Black Like Malcolm: Rewriting of Black Like Me (1961) in Soul Sister (1969)

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-04-06 02:01Z by Steven

Black Like Malcolm: Rewriting of Black Like Me (1961) in Soul Sister (1969)

Volume 58, Number 1, Winter 2016
pages 35-58

Martha J. Cutter, Professor of English and Africana Studies
University of Connecticut

Many students and scholars of American literature and history have heard of, if not read, John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1961), the autobiographical account of a white reporter who takes medication to darken his skin and pass for black in the Jim Crow South in the late 1950s in order to investigate racial prejudice. When first published, Black Like Me was lauded as a powerful text about racial injustice and employed as a standard part of some high school curricula; the work also eventually was translated into fourteen languages, hit the best-seller list in England and France, and became a multimillion-copy best seller in the United States. Black Like Me has since fallen into critical disfavor and is rarely taught in high schools, yet some of my students still know the title and can recount the plot, and contemporary African American artists such as Glenn Ligon nevertheless make overt reference to it. Very few students and scholars are familiar with Grace Halsell’s underexamined and now out-of-print memoir Soul Sister (1969), a sort of sequel to Griffin’s more famous text, in which a white female reporter undergoes the same sort of transformation to pass for black. Yet Halsell’s text does more than parallel Griffin’s process of racial transformation—it also rewrites it. Griffin has been critiqued by (among others) literary critics such as Gayle Wald for portraying himself as the white protagonist of his own civil rights drama; according to Wald, Griffin’s book “largely fails to represent black people acting as social and political agents.” Through examination of the historical context in which both texts were written—the emergence of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements—this essay demonstrates that Halsell attempts to revise Black Like Me’s focus on a portrait of black powerlessness, pathos, and lack of voice; she also uses her narrative to articulate a plural construct of black subjectivity that cannot be contained by her own experience of blackness, by her own racial passing.

Of course, eight years separate the publication of these texts, watershed years in which black political movements became both more prominent and more radicalized, especially after the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Halsell (writing in 1969) inserts a political context of social activism, civil rights, and ultimately black power. Yet both reporters mobilize political context (or a lack of political context) to further certain narrative goals that in the end result in divergent approaches to the concept of black political struggle, as well as the function and meaning of white racial passing. Griffin evacuates political context to focus on a portrait of black misery; in so doing, he forwards a static, monolithic conception of black identity as one of unchanging abjection. Halsell, on the other hand, fills her text with political debate and contradictory black political positions; she thus presents a multivalent representation of black political engagement while also probing racial formation itself. Each text therefore seeks to use the genre of the white-passing narrative to motivate readers toward social change, but this change is grounded in different subject positions articulated for the reader. Griffin’s narrative attempts to move his readers to action by portraying a picture of black victimization and misery, whereas Halsell’s endeavors to revolutionize her readers by depicting her own transition into black militancy. And while Griffin’s narrative invokes a mode of social activism present from the earliest days of the Abolition Movement—pity and supplication—Halsell portrays a mode of political activism in which the oppressed seize power and become agents of social change.

Most importantly, Halsell also portrays a white failure—ultimately—to speak for African Americans or even fully comprehend their struggle; at key junctures, her text instead turns back onto itself as an exploration of white racial privilege and power. Wald has noted that racial passing, in addition to signifying a manner of being seen “according to the technologies of vision…

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22nd Annual David Noble Lecture featuring Robin D.G. Kelley

Posted in Biography, Live Events, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2016-04-26 20:31Z by Steven

22nd Annual David Noble Lecture featuring Robin D.G. Kelley

Best Buy Theater
Northrop Auditorium
84 Church Street, SE
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455
Tuesday, 2016-04-26, 19:00 CDT (Local Time)

Robin D.G. Kelley, Distinguished Professor of History & Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in United States History
University of California, Los Angeles

The 22nd Annual David Noble Lecture will feature Robin D.G. Kelley. His talk is titled “‘A Female Candide’: U.S. Empire, Racial Cartographies, and the Education of Grace Halsell, 1952 – 1986.” Kelley’s talk focuses on Texas-born journalist Grace Halsell, who spent part of the Cold War as a foreign correspondent, including a stint in Vietnam, working as a staff writer under President Lyndon B. Johnson, and engaged in investigations into U.S. “internal colonies.” She chemically darkened her skin and lived as a black woman in Harlem and Mississippi, resulting in her book, Soul Sister; she published Bessie Yellowhair about living as a Navajo and working as a housekeeper; and The Illegals, a book about passing as an undocumented worker from Mexico. In the course of her travels and experiments in racial passing, the worlds she encountered undermined the conceits she grew up with. Halsell’s world view, schooled in Cold War liberalism, Southern paternalism & white supremacy, and domesticity, begins to unravel especially after her stint in Vietnam, and even more so when she turns her attention to the U.S., its ghettos, reservations, borders and finally to Palestine. So in some ways, this is a classic loss of innocence story.

For more information, click here.

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White people have been passing for black for centuries. A historian explains.

Posted in Articles, History, Interviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-06-17 21:32Z by Steven

White people have been passing for black for centuries. A historian explains.


