Racial Passing: A Comparative Reading of Jessie Fauset’s "Plum Bun" and Nella Larsen’s "Passing" and "Quicksand"

Thesis (M.A.) 2006 94 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

Foreword / Abstract

1. The Phenomenon of ‘Racial Passing’
1.1 The Passer
1.2 Laws and Beliefs

2. Passing in Literature
2.1 The ‘Tragic Mulatto’
2.2 The Octoroon

3. Other Forms of Passing

4. The Novels
4.1 Racial Passing in the Novels
4.1.1 Chiaroscuro
4.1.2 Polemics
4.1.3 The Return Home
4.1.4 Secrecy
4.1.5 The Death of the Heroine
4.2 Passing for What?
4.2.1 Helga’s Passing for an Identity
4.2.2 Sexual Passing
4.2.3 Are PB, Q and P Conventional Passing Stories?




Our mind is capable of passing beyond the dividing line we have drawn for it.

Beyond the pairs of opposites of which the world consists, other, new insights begin.

- Hermann Hesse

In the modern America of today, racial passing and its incentive seem like relicts from a bygone segregationist past. In a society that ostensibly grants equal rights and opportunities to everyone regardless of color and ethnicity, the pretense of a different racial background appears as unnecessary, even pointless. Strange to say that in 2000, a novel by Philip Roth aroused great interest not only in the Unites States. The Human Stain was made into a successful movie and has spurred new discussions of the passing subject, its causes and consequences in newspapers, books and online communities[1]. CBS, for instance, has featured an article on people living “a double life”[2] and in 2003 a book by New York University Professor Brooke Kroeger was published in which she presents people that have experienced different types of passing.

This advertence seems to be the result of a clear trend towards the revival of passing as a theme of interest. In the 90s, two highly praised novels that featured passing plots were published - Danzy Senna’s Caucasia and Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist. Several memoirs that evolve around the topic likewise caught attention; examples include The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip or Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black by Gregory Howard Williams. Television as well has rediscovered passing and broadcast a new reality show called “Black.White”[3] in 2006. It depicts two families - one black, one white - who for the duration of the series will, with the help of skillful makeup artists, pass for the other ethnicity and share their experiences with each other. Both families admit that they are treated differently in their disguise; the white-turned-black mother, for instance, finds herself put off with several obvious pretexts when applying for a job in a predominantly white store.

The fact that the passing still exists in the 21st century is a proof for the notion that (not only) African Americans still have to face discrimination, prejudice and disadvantages and therefore sometimes prefer to live as white. It also points out the circumstance that a mixed heritage renders a person black or at least biracial. The option to be white is still passing, although the phenotypical and social reality of many individuals may be different. Hermann Hesse, whom I quoted above, surely had not racial passing in mind but his reference to the human tendency to think in binaries is fundamental to the subject. Dichotomous thinking may come natural to us, but our mind has the ability to look beyond it.


In the following, I would like to give a brief abstract of my thesis. Chiefly, I want to explore three major novels of the Harlem Renaissance - Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) as well as Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun (1929). As all of them deal with racial passing, this issue will be the topic of the first part in order to provide an insight into the matter. The main focus will be on black-to-white passing, which is primarily a cultural phenomenon of the United States. After a definition of the term with the help of several basic typologies, I would like to proceed to concomitants like secrecy, the question of guilt and the white people’s view on passing. Subsequently, the passer ought to be the focus of closer examination, followed by an exploration of laws and folk beliefs evolving around the mulatto as the typical passing figure. After this theoretical embedding, I will take a closer look at passing in literature including an analysis of the emergence of the phenomenon as a literary genre. Additionally, the passing figure in literature, the “tragic mulatto”, is to be investigated. Concluding, a chapter on other forms of passing shall be added for the sake of completeness.

In the second part, these theoretical cognitions are supposed to be employed to find an approach to the novels that are going to be examined with regard to the matters that evolve around passing, i.e. the secrecy involved, the return home and the tragic death of the heroine. Juda Bennett’s list of similarities among passing novels is supposed to provide a framework here. Afterwards, other forms of passing depicted in the novels will come to the fore including an examination of racism in connection with sexism.

1. The Phenomenon of ‘Racial Passing’

When the term ‘passing’ is mentioned, most people immediately think of black-to-white passing, but in fact, this nomenclature refers to the crossing of any line that divides social groups, i.e. Jews can pass for Gentiles, Polish immigrants for Germans, Chinese Americans for Japanese, and so forth. Although this ‘racial passing’ seems to be the most common type, there are numerous others, among them gender passing, which means to live as a member of the opposite sex. Also, there are myriad kinds of social passing like the pretense of heterosexuality in order to avoid discrimination (Sollors: 1997, p.247f.).

Nonetheless, this thesis is supposed to focus on racial passing. The notion that black-to-white passing is the most frequent type is true, although there has been, and still is, some white-to-black passing as well, for example among musicians who might try to appear more authentic, among partners in an interracial marriage, or even among people that want to take advantage of affirmative action benefits. These other kinds of passing will be examined in chapter 3.

Before I continue, I would like to give some figures on passing. How many people actually crossed the color line is hard to estimate as there are, given the secrecy necessary for passing, no reliable data, yet innumerous estimations. The issue is even more complicated due to the fact that many people passed daily but only part-time, e.g. for job purposes. To provide an approximate dimension, I want to include some rough figures. Werner Sollors states that Carl van Vechten, white patron of several writers and outspoken Harlem supporter, guessed that about 8000 African Americans per year crossed the line (1997, p.281). He also refers to Charles S. Johnson, sociologist and advocate for civil rights, who estimated in 1925 that about 355,000 people had passed between 1900 and 1925; a number that, annualized, is twice as high as van Vechten’s estimate. The black magazine Ebony again stated in 1948 that there are as many as 5 million “white Negroes” living in the states. Van Thompson cites the sociologists Burma and Bond in his work, who estimated that in 1946, 2,500 people had passed (p.6). Bennett states that tens of thousands crossed the line and identifies the years between 1880 and 1925 as heyday, which was also the height of the passing genre (p.2). Whatever number may be closest to the truth, it is certain that the years between 1880 and 1925 saw the most passers as these were years of intense violence against African Americans.

In the following I would like to elaborate on several fundamental definitions. First of all, racial passing means that an individual crosses a racial line or boundary in order to escape the suppression that the original identity entails. By assuming a new identity, one hopes to access the privileges and status connected with it. Usually, this requires geographical movement as the passer has to leave the environment that is aware of his/her true identity and move into one where it is unknown. Basically, passing - and not just racial passing - is about the conception and implementation of a new identity and its subsequent benefits and downsides (Ginsberg, p.2f.).

This procedure can be grouped into different typologies, for example, as Sollors asserts, voluntarily vs. inadvertently vs. involuntary (1997, p.250). Obviously, the emphasis here lies on the question whether the decision to pass was a conscious one. In the first case, the voluntary passing, the individual deliberately opted for it. However, there are of course several possible push and pull factors that may account for the decision; among them is simple opportunism, which basically means the desire for economic advancement, for example through a job that would not have been accessible in the genuine ethnicity. Another important motive is certainly love as most of the time in American history, miscegenation was illegal or at least tabooed; so in order to be able to marry, one partner sometimes passed for white. However, marriage was also an instance where an odd form of white-to-black passing occasionally occurred. As the one-drop-rule, which will be discussed in chapter 1.2, clearly stated that a single African American ancestor, however far removed, makes a person legally ‘black’, some spouses used this argument to evade judicial consequences of their love: they merely had to find an ancestor of mixed blood or unclear heritage to become non-white and therefore eligible for marrying their African American partner.

Other, more political reasons, include the escape from slavery; a motivation that applies to the early stage of passing, i.e. the 19th century before the end of the Civil War in 1865; nevertheless, political grounds like discrimination and restrictions remained valid for a much longer time. Social motives comprise the wish to flee the hypocrisy and narrowness of black life and a desire for occasional thrills. Interesting are also investigative intentions like Walter White’s adventurous exploration of white attitudes towards the race problem and segregation by passing for white. In such a context, passing could also be used for the preparation of political acts of revenge or subversion.

Inadvertent and involuntary passing as the two other types in this typology are much more casual and do not imply a conscious decision by the individual. In the case of inadvertent passing, someone is mistaken for white and fails to protest (Sollors: 1997, p.250). This is, to quote as an example one of the novels analyzed in this thesis, what happens to Irene Redfield in Nella Larsen’s Passing as after her fainting, she is taken to a café in a ‘white’ hotel by a cab driver because he assumes her to be white. Being too weak to look for another café that will admit blacks, Irene remains silent and passes. Later, however, the reader discovers that this has not been the first time for her to do so, and that she sometimes passes for social convenience. Thus, to me it appears that the borders between inadvertent and voluntary passing can be blurred as it is hard to determine when the conscious decision begins or prevails.

Kroeger presents a real-life example of inadvertent passing when she introduces a white woman who due to her engagement to a black man socializes mainly in the black community. It is not until after several years that she figures out that everyone in the small town she resides in assumes her to be African American. Her confession is rather embarrassing and consequentially leads to her relocation (p.60f.).

Involuntary passing happens when somebody else decides for a person that (s)he needs to pass. This could, for example, occur when people are too young to make such a decision as it will probably be the case with children when the parents are crossing the color line. Imaginable is also a similar scenario in instances involving orphans, foundlings, or switched babies (Sollors: 1997, p.250). Whether the genuine ethnicity is unidentified and the person in charge just assumes the child to be white, or whether the origin is indeed known and purposely concealed and changed does not matter as the outcome is the same. Additionally, errors on the side of the record takers are possible, which means that a black individual is listed as ‘white’ on the birth certificate and official documents due to a faulty assumption about the person’s ethnicity.

Apart from this typology, there are numerous other categories that can be applied, e.g. full-time, part-time and segmental passing as also identified by Werner Sollors (1997, p.251). Whereas the first one means permanent passing, part-time and segmental passing can be passing just for job purposes or for social convenience to avoid segregation in restaurants, theaters, clubs, hotels, buses, and so forth, and could be viewed as “commuting out of and back in the black race” (Sollors: 1997, p.251). Additionally, passing can be differentiated by the question whether it is permanent for the duration of a lifetime, or only in a shorter or longer period in life. Van Thompson states in his work The Tragic Black Buck that permanent passing was outnumbered by part-time passing, for example among people who worked in a ‘white’ workplace during the day, yet returned to black life at night. That was because many part-time passers strived for economic advancement and most well-paid jobs were only available for whites; a fact that uncovers one of the manifold reasons for the decision to cross the line (p.7).

