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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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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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.

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Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2004

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References

1. For recent studies of classic and nonclassic passing narratives, see Wald, Gayle's Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in 20th Century American Literature and Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kawash, Samira's Dislocating the Color Line: Identity, Hybridity, and Singularity in African-American Literature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997)Google Scholar; Harper, Philip Brian's chapter on passing in Are We Not Men? (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)Google ScholarPubMed; and Fabi, Maria Giulia's Passing and the Rise of the African-American Novel (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001)Google Scholar. Two collections are helpful: Ginsberg, Elaine's Passing and the Fictions of Identity (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Sanchez, Maria and Schlossberg, Linda's Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion (New York: New York University Press, 2001)Google Scholar. The most recent books to treat passing are Kennedy, Randall's Interracial Intimacies (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003)Google Scholar and Taltry, Stephen's Mulatto America (New York: HarperCollins, 2003)Google Scholar.

2. Awkward, Michael, Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Positionality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 19Google Scholar. Lött, Eric's “White Like Me: Racial Cross Dressing and the Construction of American Whiteness” (in Cultures of U.S. Imperialism, ed. Kaplan, Amy and Pease, Donald E. [Durham: Duke University Press, 1993], 474–95)Google Scholar deals with this theme, but Lott equates skin dye and passing with blackface, which I do not. For similar treatments, see Lott, 's Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)Google Scholar; Roediger, David's The Wages of Whiteness (New York: Verso, 1991)Google Scholar; and Rogin, Michael's Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

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5. For more on Chesnutt's radical reworking of the plantation-genre tradition, see Nowatzki, Robert's “‘Passing’ in a White Genre: Charles W. Chesnutt's Negotiations of the Plantation Tradition in The Conjure Woman,” American Literary Realism 27, no. 1 (Winter 1995): 2036Google Scholar; Duncan, Charles's “The White and the Black: Charles W. Chesnutt's Narrator-Protagonists and the Limits of Authorship,” Journal of Narrative Technique 28, no. 2 (Winter 1995): 111–33Google Scholar; Molineaux, Sandra's “Expanding the Collective Memory: Charles W. Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman Tales,” in Memory, Narrative, Identity, ed. Singh, Amrijit, Skerrett, Joseph, and Hogan, Robert (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994), 164–76Google Scholar; Terry, Eugene's “The Shadow of Slavery in Charles Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman,” Ethnic Groups 4, no. 1–2 (1982): 104–25Google Scholar; Babb, Valerie's “Subversion and Repatriation in The Conjure Woman,” Southern Quarterly 25, no. 2 (Winter 1987): 6675Google Scholar; and Fienberg, Lome's “Charles W. Chesnutt and Uncle Julius: Black Storytellers at the Crossroads,” Studies in American Fiction 15, no. 2 (Autumn 1987): 161–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a book-length study of Chesnutt's progressivism, see Andrews, William L., The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt (Baton Rouge: Louisiana Sate University Press, 1980)Google Scholar; Andrews also argues that Chesnutt employs the plantation tradition for subversive purposes. Sundquist, Eric, in To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993)Google Scholar, discusses Chesnutt in the context of the Uncle Remus stories, and Brodhead, Richard places Chesnutt's tales in a broader literary context in Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993)Google Scholar.

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7. Sundquist, To Wake the Nations.

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17. Wald, Gayle, Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in 20th Century American Literature and Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 180CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For other readings, see Baldwin, Kate's “Black Like Who? Cross-testing the ‘Real’ Lines of John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me,” Cultural Critique 40 (Fall 1998): 103–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Lott, 's “White Like Me,” 474–95Google Scholar.

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19. Saturday Review, 12 9, 1961, 5354Google Scholar.

20. The New Yorker called it “tardy and misguided,” attacking the screenplay writers for “scarcely troubl[ing] to disguise from us that it's a tract” (May 23, 1964, 151–52); and Newsweek declared, “Horton's agonizing discovery of all the clichés of the past 300 years makes Black Like Me obscenely embarrassing. For a while, one almost expects him to burst into ‘Mammy’ a la Jolson. Alas! No such relief” (May 25, 1964, 110–11).

21. Halberstam, Judith, Skin Shows (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 7Google Scholar.

22. The first film was Crossfire (1947), directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Robert Mitchum.

23. Kate Baldwin sees this as central to Black Like Me; in Gentleman's Agreement, Phil closes his article by stating, “Equality and freedom remain still the only choice for wholeness and soundness in a man or in a nation.”

24. Cohen, Elliot E., “Mr. Zanuck's Gentleman's Agreement: Reflections on Hollywood's Second Film About Anti-SemitismCommentary 5 (01 48): 5156Google Scholar.

25. Frank, Waldo, Memoirs of Waldo Frank, ed. Trachtenberg, Alan (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973), 103Google Scholar.

26. Ibid., 104.

27. Ibid., 107.

28. Ibid., 105.

29. Commonweal, 10 27, 1961, 128–29Google Scholar.

30. Daniel, Bradford and Griffin, John Howard, “Why They Can't Wait: An Interview with a White Negro,” Progressive, 07 1964, 1519Google Scholar.

31. Michaels, Walter Benn, “Autobiography of an Ex-White Man: Why Race Is Not a Social Construction,” Transition 73, vol. 7, no. 1 (1998): 122–43Google Scholar.

32. See Schuyler, George's oft-cited reaction to the Harlem Renaissance, in “The Negro Art Hokum,” Nation 122 (06 16, 1926): 622Google Scholar. For a thorough reading of the simultaneous essentialism and antiessentialism at work in Black No More, see Morgan, Stacy's “The Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science: Race Science and Essentialism in George Schuyler's Black No More,” College Language Association Journal 42, no. 3 (03 1999): 331–52Google Scholar.

33. Morgan, , “Strange and Wonderful,” 191Google Scholar.

34. Maupin, Armistead, Tales of the City (New York: Harper and Row, 1978)Google Scholar.

35. Solomon, Joshua, “Skin Deep,” Washington Post, 10 30, 1994Google Scholar.

36. Cited in Margaret Walters's review in Listener 3000 (February 26, 1987), 30. See also Floyd, Nigel's review in the Monthly Film Bulletin (637 [02 1987]: 6061Google Scholar), which criticizes the film's use of racial stereotypes, and Schickel, Richard's review in Time (11 24, 1986, 98Google Scholar), which mentions Gentleman's Agreement.

37. Gunning, Tom, “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the Incredulous Spectator,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Braudy, Leo and Cohen, Marshall (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 818–32Google Scholar.

38. Back, Les and Ware, Vron, Out of Whiteness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 93Google Scholar.

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