Sandweiss unearths a compelling tale of secret racial identity

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Identity Development/Psychology, New Media, Passing, United States on 2010-08-23 16:10Z by Steven

Sandweiss unearths a compelling tale of secret racial identity

News at Princeton
Princeton University

Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

For three decades, history professor Martha Sandweiss had wondered about a little-noticed detail in the life of Clarence King, a well-known figure in the history of the American West. King, a 19th-century geologist and author, was a leading surveyor who mapped the West after the Civil War.

Back in graduate school, Sandweiss had read a 500-page biography of King that devoted just five pages to a secret, 13-year relationship that King, who was white, had with a black woman.

“Thirteen years, five pages? It just didn’t seem right to me,” said Sandweiss, a historian of the American West who joined the Princeton faculty last year.

A few years ago, Sandweiss decided it was time to investigate. Poring through census documents that were available online, she was able to discover in a matter of minutes that King, who was blond and blue eyed, had been leading a double life as a white man passing as a black man.

“Once I uncovered that, I knew I had to try to unravel the story,” she said.

The result is “Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line,” published earlier this year by The Penguin Press…

…But the most amazing part of King’s story is that someone with fair hair and blue eyes was accepted as a black man. He managed it, Sandweiss said, because of the so-called “one-drop” laws passed in the South during Reconstruction, which declared that someone with one black great-grandparent was considered legally black.

“The laws were meant to make it very difficult to move from one racial category to the other,” Sandweiss said. “Ironically, they made it very possible to do that, because you could claim an ancestry — or more often hide an ancestry — that was invisible in the color of your skin.”…

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