Furthermore, passing can be arranged by the individual alone who keeps it a strict secret or it can be revealed to some confidants like siblings, family, friends or protectors. Also, there are successful and unsuccessful instances of passing. Additionally, there are many more possible differentiators; among the more important ones is definitely the question whether the act of passing poses a source of conflict or not. This can be the steady anxiety the individual possibly lives with, stemming from the terror of discovery, maybe by an old acquaintance, maybe just by the failure to relate to one’s earlier life. It could also have more idealistic reasons, like the feeling of being a ‘coward’ or a ‘deserter of race’, as these accusations towards passers were rather commonplace. Other passers simply miss their past, family and friends, and feel as though they have forfeited the links to their actual lives.

Interestingly enough, one of the term’s connotations is ‘death’ as ‘passing away’ is a euphemism for dying. In this sense, one could say that the passer experiences a sociological death and rebirth as (s)he is “as completely removed from his old life as if he were actually dead” (Sollors: 1997, p.252). After the ‘passing’, (s)he is reborn as a new (white) person and personality. As the step usually includes the denial of acknowledgement of family or friends in public when in company of new white partners or acquaintances, the feeling of ultimate disappearance is mostly mutual; thus, the ones left behind often refer to the passer as ‘gone’.

Obviously, passing allows for manifold conflicts; however, such problems are not necessarily involved as the example of James Weldon Johnson’s ‘ex-colored man’ shows. He enjoys his role as “trickster of society” (Sollors: 1997, p.253) and deliberately tries out various lifestyles. Also, Langston Hughes often called passing “a joke on our whites” (Sollors: 1997, p.253) and hence names another allurement of the phenomenon: the game of seeing but not being seen accompanied by the opportunity of gaining insight into the ways and attitudes of white folks. Some passers also feel as though they obtain a position from which they can contribute to the ‘uplift’ of the race, be it through money, connections or insider knowledge. Unfortunately, this resolution is often deferred or forgotten as in the case of Angela Murray in Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun, who rather uses this noble intention to suppress her qualms.

Yet another interesting question is how the whites regarded passing. Naturally, most of them opposed it and were afraid of possible passers as they felt they were a threat to their hegemony and ‘racial purity’. Hence, the era of passing also brought forward considerations about how to detect whether a person is truly white. One of the numerous, widely held beliefs was the notion that eyes, fingernails and other body parts would, upon close examination, more often than not give away a person’s real ethnicity (Sollors: 1997, p.143). Popular was also the belief that a passer’s progeny would reveal the family’s ancestry, which is the reason for Larsen’s Claire Kendry in Passing not to have more than one baby: “‘I nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born for fear that she might be dark. (…) I’ll never risk it again. Never!’” (Larsen, p.25). From the whites’ fear of passing, an entire science of ‘race-reading’ evolved, which I will elaborate on later in this text.

After having looked at possible reasons for and typologies of passing, I would like to address the origins and history of black-to-white passing. According to Elaine Ginsberg, it emanated from the times of slavery, when black slave women were often sexually exploited by their masters (p.4). Their offspring inherited their mothers’ status although they were not ‘black’ by appearance. As by and by the phenotype of numerous slaves became lighter, some of them must have dared to escape under the pretense of being white. During slavery, passing for white thus meant passing into freedom. Emancipation after the Civil War did not bring about full social and legal equality; therefore, racial passing did not wane but continued until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s after which it became dated.

An early example of passing into freedom is the story of Ellen and William Craft, who escaped slavery in 1848. Ellen, who was light-skinned, dressed up as a nobleman whereas William took the part of ‘his’ slave. In this masquerade, they traveled from Georgia to Boston that was located in a free state. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1859, which provided for fugitive slaves to be returned to their former owners, forced them to move on to England, where they remained until the aftermath of the Civil War. William Craft published their adventures in an autobiographical novel named Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom in 1860. The Crafts’ story is not only remarkable because it is among the most notorious and dramatic escapes from slavery, but because of its circumstances in terms of passing as well. Ellen Craft did not only pass for white, but also for male, because a white woman would not have been likely to travel alone with her male slave. Additionally, she also had to assume the rule of the master to her actual husband, and thus became a protection for him although he assuredly felt he should have protected her. Consequentially, William finds himself in “double-property” by his “white master” and by his wife, which is usually the position that the woman has to take (Ginsberg, p.49). The Crafts’ story raises questions about the usefulness of such categories as white / black and male / female as they are easily reversed, which only emphasizes their arbitrariness.

After the abolition of slavery, passing did not recede because social equality for African Americans was not achieved, and the following Jim Crow era with its segregation laws that affected all areas of life, such as transportation, education, housing, marriage, etc. made it attractive for a high number of light-skinned blacks to cross the color line in order to gain the same privileges as the whites. In fact, the years between 1880 and 1925 were the height of passing and many African Americans decided that they would rather live as white (Bennett, p.2). Consequently, this period of time was also the heyday of the passing narrative. These high figures are also explainable with the fact that an increasing number of African Americans did have the phenotypical opportunity to pass since already in 1850, a census stated that 11% of the African Americans were mulattoes, which Bennett claims to be a “gross undercount” (p.46). Additionally, various socio-economic changes caused shifts in demographics and made, along with the general trend to urbanization, passing more possible.

In the next chapter, I want to provide some information on the passer.

1.1. The Passer

Naturally, a black person who wanted to pass for white needed to have a complexion light enough to appear as dark European, e.g. as an Italian, a Spanish, or a Gypsy. Occasionally, the potential passer was even pale and blonde so that the laws that deemed him/her black seem more ludicrous than ever as they insisted on declaring someone ‘black’ who is so very obvious ‘white’. This is, for example, the case with Passing ’s Clare Kendry who has “ivory skin” and “pale gold hair” (Larsen, p.19).

The right hair texture was the second prerequisite that a passer needed as straight or wavy hair as opposed to frizzy hair would not raise suspicion. Thirdly, thin lips and a high-bridged nose were crucial to the successful undertaking of passing as Negroid features like a flat nose or thick lips gave away the heritage no matter how light-complexioned one was (van Thompson, p.3). In addition to looks, language and manners also played an important role as the use of Standard English positioned one closer to whiteness whereas slang and black dialect suggested the belonging to the minority as did misconduct.

The imitation of whites in speech, behavior, and garment was necessary for fruitful passing. Van Thompson speaks of ‘mimicry’ in this context, which he traces back to the binary of “field nigger” and “house nigger” in the times of slavery (p.15). The latter was usually a mulatto as they were regarded as superior to the full-blooded Negro and hence preferably seen inside the house, and since they oftentimes initialized this stereotype, they began to take pride in their heritage and imitated the manners of the white master. Apart from their appearance that supported passing, such a position also allowed them to obtain appropriate manners and other skills that helped them pass later, which I think is an interesting point because obviously, the proper phenotype did not guarantee successful passing and adequate language and behavior was certainly an asset.

Likewise, attitude and determination were essential to master the complex social issues that evolve from passing, e.g. the geographical movement, which involved the need to abandon family and friends, the possible conspiracy with helpers who conceal the passer’s identity, the self-denial that emerges with the excogitation of a faked life story and the denial of one’s own blackness, and the scruple whether the made choice was the right one. In addition, most passers had to live with the constant anxiety of being unveiled, be it through a mistake they make, or because they are unmasked by an old acquaintance, or even by giving birth to a dark child. Chesnut’s novel The House behind the Cedars (1900) also suggests certain rules for successful passing, as there were limited or no communication with black relatives and friends, avoidance of discussions concerning the race topic as well as the evading of the limelight (van Thompson, p.30).

1.2. Laws and Beliefs

After this introduction to passing and the passer, I would like to clarify the circumstances that have led to a phenomenon unique to the Unites States that must therefore be rooted in the country’s laws as well as in the people’s attitudes. In this chapter, laws and beliefs concerning the mulatto will be examined as the mulatto is, as predefined, the usual passer.

As Graham remarks in her book, mulattos are a perfectly normal biological occurrence, but unfortunately sometimes pose a sociological problem as they struggle between two cultures and two ethnicities (p.280). Likewise, the mulatto’s environment has to deal with these circumstances and is not always successful in doing so, as the example of the United States shows, in which in the 1830s the growing number of mulattos caused a debate about whether Africans and Europeans were of the same genus. Scientists were wondering if the differences in the phenotype of the two races were merely due to climatic and geographic variations or if they suggested different genera whose shared progeny would be sterile and degenerate. A lot of them, among them the sociologist Henry Hughes, deduced that Europeans and Africans were too distinct to be of the same kind and that consequentially, mulattos as their offspring had to be perverted. Hughes later even asserted that mulattos were ‘monsters’ (Rogers, p.166).

This contemptuousness of the mulatto may partly stem from the repudiation of interracial relationships that in the eyes of many simply did not exist. The children of mixed ancestry were a proof for amalgamation that was impossible to ignore even by the most obstinate people; thus, they felt the need to mark them at least as inferior and degenerate. Also, it must have been unacceptable for many whites to be of the same genus as Africans as they felt superior towards them; so if the mulatto featured the same characteristics as other ‘crossbreeds’, it would adequately demonstrate the discrepancy between Africans and Europeans.

Apparently, the term ‘mulatto’ that, according to Rogers and other scholars, originates from the Latin mulus, entered the language of the American South in the middle of the 17th century (p.168). The derivation from a word that means ‘mule’ hints at the widespread belief that mulattos are sterile as they were assumed to be the offspring of two distinct genera just like the mule, which descends from a male donkey and a female horse.

Werner Sollors, however, states that the term is of Arabic origin and a form of the word muwallad, which can be translated as ‘mixed’. He adds that the term ‘mulatto’ itself was adopted from Spanish and has been in use in England since 1595. It was much later that it became intertwined with ‘mule’ suggesting a cross between two species (1997, p.128). Whatever the true origin may be, it is agreed on the fact that it is a racist term that was thus not used by mixed people themselves. Yet, in the 1980s/90s, a change of mind began and many authors as well as intellectuals adopted the term (1997, p.128). Today, it is used primarily in Latin America and is only of minor importance in the United States, where the labeling ‘African American’ usually comprises everyone of visible African or part-African ancestry.

Another typical term of the 19th century was ‘hybrid’ which means ‘half-breed’ and is actually used for animals. Back then, it was accepted by many scholars as they regarded it as a neutral word. Important to mention in this context is Josiah Nott’s essay “The Mulatto a hybrid – probable extermination of the two races if the whites and blacks are allowed to intermarry” (published in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences in 1843) that was widely accepted and introduced the ‘mulatto sterility hypothesis’ (Sollors: 1997, p.128). Based on this thesis, numerous sociologists alleged that mulattos were a short-lived intermediary category as they were ostensibly sterile and would therefore not be able to reproduce. This predication along with the warning of a possible degradation of white blood and the consequent emergence of a weak, sterile human kind with a tendency to mental and physical decay caused many people, among them even biologists, to oppose and dread amalgamation.

