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: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Many Faces of Korla Pandit

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-09-22 19:58Z by Steven

The Many Faces of Korla Pandit

Los Angeles Magazine
June 2001
pages 73-77, 146-151

RJ Smith, Senior Editor

He was a handsome holy man, an organ virtuoso, a star from the East. Korla Pandit mesmerized generations–while keeping a secret until his dying day

Korla Pandit wandered the West, from big cities to hamlets, throughout his life. Wherever he went, he made the ground beneath his feet seem like the center of a vast turning wheel. However much he was on the move, he let those surrounding him feel they were the ones in motion. People—intersting, glamorous, bizarre people—came to him hoping he’d show them how to get to where he so blissfully stood. They wanted to feel his peace.

He was in his mid seventies when I met him seven years ago. We talked at a coffee shop that no longer exists, in what was the first of many conversations. I was interviewing him about the lounge music revival, which had led to a modest boost in the old man’s career. Soon I became one more neophyte snared by his beatific smile, his mysterious eyes, his strange stories of séances with Marilyn Monroe and how Liberace had stolen his very soul. When you got near Korla Pandit, he took you to some synthetic place.

He came, he explained, from halfway around the world. He had a privileged childhood in New Delhi, where his father, a Brahman, was a government bureaucrat and friend of Gandhi’s. His mother mas a French opera singer. Korla was playing the piano at the age of two; by five he was a prodigy. able to perform complicated pieces after hearing them only once. He studied in Europe, then came to the United States when he was 12. and later attended the University of Chicago.

As Korla prepared to leave his family behind and begin the life of a professional musician on the stages of the West, his father gave him a warning: “Son. get your education first. Show business is a dangerous world. You’re a hero today and a bum tomorrow.” In recounting the story Korla would pause and then add, “Well, he sure knew what he was talking about.” Korla came anyway, and he conquered the West, or at least the West Coast, and especially Los Angeles. His TV show, Adventures in Music with Korla Pandit, was the first all-music show on television, and Korla was one of the first stars of the medium.

As it happened, I attended the last performance Korla ever gave. It was in 1998 in San Francisco, at a lounge renovated to 1950s vintage called Bimbo’s. There were paintings of clowns, and the carpet, banquettes. and walls were as red as tenderloin. A mermaid swam in a large aquarium over the bar. Bimbo’s was a lot like Korla himself. an exemplar of a distant time that once embodied suave sexuality but now registered as camp…

…There was a joke made often in the vicinity of Korla, passed along by any who spent time with him. Everybody who told it seemed to think they were the first to make the crack. The thing about Korla, we’d say, was that while he never spoke on his television show, in person he was hard put to stay quiet. Korla loved to talk, about India and his past and the meaning of life. But for all the talking he did, he kept a secret, one that he protected all his life. Korla Pandit wasn’t his real name, and he wasn’t Indian at all. He was African American…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , ,