Erasure and Recollection: Memories of Racial Passing

by Hélène Charlery (Volume editor) Aurélie Guillain (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 366 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Introduction (Hélène Charlery and Aurélie Guillain)
  • Part I: Memories of Racial Passing: Reconstructing Local and Personal Histories
  • From Homer Plessy to Paul Broyard: To Pass or Not to Pass in New Orleans (Nathalie Dessens)
  • Racial Passing at New Orleans Mardi Gras; From Reconstruction to the Mid-Twentieth Century: Flight of Fancy or Masked Resistance? (Aurélie Godet)
  • Passing through New Orleans, Atlanta, and New York City: The Dynamics of Racial Assignation in Walter White’s Flight (1926) (Aurélie Guillain)
  • African American Women Activists and Racial Passing: Personal Journeys and Subversive Strategies (1880s–1920s) (Elise Vallier-Mathieu)
  • Part II: Memory, Consciousness and the Fantasy of Amnesia in Passing Novels
  • “What Irene Redfield Remembered”: Making It New in Nella Larsen’s Passing (M. Giulia Fabi)
  • Between Fiction and Reality: Passing for Non-Jewish in Multicultural American Fiction (Ohad Reznick)
  • Experiments in Passing: Racial Passing in George Schuyler’s Black No More and Arthur Miller’s Focus (Jochem G.L.A. Riesthuis)
  • Passing to Disappearance: The Voice/Body Dichotomy and the Problem of Identity in Richard Powers’s The Time of Our Singing (2004) (Anne-Catherine Bascoul)
  • Part III: Memories of Racial Passing within and beyond the United States: Towards a Transnational Approach
  • “The Topsy-Turviness of Being in the Wrong Hemisphere”: Transnationalizing the Racial Passing Narrative (Sinéad Moynihan)
  • Passing, National Reconciliation and Adolescence in Beneath Clouds (Ivan Sen, 2002) and The Wooden Camera (Ntshaveni Wa Luruli, 2003) (Delphine David and Annael Le Poullennec)
  • Transnational Gendered Subjectivity in Passing across the Black Atlantic: Nella Larsen’s Passing, Michelle Cliff’s Free Enterprise and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time (Kerry-Jane Wallart)
  • About the Authors/Editors
  • Index
  • Series index

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Hélène Charlery and Aurélie Guillain

Is Passing Passé?

In the 1970s and the 1980s in the United States, it may have seemed tempting to regard racial passing as a distant memory belonging to a bygone past. With the exceptions of the characters in Ivan Dixon’s film adaptation of The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973) and in Julie Dash’s short film Illusions (1982), fictions of passing would often be dismissed as symptomatic reminders of a segregated racial past, while passing itself would be seen as an obsolete form of individualistic self-assertion—obsolete now that racial pride and more collective forms of self-empowerment had become available. Nathan Huggins gave a pithy summary of this vision of passing when he wrote at the end of the 1980s that the black revolutions of the 1960s, with their “insistence on race identity, race consciousness, race pride and race beauty has made anachronistic the game of hide-and-seek traditionally played by whites and blacks in America.”1 And indeed, the topic seems to have elicited but little critical interest in the 1970s and 1980s. Among the few exceptions to the rule, one can name some pioneering discussions of racial passing in chapters from Judith Berzon’s Neither White Nor Black (1978), John G. Mencke’s Mulattoes and Race Mixture (1979) and James Kinney‘s Amalgamation! (1985) or in Ph.D. dissertations by Bruce Payton Adams (1975), Priscilla Ramsey (1975) or John Francis Bayliss (1976). Another and quite important exception is Werner Sollors’ 1987 Beyond Ethnicity: Descent and Consent, a seminal study of the contradictions inherent in racial definitions in the United States, which paved the way for Sollors’ Neither Black Nor White (1997), his ground-breaking examination of the literature of racial in-between-ness ←13 | 14→in the United States. This magisterial survey devotes an entire chapter to representations of racial passing, suggesting that the masquerades and dilemmas of these mixed-race individuals might be more central in American culture than was previously thought.

In recent years, we witnessed an explosion of interest in racial passing, matching a growing interest in the theme of mixed-race identities, not only in academic spheres but more generally in the English-speaking world. Elaine K. Ginsberg records that in 1996, after issuing a call for papers on the subject for an MLA convention, she received an unexpected, almost overwhelming number of proposals in response.2 In the 1990s and early 2000s, studying representations of passing helped scholars to deconstruct the contingent racial binaries established between “white” and “black” in societies that were marked by white supremacy or still bore its divisive legacy. Stories of racial passing have also proved useful to interrogate the epistemological or ontological binary between the notions of “true self” and “false self,” echoing questions raised by literary critic Werner Sollors,3 film scholar Richard Dyer,4 and historian David Hollinger.5 These studies also resonated with more general questions raised about the construction of identity by philosophers such as Judith Butler6 and Jacques Derrida.7 They notably questioned the pre-conception that passing for white is above all a form of deception and a way of lying about one’s “genuine” identity: a case in point is bell hooks’s influential 1992 analysis of the Peolah character in John Stahl’s Imitation of Life (1934), which questions the essentialist definition of the protagonist’s racial identity.8 As for the seminal collection of ←14 | 15→essays edited by Elaine K. Ginsberg in 1996,9 it foregrounds the notion of performed racial identity, thus echoing Judith Butler’s concept of reiterated performance. Butler’s own analysis of Nella Larsen’s Passing10 was all the more influential in subsequent explorations of the theme as her article examined how the performance of race intersected with the performance of gender in Larsen’s novel. Susan Gubar’s book-length study of “racechange” (1997)11 and Sinéad Moynihan’s examination of recent fictions of racial and gender passing (2010)12 also emphasize how racial passing intersects with other kinds of constructed identities. One ought to add that racial passing, because of its inherent in-between-ness, is linked not only with the definition of blackness but also with the construction of whiteness: racial passing is thus one aspect of the construction of white invisibility—one of the processes through which individuals have fought their ways into whiteness in the United States.13

Possibly because of this initial emphasis on racial identity being a form of performance, some scholars have been tempted to broaden the scope of their investigations and extend the notion of “passing” to any fiction in which a constructivist or a postmodern vision of the self seems to be at play, as in the works of Anna C. Hostert14 or Samira Kawash.15

Nevertheless, in most recent studies of racial passing, the deconstruction of racial essentialism is seldom disconnected from the historical examination of how racial binaries are established in contexts of white supremacy. The works of Gayle Wald,16 M. Giulia Fabi,17 Allyson ←15 | 16→Hobbs,18 July C. Nerad19 or Kathleen Pfeiffer20 explore representations of racial in-between-ness that point both to emancipatory gestures and to frames of racial inequality which the passer’s transgression simultaneously challenges and leaves untouched.

What Remains of Racial Passing

Moreover, many recent studies of racial passing have emphasized the continuing, almost haunting power of racial segregation even in the post-segregation period in the US, or in the post-apartheid period in South Africa, to name only two examples of societies that have been deeply marked by a history of white supremacy. This “present-ness” of racial passing, the fact that it has not really become “passé,” is also noticeable in works of fiction and non-fiction dealing with the subject of passing in the 2000s and 2010s. In the United States for example, a great number of testimonies have recently been published by descendants of relatives who passed for white. The sheer numbers of publications suggest a continuing interest in the kind of relation to the personal and national past which is at stake in the long-delayed revelation of cases of racial passing. It is the central theme in family memoirs such as Gregory Howard WilliamsLife on the Color Line (1996),21 Bliss Broyard’s One Drop (2007),22 or Gail Lukasik’s White Like Her (2017).23 As for the theme of “reverse passing” (i.e. being “white” but identifying oneself as “black”) and the question ←16 | 17→whether the term “passing” should be applied at all to a transition from a dominant racial group towards a historically dominated one, have led to scholarly discussions24 but also to heated controversies. The vilification of Rachel Dolezal on the social media after it emerged in 2015 that she was passing as “black,” the story of which she subsequently recounted in her 2017 memoir,25 led to a debate on the dissymmetry between passing from “black” to “white” and “reverse” passing from “white” to “black”.26 In the cinema industry, it may seem that few feature films addressed the theme of racial passing in the United States, with the exception of Robert Benton’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2003) and Wayne Beach’s Slow Burn (2007). However, the theme of passing is profusely addressed in television films and TV series, and the expectations expressed in the press about Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 Passing suggest some eagerness for a new filmic discourse on racial passing.27 In the publishing world, the reprinting of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing in a Norton Critical Edition in 2007 is a sign that Larsen’s passing novel has reached canonical status, a token of the recognized importance of her text in the conversation about the history of race relations in the United States. As for recent novelistic fiction on passing, it has engaged in some ambitious and at times exuberantly postmodern re-visions of the US national history, of its past but also present racial divisions, as in Danzy Senna’s Caucasia,28 Philip Roth’s The Human Stain,29 Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist,30 ←17 | 18→Richard PowersThe Time of Our Singing,31 Adam Mansbach’s Angry Black White Boy.32

In the scholarly world, it is noteworthy that some important recent studies of “racial passing” have addressed the re-emergence of passing in contemporary contexts that some commentators had hopefully regarded as “post-racial”. Neo-Passing, an outstanding recent collection of essays edited by Mollie Godfrey and Vershawn Ashanti Young, explores the significance of racial masquerades in a post-Jim Crow society and the question of how racial passing intersects with other performed identities.33 These forms of racial passing are regarded as reverberations of the segregated past in the present, revealing the “present-ness of its consequences”.34 In some respects, Moynihan’s book, Passing into the Present (2010) places a similar emphasis on the significance of racial passing as a legacy of the past that remains quite active in post-segregation times and in contemporary definitions of racial in-between-ness.35 This approach to the motif of racial passing may be paralleled with Brian Norman’s broader reflections on Neo-Segregation narratives, which “arise at a moment when segregation is perceived as having a past, even if it has not fully passed”.36

Erasure and Recollection: The Memory of Racial Passing within and beyond the United States

This renewed interest in the legacy of a divisive national past is what has led to interrogate the memories of racial passing in this volume. We have focused on the ways in which cases of racial passing are remembered—and have stressed the revision and re-negotiation of present racial identities which is at stake when one is remembering a case ←18 | 19→of racial passing and its specific circumstances. Our first objective has been to shed light on the way texts or films show the work of individual memory and collective memory as they grapple with a racially divided past, struggling with its legacy and/or playing with its stereotypes. Our second objective has been to explore the great variety of ways in which racial passing has been taken place depending on the context, which in turn leads to differences in the ways it is remembered. Focusing on how a previously erased racial identity may resurface in the present has enabled us to extend the scope of our study to other countries than the United States, so that this volume proposes some new, transnational directions in the study of racial passing.


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (September)
Bruxelles, Berlin, Bern, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 366 pp., 13 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Hélène Charlery (Volume editor) Aurélie Guillain (Volume editor)

Hélène Charlery is Lecturer in American Film Studies and American History at the Department of English, CAS, Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, France. Aurélie Guillain is Professor of American Literature at the Department of English, CAS, Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, France.


Title: Erasure and Recollection: Memories of Racial Passing