With the support of many scientists, the myths of the mulatto’s sterility and low life expectancy became general opinion until they were put to rest in the early 20th century. An equally inane countermovement promoting the mulatto’s superiority (‘hybrid vigor’) based on the assumption that a mulatto inherits the best of both races was another way of dealing with the existence of the mulatto. Advocates of this notion were, for example, Theodore Parker and C.G. Parsons (Sollors: 1997, p.132).

The differentiation between whites and mulattos was of major importance for the legal system and hence, the critical factors were discussed and altered time and again. Initially, the term ‘mulatto’ was applied to persons with one European and one African parent only as it was defined in the Virginian legislature of 1666. Later, it became a general term for people of visible mixed heritage regardless of the degree; a circumstance that made no difference as mulattos were generally regarded as Negroes, which at that time still meant ‘slave’. Such a classification was necessary for the whites, because otherwise the creation of a free mulatto class would have deprived the masters of numerous slaves. Also, it would have been unclear how to treat the innumerous mulatto children born every year; thus, they were legally bound to their slave-mothers, not their white fathers. The law went so far as to state that the “father of a slave is unknown” (Rogers, p.169), which means that the genitor is legally unavowed as a rule. Of course, this was a way to protect any master who impregnated one of his female slaves as the question about who the genitor was would not be raised since it was not of the slightest importance to the child’s legal status.

In 1705, Virginia ruled that a mulatto is the child of an Indian, or the child, grandchild or great-grandchild of a Negro; a decision that makes the involved stereotypes very obvious as the amalgamation of white and black seems to take two additional generations to ‘vanish’ as opposed to Indian-white offspring. Patently, the important dividing line is not the border between mulatto and black, but the one separating mulatto and white as a mulatto is regarded as a black person whereas his/her offspring only two generations removed has the chance of becoming legally white (Graham, p.89f.).

These definitions varied from state to state and kept changing over the years. To maintain the ‘racial purity’ of the white race and to keep it from ‘darkening’, the laws became increasingly severe instead of laxer, until in 1910, one-sixteenth of Negro ancestry made a person officially colored (Graham, p.92). Soon, the so-called ‘one-drop-rule’, sometimes also named ‘traceable-amount-rule’ or ‘hypo-descent-rule’, was applied, which stated that any person with a black forefather, no matter how far removed, is not white and therefore black. Like the idea of passing that emerged from this unscientific rule, it is a phenomenon exclusive to the United States. Other countries with a mixed population like Brazil, South Africa, and many more define their ‘mulattos’ by appearance not by ancestry, which basically means that everyone who looks white, is white. In the States, however, the will of the state obviously excelled the visible body. The one-drop-rule was enacted by several states and had various implications: for one, it prevented “the formal recognition of an intermediate racial caste”. Additionally, it highlights apprehensions about the possible loss of ‘racial purity’ that could be spoiled by one single drop of black blood, and it also suggests the often presupposed absence of racial signifiers in whites and displays the common revulsion at the mere thought of interracial relationships (Sollors: 2000, p.147).

As aforementioned, these racial categorizations were important for criminal law as well as for civil lawsuits. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) is one case that made history as it approved de jure racial segregation in public facilities. In 1892, Homer Plessy, an octoroon with European appearance, took a seat in the whites-only section of a train and informed the train conductor of his racial ancestry to test the segregation law. Thereupon, Plessy was asked to travel in the colored section. When he refused, he was immediately arrested and put on trial. Eventually, the case was brought before the Supreme Court, where Plessy was charged guilty of violating segregation laws and was forced to declare himself colored in the future. This case later served as precedence for the ‘separate but equal’ adjudications in the United States (Wald, p.12).

The one-drop-rule was also of crucial importance for the laws banning interracial marriages that were always feared and mostly outlawed in the United States. In literature it was, to quote Vladimir Nabokov “one of the three utterly taboo themes in American publishing”, to others being pedophilia and unpunished atheism, and very likely to be rigorously censured until the aftermath of World War II (Zanganah). As late as in the 1930s, a Mississippi law made literature that favored or urged interracial marriage punishable; however, the mere representation of it could be perceived as incitation and thus lead to censorship. But even before this, interracial plots were for the most part dissolved in a way that an interracial relationship proves to be really an intraracial one. An example for this is Joseph Holt Ingraham’s novel The Quadroone, or, St. Michael’s Day (1841). What I find noteworthy is that apparently even Shakespeare’s Othello caused great unease in the United States due to its description of the liaison between Othello, who is black, and Desdemona, who is white (Sollors: 1997, p.4f.). Yet another literary example for the rejection of interracial relationships can even be found in Larsen’s Quicksand, where Helga relates the story of her white mother and black father, which causes an awkward vibe between her and Mrs. Hayes-Rore, who feels “that the story, dealing as it did with race intermingling and possibly adultery, was beyond definite discussion. For among black people, as among white people, it is tacitly understood that these things are not mentioned – and therefore do not exist” (p. 42).

