Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Best Books of 2003

Despite the many social changes of the last half-century, many Americans still “pass”: black for white, gay for straight, and now in many new ways as well. We tend to think of passing in negative terms–as deceitful, cowardly, a betrayal of one’s self. But this compassionate book reveals that many passers today are people of good heart and purpose whose decision to pass is an attempt to bypass injustice, and to be more truly themselves.

Passing tells the poignant, complicated life stories of a black man who passed as a white Jew; a white woman who passed for black; a working class Puerto Rican who passes as privileged; a gay, Conservative Jewish seminarian and a lesbian naval officer who passed for straight; and a respected poet who radically shifts persona to write about rock ‘n roll.

The stories, interwoven with others from history, literature, and contemporary life, explore the many forms passing still takes in our culture; the social realities which make it an option; and its logistical, emotional, and moral consequences. We learn that there are still too many institutions, environments, and social situations that force honorable people to twist their lives into painful, deceit-ridden contortions for reasons that do not hold.

Passing explores a phenomenon that has long intrigued scholars, inspired novelists, and made hits of movies likeThe Crying Game and Boys Don’t Cry.

Brooke Kroeger

Researching the life of Fannie Hurst for my second biography, the black-for-white subplot of her novel Imitation of Life got me thinking about the phenomenon of passing. Hurst’s 1932 depiction makes the notion seem so passé, I found myself wondering if people passed anymore and if so, what would compel them to make such a drastic life choice now, especially with our at least relatively more tolerant age as a backdrop. I found subjects by the dozens. The reasons to pass today, it turns out, are many, but the one that seemed most urgent to explore in depth was the passing that saves a worthy person from being excluded unjustly in the pursuit of very ordinary aims and ambitions. Each of the stories in this book, I think, could stand alone; but I confess to having had a larger purpose in drawing this disparate group together. Passers are, in the words of one scholar, “ideal questioners of the status quo.” Their stories have the power to expose much larger societal wrongs, either in the specific settings in which the episodes take place or beyond.

Brooke Kroeger is also the author of two biographies: FANNIE: The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst (1999) and NELLIE BLY: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist (1994). PASSING (2003) is her third book; UNDERCOVER REPORTING: The Truth About Deception (2012), her fourth; and THE SUFFRAGENTS (2017), her fifth.

From Chapter One:

“To a ten-year-old African-American boy from the suburbs of Washington, the Baltimore neighborhood seemed like a war zone. Shortly before David Matthews and his father moved in, the backyard had been the scene of a gangland-style execution and the next-door neighbor, still suffering the post-traumatic effects of his tour in Vietnam, took solace in shooting his AK-47 outside his back door. All the same, the house was only a few short blocks from Bolton Hill, with its well-kept townhouses and Gramercy Park-like air. Ralph Matthews, David’s father, planned to renovate the row house and flip it for a profit as gentrification encroached, but that never quite worked out. In the years since he let the house go, there has been substantial redevelopment in the area, enough to make the old row house look that much more forlorn. In March of 2002, a slab of whitewashed plywood blocked the entranceway. Stenciled across the plank in red was the number to call ‘IF ANIMAL TRAPPED.’

“Madison Street is a recurrent theme in David Matthews’ conversation. He thought living there was torture. ‘I wouldn’t walk there until it was dark,” he recalled, “because the fewer people who saw me, the fewer chances I had of getting mugged.’ His father wanted his son to learn to survive in such an environment. “There are protections,” Ralph Matthews said. ‘And if you recognize them, you’re twice as strong. I knew all the hoodlums.’ His son might well have been threatened once in a while, but it was because he did not know “how to give off the right radar,” as Matthews senior put it. ‘And giving off I’m half-Jewish wasn’t it.’

Of his son’s itinerant passing, Ralph Matthews said, ‘I do wonder about that, about David’s trapeze act. In my own life, it’s not even a consideration.’ And in another conversation, he added, ‘The thing I don’t think we could answer is, where did it come from?’ . . .”