“Being Someone You Are Not”
Book Review; Page 5
September 14, 2003
Passing When People Can’t Be Who They Are
PublicAffairs: 280 pp., $25
By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
. . .Brooke Kroeger, the author of “Passing,” is a professor of journalism and former foreign correspondent who has written two well-received biographies: “Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist” and “Fannie: The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst.” Her biographical and narrative skills give nuance and depth to the touchy, often explosive topic of “passing” in this set of short biographies of lesser-known individuals. The subtitle, “When People Can’t Be Who They Are,” is key to understanding the text. Kroeger is not dealing with impostors, frauds or men with multiple families unknown to one another. Her definition of passing includes several elements: First, it refers to individuals who “effectively present themselves as other than who they understand themselves to be”; second, other people must accept the identity that the passer projects; third, “Passing involves erasing details or certain aspects of a given life … “; fourth, and important, the passers do not have to change anything in their outward appearance. Passing involves, more than anything else, the control of information. Some of the attributes required for successful passing, Kroeger writes, are stealth, gumption, cunning, agility, social conceit and guile. She probes ethical questions about passing, such as the significance of authenticity, the responsibility of individuals to tell all about themselves, the thin line between disclosure and lying and the possible effects on the passer’s character.
The heart of “Passing” consists of six case studies. Each is vividly specific but also representative of a larger aspect of identity in the United States, historically and currently. The individuals who shared their stories with the author — ordinary people, not public figures or celebrities — are young, smart, well-educated and engaging.
. . . In a brief final chapter, Kroeger deftly ties the stories together. She finds a suitable definition of passing in a dictionary entry for the musical term “passing note” or “passing tone”: “A passing note is not part of a composition’s harmonic scheme, but one the composer introduces to ornament the work or allow for a smoother transition from one tone or chord to another.” After much research, interviewing and thought, the author concludes that such “transitions” are not always a negative experience and, although dissonant, not necessarily to be condemned. . . .
NHD contestants: Please read this.
The Suffragents in the news: Kirkus Features, Kirkus Reviews, Foreword Reviews, Town & Country, The American Scholar, Tabletmag.com, Unorthodox podcast, Top of Mind with Julie Rose (live), NYU Features, Women’s Media Center, Futurity, Non-Fiction Fans, HeforShe.org’s The Scoop, Opzij magazine (NL), AmericasDemocrats podcast, Facebook , Brooke’s posts, Good Men Project , suffrageandthemedia.org,
Upcoming events: Oct. 19: East Hampton Library. Oct. 22: Author’s Talk & Tea: Woodlawn Conservancy. Oct. 26: Talk Back at the Black Box Theater for Nancy Smithner’s “Hear Them Roar: The Fight for Women’s Rights.” Nov. 5: Holiday Book Signing at the Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck, NY. Nov. 6: Brentwood Public Library Nov. 7: NYU Center for the Humanities. Nov. 10: Gotham Center for NYC History/CUNY Graduate Center Nov. 16: Book & Bottle: Suffolk County Historical Society & Museum. Nov. 17-18 Researching New York Conference, Albany. Nov. 20: Brookhaven League of Women Voters. March 10: Keynote, Joint Journalism & Communications Historians Conference, New York City.
Parting shots of: the book launch events of Sept. 1 in East Hampton; Sept. 11 in NYC and Sept. 14 in Cambridge Mass. I’ve got comment and a video (expected soon) of the Sept. 28 event with Angela P. Dodson at the NY Society Library I spoke at the NY Genealogical & Biographical Society Fall Luncheon on Oct. 10 to an audience in which men were very well represented. Oct. 14, I presented on a panel at the AJHA Convention, Little Rock, Ark., on ‘When the Women of Suffrage Got Its Makeover On.” More to come on that.