A notorious example in this connection is the Rhinelander Case from 1924 that involved a woman named Alice Jones who got married to Leonard Kip Rhinelander on October 14 1924 in New York. The city’s divorce laws were very restrictive at that time and thus, annulments on various grounds were often the only possibility to cancel a marriage at all. Six weeks after the wedding, Rhinelander filed for annulment with the justification that his wife had deceived him about her racial ancestry. Apparently, Alice was able to pass and self-identified as white, yet she had never hidden her dark father from Leonard. Alice was forced to partly strip in the courtroom and it turned out that her body was several shades darker than her face, which led the jurors to the conclusion that Rhinelander must have known of her ancestry as it was proven that they had had sexual relations prior to their marriage. It has been suggested that Rhinelander had been forced into the annulment by his father and his extremely wealthy high-society family. The judge, however, denied his wish for annulment and so, the couple remained married until he sought a divorce in Nevada that had much laxer divorce laws. All in all, the case actually put passing on trial and assured the American public that passing could never remain unnoticed and is hence no reason for concern (Sollors: 2000, p.162ff).

Resulting from these constant discussions, considerations, and laws, a whole science of “race-reading” evolved. Many people claimed they were able to tell the race of a person by various means. Very popular was the method of examining a person’s fingernails because the nails of a person with black blood supposedly have a bluish tinge or at least dark moons, no matter how lily-white the person’s skin may be (Sollors: 1997, p.143ff). These ‘tell tale nails’ became so folksy that they appeared in numerous novels, e.g. in Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859), Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), Thomas Dixon’s The Sins of the Father (1912), and Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life (1933), and also in several Indian, German, French, and British texts, which proves that this misbelieve was very widely spread. In literature, race-reading is often performed by the passer himself because this self-examination is supposed to assure him/her of the fact that (s)he cannot be caught due to the lack of the aforementioned signs. In the course of the 19th century, the notion was extended and it was then believed that fingernails even gave away the nationality, so that by looking at them one could tell whether the person was English, German, Jewish, French, and so on.

There is an ironic anecdote that narrates an incident in the life of civil rights leader Walter White, who was fair-skinned and blue-eyed, and who could have easily passed permanently but chose to fight for the equality of African Americans instead. He often traveled as white to examine the everyday racism in the States, and one day became involved in a conversation with a man who claimed he was able to tell a near-white from a pure-white person by their fingernails. He took White’s hand, scrutinized it carefully and concluded that he was indubitable a white person; so much for the plausibility of race-reading (Sollors: 1997, p.147). Eventually, the fingernail-myth receded into the dimension of folkloric hearsay and is now largely forgotten.

The varying and changing regulations evoked great problems in the definition of race, especially in the judiciary. To name an instance, in order to define someone as 1/4 or 1/8 black, a proof for the ‘full-bloodedness’ of the African ancestor was necessary, and this was not always easy to do. Moreover, many contradictions occurred, for example the circumstance that less than 1/8 of ‘Negro blood’ rendered a person black in Arizona, Alabama, or Texas, but white in Louisiana, Nebraska, or Mississippi. Whereas in Virginia only somebody with exclusively Caucasian forefathers qualified as white, which excluded Native Americans as well, in Texas everyone who was not a Negro was white according to the Texas Criminal Statutes of 1906 (Sollors: 2000, p.6). With time, these formulations became even more complex and obscure, and sometimes produced ironical side effects, for example a 1913 law in Arizona that extended the prohibition of intermarriage to descendents of Caucasians and hindered them to marry Negroes, Mongolians, Natives Americans or progeny of these ethnic groups. Hence, a person of mixed ancestry could neither marry a Negro, Asian or Indian due to her/his white blood nor a white person due to her/his ethnic ancestry. For the same reason, (s)he was forbidden to marry someone of mixed ancestry. Legally, this person was forced to remain unwed (Sollors: 2000, p.7).

This last example should, along with the previous argumentation, demonstrate and clarify how abstruse and pointless the racial categorizations in the United States were and how the resulting circumstances could have led someone to passing for white.

Based on the definition of passing and the passer, the next chapters are now supposed to explore the adoption of the topic by literature, the emergence of the passing genre, and also the characteristics of the passing figure in literature.

2. Passing in Literature

Different types of passing have been depicted in literature well before black-to-white passing emerged. Then, the topic was not treated for the sake of itself but as a detail in the narration, usually in the form of ‘parvenu’ or ‘dressing up’ to pretend to be someone else. In Marie, written in 1835 by Gustave de Beaumont, passing was for the first time detached from merely ‘being a parvenu’ as the novel calls attention to the difference between the two kinds, for example by underlining the fact that poor and rich do not have impassible barriers and can change, whereas race is constant, and that there is a clear distinction between class uplift and racial uplift (Sollors: 1997, p.259).

The term passing in connection with racial passing has been used for the first time in want ads concerning runaway slaves, who were there referred to as “passing for free” or “passing for white” to direct the observer’s attention to the fact that these slaves might not be easily recognizable. The term soon entered literature, and was, for example, used in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851) in ads of the aforementioned kind. In opposite to this explanation given by Werner Sollors (1997: p.255), Juda Bennett states that the term probably comes from the ‘pass’ given to slaves by their masters to enable them to travel without being mistaken for runaways (p.35). Whatever the true origin may be, it is certain that authors were later inspired to include the phrase ‘passing for white’ as stock phrase.

Interestingly, passing for black occurred earlier in literature than passing for white, namely in James Fennimore Cooper’s The Spy, written in 1821, where the protagonist escapes imprisonment in the disguise of the black servant Caesar who trades places with him. Cooper can, by the way, also take the credit for having introduced the first mulatto character in American fiction in his famous work The Last of the Mohicans (1826) (Sollors: 1997, p.256).

