The Burdened Virtue of Racial Passing

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, Philosophy, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2022-05-16 19:38Z by Steven

The Burdened Virtue of Racial Passing

The Boston Review

Meena Krishnamurthy, Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

A still from Rebecca Hall’s film Passing, based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen. Image: Netflix

Though a means of escaping and undermining racial injustice, the practice comes with own set of costs and sacrifices.

In Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, adapted by Rebecca Hall and distributed on Netfli­x last fall, Clare Kendry—a light-skinned Black woman—decides to pass as white. Clare grows up poor in Chicago; after her alcoholic father dies, she is taken in by her racist white aunts. When she turns eighteen she marries a rich white man who assumes she is white. Clare makes a clean escape until, some years later, she runs into her childhood friend, Irene Redfield, at a whites-only hotel; Irene, it turns out, sometimes passes herself, in this case to escape the summer heat. The storyline traces their complex relationship after this reunion and ends in tragedy for Clare.

Hall’s film adaptation joins several other recent representations that dramatize the lived experience of passing. The protagonist of Brit Bennett’s best-selling novel The Vanishing Half (2020), for example, decides to start passing as white in the 1950s at age sixteen after responding to a listing in the newspaper for secretarial work in a New Orleans department store. Much to her surprise, after excelling at the typing test, Stella is offered the position; her boss assumes she is white. Initially Stella keeps up the ruse just to support her and her sister, but passing also becomes a way for her to escape the trauma of her father’s lynching and the prospect of her own…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Tale of Hollywood’s Most Curious Career Imposter

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-09-01 02:44Z by Steven

The Tale of Hollywood’s Most Curious Career Imposter

Messy Nessy: Cabinet of Chic Curiosities

Francky Knapp

Korla Pandit (John Roland Redd)

Sex sells, and it sells even better with a dash of mystery. For every housewife in mid-century America, the enigmatic charm of Indian performer Korla Pandit was the ticket to getting weak in the knees before the kids came home from school. In the 15 minutes allotted to The Korla Pandit Program, the performer brought a scintillating new rhythm to suburbia’s ho-hum beat. Every week, he’d grace the small screen and play the sultry sounds of Miserlou with a coy smile, wearing a bejewelled turban, and flashing those soul-searching bedroom eyes. It was all part of his schtick, of course, and one of the most strangest in Hollywood history, given that Pandit wasn’t Indian, but African American. Today, the persona he created opens up a dialogue about race, fame, and surprising flexibility of truth…

Korla Pandit (John Roland Redd) as a child

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Notes on a Lifetime of Passing

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Media Archive, Passing on 2017-09-27 04:20Z by Steven

Notes on a Lifetime of Passing

The New Yorker

Trey Ellis, Associate Professor
Graduate School of the Arts
Columbia University, New York, New York

How do we remember how we crafted ourselves to an audience the last time we met? Luckily, I’ve had years of practice.
Photograph by Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty

Thanks to my parents transplanting me often from one ethnic mix to another, I’ve become something of a code-switching connoisseur.

I share the head of the table in the conference room in Columbia’s Faculty House with a distinguished professor from the University of Southern California. We are the featured guests for the latest Columbia University Seminar, a prestigious academic lecture series that has been running continuously since 1945. I am the invited “respondent/discussant” for the presentation of the Dartmouth professor Mark Williams’s paper “Passing for History: Humor and Early Television Historiography.” All the serious, eminent professors and doctoral candidates lining each side of the table nod and take notes when Williams references visual and televisual “indexicality.”

As soon as he finishes, we clap, and immediately the array of eyes home in on my own. Outwardly, I spend a lot of time thanking everyone who can possibly be thanked. Inwardly, I obsess about my lowly and decades-old B.A., my ignorance of the word “indexicality,” and how one of the assembled Illuminati at any moment, surely, in the middle of my talk, will burst to his feet and shout, like Congressman Joe Wilson at Barack Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address, “You lie!