Dara Lind, Jetpack Comandante

The story of Rachel Dolezal — the now-former Spokane NAACP president whose parents have claimed she’s white — has opened up an enormously complicated debate about race and identity in general, and blackness in America in particular.

Dolezal has presented herself as “black, white, and American Indian/Alaskan Native,” but her estranged parents say she’s simply white and has been trying to deceive everyone. When the scandal attracted national attention, Dolezal resigned from her NAACP presidency — without saying anything about her race.

Examples of white people passing as black are much less common than the reverse, but there’s still historical precedent for what Dolezal did. Baz Dreisinger, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, traced the history of white passing in a 2008 book called Near Black. I talked to Dreisinger about how white passing has worked over time, and asked her whether there is ever a legitimate way to “cross-identify” with black culture.

Dara Lind: Can you give us a brief rundown of the history of white people passing as black in America?

Baz Dreisinger: It’s not like this was a massive chapter in American history, like traditional racial passing, which is a massive chapter. But I think people are shocked to discover that there is actually this history of white people who’ve passed as black and that Rachel Dolezal is hardly the first person to come along and do it, and in fact the way that she did it is in line with a number of historical examples.

In the context of slavery, there are both real and fictional accounts of white people who became enslaved — sometimes white people from the North who are kidnapped and sold into slavery as black. In a sense, passing for black becomes secondary to passing for slave. The idea is that the economic basis of this trumps the racial basis — not that they’re separate.

In that context, obviously, there was no change of appearance necessary. But in the 20th century, there’s a technology of passing that has to happen in order for the passing to be successful. Some people dyed their skin black and passed as black — the most famous example of that is John Howard Griffin, who wrote a memoir of his experience passing for a black man in the South during the era of Jim Crow. It’s called Black Like Me. He did it for a temporary experiment; he literally sat under the sun lamp and darkened his skin in order to do that. And there’s a woman who did a similar experiment to Griffin, whose name was Grace Halsell, who actually spent much of her life doing experimental passings — she passed as Native American, she passed as working-class — in order again to write exposés about what it’s like to be those things. So she wrote a memoir in the ’60s called Soul Sister, where she went through the same experiment Griffin did, only 10 years later, she’s in the North in Harlem as well as in the South, and her whole concept was, “I want to see what it’s like as a woman to do this.”

I think music is the most powerful place where we’ve seen this sort of passing happen, and also cultural appropriation — in many ways, my book is as much about cultural appropriation as it is about passing. You have a character like Eminem who’s clearly not passing, but is bringing up all these questions about cultural ownership and cross-racial identification — what does it mean to own a culture? Is there such a thing as owning a culture? Passing is a difficult thing to do today, given the legacies of cultural appropriation, of the metaphorical ripping off of black culture that we’ve seen — and, especially in music, appropriation where there’s literally not a credit being given and also not financial remuneration being given for cultural products that were inventions of nonwhite people…

Read the entire interview here.

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Whites pass for black to gain empathy, experts say in wake of Dolezal case

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-06-13 23:39Z by Steven

Whites pass for black to gain empathy, experts say in wake of Dolezal case

USA Today

Melanie Eversley, Breaking News Reporter

In history and in many black American families, there’s talk of black people passing for white, especially during the days of Jim Crow laws or slavery when it benefited them or even saved their lives.

But not as much has been written about the white people who pass for black or adopt black culture — from celebrities who adopt traditionally black hairstyles and vernacular, or, as social media has been abuzz with since Thursday, Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP Spokane, Wash., branch president whose parents say she is white.

English professor Alisha Gaines, who is publishing a book about white people who pass for black, says the phenomenon is rooted in a need to identify and empathize with black culture. Some people throughout history have passed for black as a way to immerse themselves in the experience, says Gaines, who teaches at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

One of the people referenced in her book, Black for a Day: Fantasies of Race and Empathy, is Grace Halsell, a late journalist who posed as a black woman for a few weeks in the deep South and wrote about her experiences in a book titled Soul Sister

…The main reason people choose to pass for black is they have a need or desire to promote civil rights and racial justice, says Marcia Dawkins, author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity

…Author and educator Nikki Khanna believes it also can be about being accepted.

“Maybe for this particular woman — it seems as if she cares about African-American issues, she heads the chapter of the NAACP in Spokane, I don’t know if she felt that was her way of fitting in,” says Khanna, who has studied how biracial Americans identify in terms of race

Read the entire article here.

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Soul Sister (30th Anniversary Edition)

Posted in Autobiography, Books, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2015-06-13 23:37Z by Steven

Soul Sister (30th Anniversary Edition)

Crossroads International Publishing
1999 (Originally published in 1969)
212 pages
6.9 x 4.2 x 0.6 inches
Paperback ISBN: 978-0967401300

Grace Halsell (1923-2000)

The Story of a White Woman Who Turned Herself Black and Went to Live and Work in Harlem and Mississippi Delta.

Grace Halsell changed the color of her skin and sojourned through Black America as a “soul sister.”

Few whites have had the guts to embark on such a hazardous adventure. Grace Halsell’s ordeal as a black-skinned American is a unique and deeply moving story of what it is really like to be black in a white world. From Harlem to the Mississippi delta, her experiences reveal the hard and bitter truth about men and women trapped in a desperate struggle for survival, identity, and originality.

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