Racial passing developed into a major theme in the 19th century. Whereas the 18th century writers had concentrated on interracial relationships, the 19th century ones shifted to their descendants, i.e. the mulatto characters and hence, the passing topic took the center stage. One example is Frank Webb’s The Garies and their Friends that was published in 1857. This novel did not mock the passer and his/her choice, but satirized the prejudices evolving around passing, e.g. the claim to be able to sense African blood (Sollors: 1997, p.262). Seventy years later, Nella Larsen will also scoff at such presumptions in her novel Passing, where Irene ponders about the ridiculous assertions that white people make about this topic: “White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot” (p.7f.). Another early example of the passing novel is William Wells Brown’s Clotel, or, the President’s Daughter (1853). This work is significant as it deals with a fact that was still a rumor back then, namely that the American president Thomas Jefferson had illegitimate progeny with one of his slaves. The novel denunciates the absurdities and cruelties of slavery, and was also among the first to make substantial use of the passing theme.

Brown and Webb were followed by many other authors, e.g. Charles W. Chesnutt, Frances Harper, and James Weldon Johnson, who continued to contribute to the literary exploration of the black people’s struggle and the passing theme. The portrayal of the passer’s double consciousness gained increasingly more relevance during the early years of the 20th century and was influenced by W.E.B. DuBois’ book The Souls of Black Folk (1903) in which he, among other issues, depicts the strifle of the African Americans who are constantly torn between being an American and being a Negro. Nella Larsen has carried this motive on in her novel Passing, where the suppressed parts of Irene’s identity are embodied by another character, Clare.

During the Harlem Renaissance authors like Walter White, Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen continued to explore the genre of the passing novel, but placed more emphasis on class issues than color. Traditionally, the passer came from the black bourgeoisie; then, (s)he was part of the black (upper) middle class and cared about manners, morals, and education. Especially the African American women’s perspective came to the fore due to Fauset and Larsen, both of who stressed the interconnection of color, class, and sexuality (Bell, p.106f). Langston Hughes is also among those who dealt with the topic, for instance in his short story “Passing” written in the form of an apologetic letter of a passer to his mother who he had to ignore in the street. Through this text Hughes criticizes passing as an individualized escape from racial suppression that can only help some but not the black community as a whole. This is symbolized in the young man who chose to abandon and to deny his mother, only to beg her for absolution later on because he is aware of the fact that he has left her, who cannot pass, behind.

An important difference between the 19th century writers and the ones of the Harlem Renaissance is that the former often chose passing to create dramatic twists and turns in the plot whereas the latter made it the actual subject worth of scrutiny instead of just a narrative device. This is especially valid for J.W. Johnson and Jean Toomer who offered deliberate observations on the subject (Bennett, p.98). The two authors that this thesis is mainly concerned with also took the same direction given that Fauset explored the emotional costs of swapping a life within the black community for the asserted advantages of living as white in Plum Bun, while Larsen truly expanded the genre by adding different layers to the passing theme.

From the 1960s on, the genre of the passing novel slowly began to lose its importance when Black Power and Black Aesthetic movements disapproved of African Americans who acted overly white, for instance by wearing conservative clothes, sporting straightened or processed hair and other visual signs that represented whiteness and suggested potential passing. The feeling of inferiority that had lingered among African Americans was increasingly replaced by black pride encouraged by the Back to Africa and Black Power movements. In addition, the attainment of civil rights made passing evitable, so that the phenomenon itself also ceased.

The next chapter ought to clarify who the typical literary passer is and how (s)he was depicted and employed by various types of novelists. Thereafter, a variation of the mulatto, the octoroon, will be analyzed.

2.1. The ‘Tragic Mulatto’

Typically, the passing figure is a mulatto as a prerequisite for crossing the color line is a skin color light enough to be taken for white. Usually, the mulatto has a white and a black parent; oftentimes, the mother is black and the (absent) father white. There are some exceptions from this rule, for example in the novels that this thesis deals with. Quicksand ’s Helga Crane has a white mother and a black father, and Plum Bun protagonist Angela Murray is the daughter of two African Americans. While her father is obviously dark, her mother is light enough to pass, so Angela must have her white complexion from her mother’s side.

In fact, the passer is not merely a mulatto but a ‘tragic mulatto’ and is sometimes also referred to as ‘white Negro’, quadroon, octoroon, or Creole (Bennett, p.1). This type derives from Williams W. Brown’s Clotel, or, the President’s Daughter (1853) where four of the five depicted light-skinned heroines die unhappily; however, Brown did not invent it. According to Graham, the origin can be traced back to an English story from 1711 and the character later reappeared in many African American works of fiction (p.22).

The term ‘tragic mulatto’ stems from the notion that persons of mixed white and black blood must suffer terribly from the contradictoriness of their origins and yearn to be white their entire life. Passing is oftentimes presented as the solution to this dilemma; at least, this is the concept that many white authors have applied to their use of the type that enjoyed great popularity in the antebellum period and was still a stock figure afterwards. Their ideology conveyed that ‘blood will tell’ and that the melancholic ‘tragic mulatto’ is a proof for the clear differentiation and incompatibility of the races. By contrast, the African American authors saw in him/her a symbol of the historical reality of racial interconnectedness and a proof for the fact that black and white are of one blood after all. Their novels often oppose the white narrative because the option to pass is usually rejected in favor of staying with the black community (Graham, p.39).