See, I’m not a real professor, but I play one in arts school.

I was invited to respond that night because I’d written a screenplay about the period discussed, and because, thirty years earlier, soon after graduating college, I had written an essay called “The New Black Aesthetic,” which over the years has allowed me a back-door entrance into proper academic conferences such as this one. My actual job, teaching screenwriting as an associate professor of professional practice in the School of the Arts at Columbia University, is technically academic, but really arts-academic, which is to say academic-adjacent. Nevertheless, as I enter my tenth year of passing for a real professor, I find myself less and less inclined to correct those who mistakenly call me one.

You see, passing is like that. The real Harvard Business School professor and TED Talk rock star Amy Cuddy’s advice to “fake it till you become it” is a corollary to long-term passing. Or, as the veteran screenwriter William Goldman phrased it in the title of his second acidic Hollywood memoir, “Which Lie Did I Tell?”..

…So, at that Columbia seminar, despite my terror of being outed, the subject of the discussion was delicious to me. Thanks to Professor Williams’s work and exhaustive research by the rock critic R. J. Smith, I learned about Korla Pandit, a.k.a. Cactus Pandi, a.k.a. Juan Rolando, a.k.a. John Roland Redd. Pandit was a kitsch fixture of Los Angeles television in the nineteen-fifties, a mesmerizing, bejewelled-turbaned Indian swami in a sharp Western suit. For fifteen minutes every evening, first locally and then nationally, he wordlessly seduced the camera, swaying and staring, almost as unblinking as the lens, while effortlessly noodling on his Hammond organ or a piano, no sheet music, never looking down, as fluid Orientalist melodies undulated from the keyboards as if Pandit were about to conjure endless ranks of grinning, dancing cobras.

Housewives swooned before his image: exotically light-brown, crowned in his tight bejewelled turban, never, ever speaking. The ultimate mystery man, from 1948 to 1953 Pandit was becoming fabulously famous. Then, after a contract dispute with his syndicator, he was replaced by another keyboard player who went on to use the very same sets, only this guy was always smiling instead of cool and smoky, in a white tie and tails, a lit candelabra reflected in the black gloss of the grand piano’s lid. Pandit resented Liberace for the rest of his life.

Both of them were passing. Liberace as straight when he was gay, Korla as an Indian when he was a black St. Louisan, born John Roland Redd. Redd had moved to Hollywood in the nineteen-thirties, and, like all black musicians, had to scrounge for gigs, since he was barred from the union. He then simply changed his name to Juan Rolando and started playing all over town. A few years later, his identity crossed the South Pacific to become Korla Pandit, a New Delhi-born musical prodigy, classically trained at the University of Chicago. The prodigy part was true: he was a brilliant and sought-after pianist for radio and high-profile Hollywood gigs. In the nineteen-forties, he and his white, blond wife (they married in Tijuana, where interracial marriages were legal) regularly partied with Errol Flynn and Bob Hope

Read the entire essay here.

This essay appears in the forthcoming collection of essays “We Wear the Mask.”

Tags: , , , ,

Color Lines: Racial Passing in America

Posted in Arts, Audio, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Louisiana, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-01-17 03:03Z by Steven

Color Lines: Racial Passing in America

BackStory with the American History Guys (A program of the Virginia Foundation of the Humanities)
Charlottesville, Virginia

M. H. Kimball portrait of Isaac White and Rosina Downs, two New Orleans slave children, c. 1863. (Library of Congress).

On this episode of BackStory, the Guys will consider how and why Americans throughout the centuries have crossed the lines of racial identity, and find out what the history of passing has to say about race, identity, and privilege in America. We’ll look at stories of African-Americans who passed as white to escape slavery or Jim Crow and find out how the “one-drop rule” enabled one blonde-haired, blue-eyed American to live a double life without ever arousing suspicion. We’ll also explore the story of an African-American musician who pioneered a genre of exotic music with a bejeweled turban and an invented biography, and examine the hidden costs of crossing over.

