By ELIZABETH ATKINS
Say the word “passing,” and it’s like pushing a “play” button in the mind that flashes that heart-wrenching scene in the 1959 movie Imitation of Life: There’s Sarah Jane, sobbing behind the hearse of the black mother who died of a heart broken by her vanilla-hued daughter’s cruel choice to live a tragic white lie.
That classic portrayal of passing can rouse a nasty prickle of suspicion, sympathy and hostility amongst people of color who feel betrayed, or those in the majority who feel tricked. Especially for folks who have, say, an uncle who crossed the color line way back when, or an allegedly white coworker whose crinkly hair and peachy skin tone makes you go hmmm!!! But what about a white person who finds herself passing for black? Or a gay Jewish seminarian and a lesbian naval officer, each masquerading as straight? A black man passing for Jewish? How about a workingclass, Puerto Rican woman who becomes an Orthodox Jew and perpetrates as bourgeoisie?
All the passion and pain of these provocative possibilities are sliced wide open over society’s razor-sharp lines of sexual, economic and racial distinction in Brooke Kroeger’s book Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are. This enlightening exploration of the many dimensions of pretending to be something else and someone else, inspires a compassionate understanding of all the whys. Its 280 pages are void of scorn or blame or criticism. Instead, Kroeger, landed for her biographies of reporter Nellie BIy and novelist Fannie Hurst, exposes the truths of six young Americans and succeeds at showcasing the sensitive dilemmas and choices that would provoke a man, woman or child to perpetrate a false life based on diverse deep, dark secrets. How much information does one person owe another? Kroeger asks. When is nondisclosure lying? How does lying affect the soul? This, after she defines passing as deliberately presenting oneself to the world in a way that’s different from how a man or woman views him or herself.
“Passing never feels natural,” writes Kroeger, an associate professor of journalism at New York University. “It is a second skin that never adheres.” She adds: “With the props of appearance and talent, passers step out of identities dictated by genes, heritage, training, circumstance, or happenstance. They must possess the face, voice, skin color, body type, style, and/or behavior that defies or confounds easy profiling. Passers stay in character no matter what.”
And it can be excruciating. Kroeger illustrates this with a white female teacher in rural Virginia. Turns out, the woman’s romances and friendships with African Americans led a black civic group to believe she was a light-skinned sister herself. When the group honored her with an invitation to emcee their charity fashion show, the woman was afraid to confess the truth. “It was easy for me to just dip into that world and if it got uncomfortable or touchy, I could say, Oops, I’m white! and go back to the white world?’ Finally, though, the woman explained herself; the group leader was furious. “It was… really horrible, one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life,” the woman told Kroeger. “I’m embarrassed to say that I think it (the discomfort) was because somebody thought I was black.” Kroeger says she set out to understand why people would twist their lives into painful deceit-ridden contortions for reasons that do not hold. Passing triumphs in trailblazing a new path toward understanding this painful and perplexing psychological terrain that is home for more Americans than anyone knows.[Author Affiliation]
Elizabeth Atkins is a novelist and journalist who lives in Detroit.
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THE SUFFRAGENTS: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote, launches Sept. 1. National History Day contestants, this page is for you.