Monday, December 27, 2010

How Many People "Pass"

Jean Toomer

They say that a number of Thomas Jefferson's children by Sally Hemings were so light-skinned, visitors couldn't tell the difference between them and those by Jefferson's white wife.

For white families living in the U.S. South since the nineteenth century, it is very common to have a Black ancestor.  Of course most won't admit to it.

Lately while I have been doing research for my book on Mexico and the Jews, I have found numerous "mulatos" in the baptismal records of churches in early 18th century northern Mexico.  There are so many in fact, that it is very likely that a large number of families who identify themselves as "white" in Nuevo Leon, have indeed Black ancestors (this was also told to me by a museum curator in Monterrey).

"Passing" is an interesting thing.  If your skin is light enough, your father could be from Zacatecas, but you can say he was from Madison, Wisconsin.  Alter your name a little and you are a completely different person.  In today's xenophobic American society, there are people "passing" everywhere you look.


December 26, 2010

Scholars Say Chronicler of Black Life Passed for White

Renown came to Jean Toomer with his 1923 book “Cane,” which mingled fiction, drama and poetry in a formally audacious effort to portray the complexity of black lives. But the racially mixed Toomer’s confounding efforts to defy being stuck in conventional racial categories and his disaffiliation with black culture made him perhaps the most enigmatic writer associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

Now Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard scholar, and Rudolph P. Byrd, a professor at Emory University, say their research for a new edition of “Cane” documents that Toomer was “a Negro who decided to pass for white.”

They lob this intellectual grenade in their introduction to the book, which W. W. Norton & Company is to publish next month. Their judgment is based on “an analysis of archival evidence previously overlooked by other scholars,” Mr. Byrd and Mr. Gates write, including Toomer’s draft registrations and his and his family’s census records, which they consider alongside his writings and public statements.

Toomer’s racial complexity has long been intriguing to critics and scholars, but Mr. Gates and Mr. Byrd’s assertion about his identity is certain to spark debate. Richard Eldridge, a Toomer biographer, said recently that he had not read the new edition — and will stand corrected if its case is persuasive — but that Toomer never “passed” in the classic sense of pretending to be white. Rather, he said, Toomer (whose appearance was racially indeterminate) sought to transcend standard definitions of race.

“I think he never claimed that he was a white man,” Mr. Eldridge said. “He always claimed that he was a representative of a new, emergent race that was a combination of various races. He averred this virtually throughout his life.” Mr. Eldridge and Cynthia Earl Kerman are the authors of “The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness” published in 1987 by Louisiana State University Press.

Toomer’s life — he was born in 1894 and died in 1967 — traversed many shifts in American racial politics, including times of soul-sapping racial oppression. And while he ended up writing other poetry, essays and drama, “Cane,” published in the Jim Crow era, was a sensation in its time and remains his contribution to the American literary canon...more        

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