to white middle-class society gave new impetus to the tradition of participant-observer social scientists and journalists living as workers and reporting on the experience. I conclude with a reading of recent accounts of inter- and intra-class passing: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch, and Norah Vincent’s memoir of gender passing, Self-Made Man

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