Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States on 2017-05-15 00:05Z by Steven

Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy

University of North Carolina Press
May 2017
230 pages
6.125 x 9.25, 12 halftones, notes, bibl., index
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-3283-4
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3282-7
eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-3284-1

Alisha Gaines, Timothy Gannon Associate Professor of English
Florida State University

In 1948, journalist Ray Sprigle traded his whiteness to live as a black man for four weeks. A little over a decade later, John Howard Griffin famously “became” black as well, traveling the American South in search of a certain kind of racial understanding. Contemporary history is littered with the surprisingly complex stories of white people passing as black, and here Alisha Gaines constructs a unique genealogy of “empathetic racial impersonation”–white liberals walking in the fantasy of black skin under the alibi of cross-racial empathy. At the end of their experiments in “blackness,” Gaines argues, these debatably well-meaning white impersonators arrived at little more than false consciousness.

Complicating the histories of black-to-white passing and blackface minstrelsy, Gaines uses an interdisciplinary approach rooted in literary studies, race theory, and cultural studies to reveal these sometimes maddening, and often absurd, experiments of racial impersonation. By examining this history of modern racial impersonation, Gaines shows that there was, and still is, a faulty cultural logic that places enormous faith in the idea that empathy is all that white Americans need to make a significant difference in how to racially navigate our society.

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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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Dying to Be Black: White-to-Black Racial Passing in Chesnutt’s “Mars Jeems’s Nightmare,” Griffin’s Black Like Me, and Van Peebles’s Watermelon Man

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-05-09 15:16Z by Steven

Dying to Be Black: White-to-Black Racial Passing in Chesnutt’s “Mars Jeems’s Nightmare,” Griffin’s Black Like Me, and Van Peebles’s Watermelon Man

Volume 28 / October 2004
pages 519-542
DOI: 10.1017/S0361233300001599

Baz Dreisinger, Associate Professor of English
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York

Is racial passing passé? Not according to contemporary book sales. The theme remains central to at least three recent best sellers: Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Roth’s novel made it to the big screen this fall, just as Devil in a Blues Dress, the adaptation of Walter Mosley’s novel starring Denzel Washington, did in 1995. Renewed academic attention is being paid, of late, to “classic” passing narratives; once-ignored ones, including Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars, are being revived; and still others being reread in the context of passing.

Read or purchase the article here.

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Faking Black identity: An American tradition

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-07-14 01:24Z by Steven

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.”…

Read the entire article 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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The white man who pretended to be black

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-02-23 21:45Z by Steven

The white man who pretended to be black

The Telegraph

Tim Stanley

With the release of the movie Selma, a lot of Americans are asking how far race relations have really come in the United States. On the one hand, the movie depicts the success of the Sixties civil rights crusade – its victory confirmed by Barack Obama’s election in 2008.

On the other hand, the recent deaths of young black men at the hands of white cops and vigilantes, and the resulting race riots, suggest that a lot of things haven’t changed at all. Whites may ask, “Why are working-class blacks angry? They have the right to vote and an African-American president – everything Martin Luther King Jr fought for.”

But some of the apparent triumph of black civil rights is a veneer. Racism isn’t just about law but about attitudes. Attitudes that are hard to change because of the gulf of understanding between different communities.

Can a white person ever really understand how a black person sees the world? Back in 1959, six years before Martin Luther King marched for civil rights in Selma, one man tried. A white Texan writer called John Howard Griffin walked into a doctor’s office in New Orleans and asked him to turn his skin colour black. Griffin took oral medication and was bombarded with ultraviolet rays; he cut off his hair to hide an absence of curls and shaved the back of his hands. Then he went on a tour of the Deep South.

The result was a bestselling book called Black Like Me, which is still regarded as an American classic. Griffin wanted to test the claim that although the southern United States was segregated it was essentially peaceful and just – that the two races were separate but equal…

Read the entire article here.

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Black Like Me

Posted in Autobiography, Books, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States on 2015-02-23 21:30Z by Steven

Black Like Me

Penguin Books
2003-05-06 (originally published in 1961)
208 pages
Paperback ISBN 9780451208644

John Howard Griffin (1920-1980)

In the Deep South of the 1950s, journalist John Howard Griffin decided to cross the color line. Using medication that darkened his skin to deep brown, he exchanged his privileged life as a Southern white man for the disenfranchised world of an unemployed black man. His audacious, still chillingly relevant eyewitness history is a work about race and humanity-that in this new millennium still has something important to say to every American.

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White Negroes

Posted in Course Offerings, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2013-01-17 16:37Z by Steven

White Negroes

Guy Foster, Assistant Professor of English

Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine
Africana Studies/Gender and Women’s Studies
Spring 2013

Close readings of literary and filmic texts that interrogate widespread beliefs in the fixity of racial categories and the broad assumptions these beliefs often engender. Investigates “whiteness” and “blackness” as unstable and fractured ideological constructs. These are constructs that, while socially and historically produced, are no less “real” in their tangible effects, whether internal or external. Includes works by Charles Chesnutt, Nella Larsen, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, John Howard Griffin, Sandra Bernhard, and Warren Beatty.

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Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture

Posted in Arts, Books, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, Social Science, United States on 2009-11-24 19:27Z by Steven

Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture

Duke University Press
July 2000
272 pages
12 b&w photographs
Cloth ISBN: 0-8223-2479-2, ISBN13: 978-0-8223-2479-9
Paperback ISBN: 0-8223-2515-2, ISBN13: 978-0-8223-2515-4

Gayle Wald, Professor of English
George Washington University

As W. E. B. DuBois famously prophesied in The Souls of Black Folk, the fiction of the color line has been of urgent concern in defining a certain twentieth-century U.S. racial “order.” Yet the very arbitrariness of this line also gives rise to opportunities for racial “passing,” a practice through which subjects appropriate the terms of racial discourse. To erode race’s authority, Gayle Wald argues, we must understand how race defines and yet fails to represent identity. She thus uses cultural narratives of passing to illuminate both the contradictions of race and the deployment of such contradictions for a variety of needs, interests, and desires.

Wald begins her reading of twentieth-century passing narratives by analyzing works by African American writers James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Fauset, and Nella Larsen, showing how they use the “passing plot” to explore the negotiation of identity, agency, and freedom within the context of their protagonists’ restricted choices. She then examines the 1946 autobiography Really the Blues, which details the transformation of Milton Mesirow, middle-class son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, into Mezz Mezzrow, jazz musician and self-described “voluntary Negro.” Turning to the 1949 films Pinky and Lost Boundaries, which imagine African American citizenship within class-specific protocols of race and gender, she interrogates the complicated representation of racial passing in a visual medium. Her investigation of “post-passing” testimonials in postwar African American magazines, which strove to foster black consumerism while constructing “positive” images of black achievement and affluence in the postwar years, focuses on neglected texts within the archives of black popular culture. Finally, after a look at liberal contradictions of John Howard Griffin’s 1961 auto-ethnography Black Like Me, Wald concludes with an epilogue that considers the idea of passing in the context of the recent discourse of “color blindness.”

Wald’s analysis of the moral, political, and theoretical dimensions of racial passing makes Crossing the Line important reading as we approach the twenty-first century. Her engaging and dynamic book will be of particular interest to scholars of American studies, African American studies, cultural studies, and literary criticism.

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Race, Passing, and Cultural Representation
  • 1. Home Again: Racial Negotiations in Modernist African American Passing Narratives
  • 2. Mezz Mezzrow and the Voluntary Negro Blues
  • 3. Boundaries Lost and Found: Racial Passing and Cinematic Representation, circa 1949
  • 4. “I’m Through with Passing”: Postpassing Narratives in Black Popular Literary Culture
  • 5. “A Most Disagreeable Mirror”: Reflections on White Identity in Black Like Me
  • Epilogue: Passing, “Color Blindness,” and Contemporary Discourses of Race and Identity
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
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