Guests Include:


  • The Spark of Recognition
    • Historian Carol Wilson tells the story of a New Orleans slave named Sally Miller, who sued for her freedom after a German woman became convinced that Sally was really a long-lost German girl named Salomé Müller.
  • Double Image
    • Historian Martha Sandweiss explains how the one-drop rule enabled a blue-eyed, blonde-haired geologist named Clarence King to lead a second life as a Black Pullman porter, without ever drawing suspicion.
  • “Code-Switching”
    • Listener Johanna Lanner-Cusin, who identifies as black, talks about people’s assumptions about her race, not having experiences similar to darker African Americans, and “qualifying her blackness.”
  • Blood Brothers
    • Historian Annette Gordon-Reed illustrates the fluidity of race with the stories of two sons of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, one of whom passed into white society while the other lived his life as an African-American.
  • High Stakes
    • Sociologist Eva Garroutte tells the story of Sylvester Long, a multiracial man who rose to silent film stardom in the 1920s after adopting the persona of an “authentic” Native American—until it all came crashing down.
  • Passing In, Passing Out
    • Brian Balogh talks with historian Allyson Hobbs about an enormous but overlooked cost of racial passing: leaving one’s family, community, and heritage behind.
  • “Guess Your Ethnicity”
    • Listener Vasanth Subramanian wishes society allowed him to choose his identity. He talks in detail about the prejudices children of immigrants face.
  • Drawing the Line
    • The Guys explain how American slavery practices created racial boundaries, and, at the same time, complicated them.
  • Playing Indian
    • Producer Nina Earnest explores the boundary between passing and performance with the story of John Roland Redd, an African-American organist who donned a bejeweled turban and rewrote his life story to become “Godfather of Exotica” Korla Pandit.

CORRECTION: This show includes a story about Sylvester Long, a man of mixed descent who styled himself as a pure-blooded Native American named Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance. We refer to him as a movie star who published a famous autobiography. In fact, Long Lance published his autobiography first—the popularity of the book catapulted him into movie stardom.

Listen to the podcast (01:05:14) here. Download the podcast here.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Lib at Large: Documentary tells odd story of Korla Pandit, ‘godfather of exotica’

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-11-12 16:07Z by Steven

Lib at Large: Documentary tells odd story of Korla Pandit, ‘godfather of exotica’

Marin Independent Journal
San Rafael, California

Paul Liberatore

Marin has been home to some fascinating characters over the decades, but probably no one has been as mysterious and exotic as Korla Pandit, an organ-playing, turban-wearing sex symbol of 1950s daytime TV.

In a 1975 article in the Independent Journal, reporter Ernest Murphy described Pandit as “a puzzle inside an enigma wrapped in a turban.”

While housewives swooned over his doe-eyed gaze on the music show he starred in for KGO-TV in San Francisco, he lived with his wife and two children in the erstwhile Hall McAllister mansion in Kentfield.

He said the 70-year-old house reminded him of his privileged childhood in New Delhi as the son of a Brahmin priest father and a French opera singer mother. The grand old house enhanced his mystique as “the godfather of exotica,” but it was a kind of false front, a facade. He was only renting it temporarily before its owner had it torn down.

Two years after Pandit’s 1998 death in a Petaluma hospital at age 77, journalist R.J. Smith exposed his true identity in a 2001 article in Los Angeles Magazine, “The Many Faces of Korla Pandit.” His fans were shocked to learn that their swami dream boat wasn’t born in New Delhi, far from it. He wasn’t even Indian. He was a light-skinned African American, born in Columbia, Missouri, in a family of seven children. His father was pastor of the largest black church in town and his mother was of Creole heritage. His real name was John Roland Redd. He attended a segregated school in Missouri and showed talent as a pianist and later as an organist…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , ,

Korla Pandit — Disguising identity: From Black to Indian

Posted in Articles, Biography, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-10-21 02:43Z by Steven

Korla Pandit — Disguising identity: From Black to Indian

Northwest Asian Weekly
Seattle, Washington
Volume 34, Number 43 (October 17 – October 23, 2015)

Andrew Hamlin

Korla Pandit

Two hands hold a large censer. A voice speaks of wisdom and rubies. A deep, slightly scraggly voice. The action fades-in to a man in a turban with a jewel mounted between his eyes. Fixing his eyes upon the camera, Korla Pandit begins his act.

