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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

  • Baz Dreisinger

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

2. Awkward, Michael, Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Positionality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 19. 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) 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); Roediger, David's The Wages of Whiteness (New York: Verso, 1991); and Rogin, Michael's Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

3. Awkward, , Negotiating Difference, 8081.

4. Chesnutt, Charles, “Mars Jeems's Nightmare,” in The Conjure Woman (1899; rept. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969).

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): 2036; 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): 111–33; 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), 164–76; Terry, Eugene's “The Shadow of Slavery in Charles Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman,” Ethnic Groups 4, no. 1–2 (1982): 104–25; Babb, Valerie's “Subversion and Repatriation in The Conjure Woman,” Southern Quarterly 25, no. 2 (Winter 1987): 6675; and Fienberg, Lome's “Charles W. Chesnutt and Uncle Julius: Black Storytellers at the Crossroads,” Studies in American Fiction 15, no. 2 (Autumn 1987): 161–73. 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); 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), 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).

6. Petrie, Paul, “Charles W Chesnutt, The Conjure Woman, and the Racial Limits of Literary Meditation,” Studies in American Fiction 27, no. 2 (Autumn 1999): 183–85.

7. Sundquist, To Wake the Nations.

8. Gubar, Susan, Race Changes: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 25.

9. Slotkin, Richard, Regeneration Through Violence (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 110–12.

10. Cited in Sundquist, , To Wake the Nations, 357.

11. Chesnutt, Charles, The House Behind the Cedars (1900; rept. New York: Penguin, 1993).

12. Harper, Philip Brian, Are We Not Men? Masculine Anxiety and the Problem of African-American Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 126.

13. Douglas, Ann, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: Noonday, 1995), 77.

14. Larsen, Nella, Passing (1929; rept. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986), 206; Johnson, James Weldon, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1927; rept. New York: Vintage, 1989), 172–73; and Schuyler, George, Black No More (1931; rept. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989), 59.

15. Douglas, , Terrible Honesty, 295.

16. Time, 03 28, 1960, 90.

17. Wald, Gayle, Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in 20th Century American Literature and Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 180. 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): 103–43; and Lott, 's “White Like Me,” 474–95.

18. Kawash, , Dislocating the Color Line, 9.

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

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), 7.

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): 5156.

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

26. Ibid., 104.

27. Ibid., 107.

28. Ibid., 105.

29. Commonweal, 10 27, 1961, 128–29.

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

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

32. See Schuyler, George's oft-cited reaction to the Harlem Renaissance, in “The Negro Art Hokum,” Nation 122 (06 16, 1926): 622. 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): 331–52.

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

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

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

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]: 6061), which criticizes the film's use of racial stereotypes, and Schickel, Richard's review in Time (11 24, 1986, 98), 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), 818–32.

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

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