Writer and critic Sterling A. Brown has specified six elements that typically define the ‘tragic mulatto’ in (white) literature (Sollors: 1997, p.223f). Firstly, abstraction, which means a clichéd, exaggerated and generalized representation of the mulatto that constitutes a case instead of an individual. Secondly, the lack of diverse characters who could serve as true representatives of the environment and thirdly, a stereotyped gender division in which the mulatto men are more intelligent and hence more tragic in their fate than blacks whereas the women are beautiful yet doomed. Point four is intermingled with this, as it regards the underlying racialism that suggests that mulattos are more deplorable than blacks as they are more intelligent due to their white blood. Nonetheless, they suffer from the conflict of their heritage as the ‘white intelligence’ constantly collides with their ‘black simplicity’. Argument five concerns the readership whose interest in the character keeps it alive as they commiserate with the mulattos’ tragic fate that is due to their near whiteness. Therefore, the white writer is more likely to use the figure, which is Sterling’s last argument. He views the tragic mulatto as a product of the whites’ imagination that feel flattered by the notion that a mulatto owes his/her good traits to the influence of the white genes and that (s)he longs to be white. He deduces the shallowness of an audience that feels little pity for enslaved blacks but regards a person that is young, beautiful and only technically black as truly pathetic.

With the increasing importance of passing narratives, the mulatto became a significant literary figure. The first to portray people of mixed blood were the abolitionist writers of the 19th century, e.g. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Williams Wells Brown, J.T. Trowbridge, and many more. They wrote their novels to plead for justice for an oppressed group, and only a few of them were actually concerned with the actual personal struggle of an individual. The crucial question was, as phrased by Graham: “Can an institution which literally enslaves the sons and daughters of the dominant race be tolerated?” (p.281). Basically, they did not dare to affront the system of slavery itself, so they had to call attention to the circumstance that there were numerous progeny of white, southern aristocratic gentlemen that were enslaved. The perception seems to be that a black person is not as pitiable as a white or nearly white one, and that the latter fully understands the iniquitousness (s)he has to endure whereas the Negro does not.

The outline of the abolitionist stories involving a tragic mulatto is usually not very diverse. The child of a master and his slave inherits the mental capacities and attractive appearance of his/her father, which means of the supposedly superior race. Still, (s)he remains a slave and is inevitably treated like one. The resulting bondage makes the mulatto rancorous and melancholic, thus (s)he rebels against his/her oppressors. If his/her struggle is fruitful, (s)he turns into a happy, prosperous, respectable citizen; if not, (s)he meets his/her tragic death bravely and without remorse (Graham, p.281).

During the Reconstruction era, when the conflict between the whites’ monopoly of privileges and the Negroes’ request for rights grew more serious, the writers divided into two groups with opposing attitudes. The pro-slavery authors seldom mentioned mulattos because in their worldview miscegenation and hence mixed bloods did not exist. Particularly well-known representatives were Thomas Dixon, who wrote The Leopard's Spots in 1902, and Thomas Nelson Page, whose work is best described as sentimental idealization of the Old South. Like some other pro-slavery novelists, if at all they presented the mulatto as a threat to society, white womanhood and white gentlemen. Their mere presence was a menace to the future of America that, if the worst came to the worst, would be a mulatto America (Graham, p.282).

On the other hand, there were the anti-slavery authors like Frances Harper or S.E. Griggs, who defined the mulattos’ duty as to ally themselves with the Negroes in order to advance the race. An example for this is Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892), a book in which every significant black character is a mulatto that has to face the question whether or not to pass. Needless to say, passing is the ‘wrong’ choice in these novels and the mulatto remains a tragic figure as long as (s)he does not admit to being Negro. Once (s)he does, (s)he rises above tragedy (Graham, p.282).

Francis Harper and S.E. Griggs were African American novelists, but of course there were white anti-slavery authors as well. In opposite to the pro-slavery authors, who either ignored the existence of mulattos or presented them as a threat to white America and who described Negroes as subhuman, brute and beastlike, the anti-slavery authors underlined the mulattos’ humanity to make it plain to the reader that they are, of course, human beings that cannot be owned by others. To support their views, they stereotyped the situation rather than the character and concentrated on the abuse like the floggings, the slave mart, slave hunts, forced concubinage, etc. (Graham, p.276). However, as they did not want to repel their white audience, they also included some comic relief, kindly masters to contrast the many brute ones, and loyal slaves that did not seem to mind their status. Their most important figure was also the tragic mulatto because through his/her positive portrayal they wanted to prove the Negroes’ potential. As ‘the Negro’ was considered to be essentially jolly and thus unsuitable for convincing tragedy, the mulatto character had to serve this purpose. This circumstance also implies that only a person of mixed blood can be tragic at all, which is an indirect pronouncement that a near-white man in chains is more deplorable than a black one; so although these anti-slavery authors meant well they sometimes also spread and encouraged racialist views (Graham, p.276).


[1] See for example http://www.afrigeneas.com/forum-world/

[2] Accessible from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/05/20/sunday/main618820.shtml

[3] For pictures see http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11394595/


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
773 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
Dresden Technical University
Racial Passing Comparative Reading Jessie Fauset’s Plum Nella Larsen’s Quicksand



Title: Racial Passing: A Comparative Reading of Jessie Fauset’s "Plum Bun" and Nella Larsen’s "Passing" and "Quicksand"