And his act was the Hammond Organ, augmented with a Steinway piano to his right. Playing mostly organ, occasionally piano, sometimes one with each hand, Pandit played for fifteen minutes on Los AngelesKTLA-TV from 1949 until 1951. He did not rock and roll and he did not get down and dirty with the blues, but he flitted easily between all other types of music, playing popular tunes, show tunes, traditional, and ethnic music from around the world. He was one of the first television stars, but he never spoke on camera. The narrator off-screen was someone else.

And Korla Pandit had reason to never speak. Speaking might have given away his secret…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , ,

He presented an abstracted yet alluring version of India without even a semblance of authenticity.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2015-10-14 21:10Z by Steven

The story of John Roland Redd a.k.a. Korla Pandit is unlike any I’ve encountered in popular culture. He presented an abstracted yet alluring version of India without even a semblance of authenticity. Korla represented the Far East as viewed through the eyes of the West. That speech comparing rubies to wisdom, for instance, comes not from anything in the Hindu religion but is a paraphrase of Proverbs 8:11 from the Old Testament. Even more obviously, the electric organ is not remotely Indian in nature. From what I can determine, the instrument was largely developed and popularized in the United States. However, the eerie and unearthly tones Pandit/Redd was able to conjure from it seemed to transport listeners to an exotic world of mystery, some indefinable place far away. That was the real magic behind what he did.

Joe Blevins, “The Greatest Pretender: Korla Pandit, music’s most magnificent fraud,” Dead 2 Rights: A Folksy Down-Home Blog, May 19, 2013.

Tags: , , , , ,

The Greatest Pretender: Korla Pandit, music’s most magnificent fraud

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-10-14 18:09Z by Steven

The Greatest Pretender: Korla Pandit, music’s most magnificent fraud

Dead 2 Rights: A Folksy Down-Home Blog

Joe Blevins

A few of Korla’s two dozen albums. You might notice a recurring visual motif on the LP covers.

“For wisdom is better than rubies, and all things to be desired are not to be compared unto it. We bring you musical gems from near and far, blended into a pattern of glorious harmony, a program based on the universal language of music. It is our pleasure to present to you…”

Korla Pandit spoke not a word when he was on camera. He just wore a bejeweled turban, played the organ… and stared. That was the extent of his act. It was all he needed — the shimmery tones of his music, the vague evocation of the Far East, and that indelible Mona Lisa countenance with its piercing dark eyes and intriguing half-smile. It was a potent combination which carried him along for nearly half a century. And yet, Korla Pandit never really existed at all. It depends, I suppose, on your definition of “existed.” Either way, his story is one of the most implausible and oddly inspiring in the history of popular music.

I first encountered Korla Pandit without any clue to his identity or knowledge of his past. Portraying himself, Korla made a memorable cameo in Tim Burton’s 1994 film, Ed Wood. In the scene, notorious director Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Johnny Depp) is holding a wrap party for his 1955 sci-fi/horor anti-epic, Bride of the Monster. The wild celebration, attended by Bela Lugosi and the other oddballs and grotesques who orbited Wood, is held in the meat-packing plant of the film’s major backer, wealthy rancher Donald McCoy (Rance Howard). While the carcasses of slaughtered animals hang from hooks all around them, the revelers are treated to a suggestive dance routine performed by Wood himself, costumed as a harem girl. Korla Pandit, immaculately attired in a Nehru jacket and the ever-present turban, accompanies him on the organ with a composition called “Nautch Dance,” referring to a seductive style of dance popularized in early-1900s India…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Exotic Korla Pandit hid race under swami persona

Posted in Articles, Biography, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-10-13 20:21Z by Steven

Exotic Korla Pandit hid race under swami persona


Jessica Zack

Eric Christensen grew up in San Francisco in the 1950s and remembers his mother, “like a lot of women then, being transfixed by Korla Pandit on television. He wore a jeweled turban and had these mesmerizing eyes that made women feel he could see right through them. Korla was this otherworldly, captivating guy, and we all thought he and his music were from another land.”

Christensen, who lives in Mill Valley, and his former KGO TV colleague John Turner of Berkeley have chronicled Pandit’s life story in their new documentary “Korla,” which has its Bay Area premiere at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora on Aug. 20.

From his first 1949 episodes of “Adventures in Music” on Southern California’s KTLA, Pandit rode an almost 50-year-long wave of success — as a TV sensation, prolific recording artist (13 albums with Berkeley’s Fantasy Records) and “grandfather of exotica music” — based not only on his keyboard prowess but on his enigmatic swami persona.

With his heavily kohl-rimmed eyes and upturned half-smile, Pandit coaxed unusual sounds from the Hammond B-3 organ, playing “musical gems from far and near” — faux-Polynesian sounds, Hawaiian war chants, “hypnotiques” — while extolling the virtues of “divine consciousness” and “the universal language of music.”

Yet, unbeknownst to his legions of fans until after his death in Petaluma in 1998, at age 77, Pandit’s hypnotic Svengali look and supposedly Hindu name were part of an expertly crafted fiction of self-invention. A magazine profile by R. J. Smith in 2001 revealed that Pandit was actually African American, a minister’s son born John Roland Redd, from Columbia, Mo

…The film incorporates interviews with music and sociology experts — including Carlos Santana (who likens Pandit to Miles Davis), The Chronicle’s Radio Waves columnist Ben Fong-Torres and UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus Harry Edwards — as well as with Pandit’s nephew Gary Cloud, to examine, says Christensen, “this amazing act, even by show business standards. This wasn’t an act that occurred onstage for an hour or two, this was 24/7, all through his life. Korla put on this persona and couldn’t take it off. Living a lie on a daily basis must have been very difficult.”

“Korla’s life story illustrates what African Americans knew at the time: ‘If I can be anything other than black, my life could change dramatically,’” says Stanford University Assistant Professor of History Allyson Hobbs, whose new book “A Chosen Exile” explores the stories of individuals who passed as someone else racially from the late 19th century through the 1950s. “If they could just twist people’s perception of them even one degree — in this case, from black to another minority — doors previously closed would open.”…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Musician’s life brings more than passing interest in passing

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-10-13 17:15Z by Steven

Musician’s life brings more than passing interest in passing

San Francisco Chronicle

Leah Garchik, Features Columnist

As colleagues at KGO-TV, Eric Christensen and John Turner — Eric was a sports producer, John a news editor/arts producer — shared a passion for exotic cultural phenomena. Retired, they’ve combined know-how with that passion to make the doc “Korla, the Movie,” about organist Korla Pandit.

Turban-wearing Pandit, who said he was born in India, had his own TV show in the late ’40s and early ’50s. He was known for playing exotic “foreign” music. He was living in Petaluma when he died, in 1998. A subsequent magazine profile revealed that he was African American, born in Missouri.

A documentary about Pandit as an exotic performer — the likes of Yma Sumac — would be interesting at any time. But now, in the midst of a national discussion about identity that intensified with the recent revelation that Rachel Dolezal had chosen to identify as black, the movie’s tale of “passing” seems particularly relevant. It will be shown Aug. 20 at the Museum of the African Diaspora…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , , ,