Interview, Passing, Tv

CBS “Sunday Morning” – “Blurring the Lines”

August 5, 2012

CBS Sunday Morning  (9:00 AM ET) –  CBS

May 23, 2004



The social barriers that divide us are almost always artificial and arbitrary. It’s no wonder Blurring the Lines can be so tempting.  But in the effort to fit in with others, do you risk a falling-out with your own true self? Our cover story is reported by Erin Moriarty of “48 Hours.”

(Footage of senior citizens exercising; Lavinia, Patricia, Mikaela)

ERIN MORIARTY reporting:

(Voiceover) Before you make any assumptions based on skin color, these three women–Lavinia Ferguson, her daughter Patricia and granddaughter Mikaela–are are living reminders of just how gray matters of black and white can be.

So what does your birth certificate say?


MORIARTY: (Voiceover) Lavinia’s birth certificate says ‘white,’ but her daughter Patricia’s lists ‘Negro.’

(Footage of birth certificate; Lavinia, Patricia, Mikaela; vintage family photographs)

MORIARTY: And what does Mikaela’s birth certificate say?

Ms. FERGUSON: Oh, Swedish.

Ms. MIKAELA OLSSON-FERGUSON (Lavinia’s Granddaughter): I usually say my dad’s 100 percent Swedish, and my mom’s everything.

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) They are, like many Americans today, products of families that can best be described as colorful.

Ms. FERGUSON: This is a wedding album.

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) Lavinia traces her family back to 1830, when her German, and Caucasian, great-grandfather, James Connor Bowman, moved to New Orleans, where he fell in love with and married a black woman.

Ms. FERGUSON: If they put anything in front of me today, all I worry about is what box I don’t check.  Caucasian: Yes.  Indian: Yes.  Black: Yes. Hispanic: Yes.

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) Yet Lavinia remembers a time when one box, and how it was filled out, determined everything–your livelihood, neighborhood, the quality of your life.

Ms. FERGUSON: My mother got an excellent job at the time with the telephone company.  She had a beautiful speaking voice.  They came in one day and they said, ‘Eunice, we’ve gotten some kind of–of information here that says you have colored blood.  Is this true?’ And she said yes. And they said, ‘Well, you know, in that case, we have to let you go.’

MORIARTY: Until the 1950s and ’60s, Jim Crow laws denied blacks the same jobs, education opportunities and rights that whites took for granted. But the fair skin that Lavinia’s family and others had allowed them to surreptitiously cross the color borders, a process known as  passing.

Ms. FERGUSON: It was a way of life.

MORIARTY:  Passing  was.

Ms. FERGUSON: Yes. It was a way of life.

(Vintage family photographs)

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) But not an easy way.  One of Lavinia’s relatives, a doctor, passed as white until he tried to enlist in the Navy during World War II.

(Excerpts from “Lost Boundaries”)

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) His story was made into the 1950s movie “Lost Boundaries.”

Professor BROOKE KROEGER (New York University): There is always a price for  passing,  and that’s why it’s so interesting.  That’s why it compels us, because people do pay a price.  The question is, is it worth it?

(Footage of Brooke Kroeger and Moriarty; Kroeger’s book)

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) New York University Professor Brooke Kroeger says that  passing  is not a thing of the past, nor does it only involve skin color.

Prof. KROEGER: We had Jewish  passing  for gentile in much the same way, and  passing,  certainly, gay for straight is a common one, and has been for a long time.  Lower class for upper class; I think that’s something we see a lot.

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) Kroeger has written a book about the double lives people who pass are often forced to lead.

Prof. KROEGER: This is not done to harm people.  This is done really to achieve ordinary ends.  It’s really people who just want to do what you and I get to do.

(Footage of David Matthews)

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) People like 37-year-old screenwriter David Matthews.

Do you remember how old you were when you first said, ‘I’m white,’ knowing that your father considered himself black?

Mr. DAVID MATTHEWS (Screenwriter): Right. Elementary–elementary school.

MORIARTY: Like how old?

Mr. D. MATTHEWS: Seven; seven, eight.

(Photographs of Matthews as a child)

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) David Matthews grew up in the 1980s’ Baltimore, Maryland, where he says white students seemed to lead a charmed life.

Mr. D. MATTHEWS: The group of white kids, who were probably about a 20 percent, 30 percent population in the school, but I just noticed that they got more attention.  Teachers assumed that they somehow had more on the ball.

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) David, the son of a light-skinned black man and an Israeli mother, walked every day to a school in a primarily white neighborhood.

Mr. D. MATTHEWS: Walking those three blocks, I knew all I needed to know about where I wanted to be as I watched the property la–values, as I watched the yards actually become yards, and the Volvos as opposed to burned-out, you know, Cadillacs.

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) So David simply chose to be white.

When you look back now, were you  passing?

Mr. D. MATTHEWS: Oh, absolutely.

MORIARTY: Did anyone actually ask you?

Mr. D. MATTHEWS: As I got older–well, again, because Baltimore is ve–there’s one or the other, so I would get, as I started to enter high school, especially when you started dating and adding that–sort of sex to the mix of girls and their fathers.  And they–they really wanted to know.  So every girl I ever dated, the parents’ first question was, ‘What nationality are you?’

MORIARTY: And what would you say?

Mr. D. MATTHEWS: I would say that I was–I was–I would say ‘My mom’s Israeli.’

MORIARTY: And you wouldn’t mention your father.

Mr. D. MATTHEWS: Wouldn’t mention–and I think they just assumed that–and they would say, ‘Well, what’s your dad?’ I’d say, ‘Oh, he’s Presbyterian.’

MORIARTY: When people would ask you what your dad did, what would you say?

Mr. D. MATTHEWS: I would say he was a journalist.

(Footage of newspaper column)

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) David, whose father was a newspaper editor, would just avoid mentioning which newspaper.

Mr. D. MATTHEWS: Because he was the editor of The AFRO-American newspaper.

MORIARTY: And that might have given something away.

Mr. D. MATTHEWS: Yeah, that wou–yeah.  So–yeah.

(Footage of Matthews)

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) And  passing  as white meant that David, raised entirely by his father after his mother left to return to Israel, couldn’t bring most of his friends home.

But that must have been tough.

Mr. D. MATTHEWS: A little bit, but I think that at that point, I was in such denial, like I didn’t know what a–what a treasure I had in my dad. I mean, my dad was like a star, and I didn’t know it until I was an adult.

(Footage of Ralph Matthews)

Mr. RALPH MATTHEWS (David’s Father): This is my mother, and David, age six.

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) Now meet David’s father, Ralph Matthews.

You’re very fair-skinned.  Did you ever, in order to get a job or anything like that, pass as white?

Mr. R. MATTHEWS: No.  No.  I would be highly insulted if anyone even suggested that to me.

MORIARTY: Then how did you feel about your son choosing to be white?

Mr. R. MATTHEWS: I was bemused.

MORIARTY: Bemused?

Mr. R. MATTHEWS: Right.

MORIARTY: Weren’t you a little angry about it, that your son didn’t realize…

Mr. R. MATTHEWS: He knew.  I call it doing what you have to do.

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) David says it was not until college that he finally realized what a rich heritage he was giving up.

David says now that he regrets that he didn’t see what a treasure he had in you when he was growing up.

Mr. R. MATTHEWS: Well, that’s nice. That’s nice.  I always think he knew.

MORIARTY: You know, there would be some people in the black community today saying that this was almost a cultural betrayal.

Mr. D. MATTHEWS: Oh, absolutely.


(Footage of magazine article)

Mr. D. MATTHEWS: (Voiceover) Cultural betrayal.  Maybe.  I see it as being efficacious.  I–I did what I had to do in order to–to get along every day.

(Footage of Joel Alter and Moriarty)

MORIARTY: (Voiceover)  Passing  does pose a moral dilemma, says Rabbi Joel Alter.

Rabbi JOEL ALTER: If you ask me is lying, is self-serving deceit, problematic, yes, absolutely.

(Photograph of Alter.

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) But he is hardly in the position to pass judgment.

Rabbi ALTER: There’s no question that I was  passing  at the seminary, that I’m a gay rabbinical student, and I’m at a seminary that won’t knowing–that won’t knowingly ordain gay or lesbian rabbinical or cantorial students, so yeah, I’m  passing.

(Footage of seminary)

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) The Conservative rabbinical seminary, like the military, had an unofficial ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.  Alter knew that telling would end his dream of becoming a rabbi.

Here you are, learning to be a man of God, knowing that, in a way, you’re deceiving that institution.

Rabbi ALTER: Was I uncomfortable with that?  Sure.  Every single day for five years, I’m thinking, ‘OK, done, got–leave the program.  This is–this is crazy.’

(Photograph and footage of Alter)

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) He stayed, and today he is an ordained rabbi, and openly gay.  While he still regrets the deception, Joel Alter believes it is the only way to force open closed doors.

So at this point in time, the Conservative movement still does not ordain gay men and women?

Rabbi ALTER: Correct.

MORIARTY: But, in fact, it has.

Rabbi ALTER: Right.  You know, they–I–there…

MORIARTY: Because of  passing …

Rabbi ALTER: Yeah.  There’s a–the…

MORIARTY: …you’re probably not the only gay rabbi.

Rabbi ALTER: Well, right.  Now it’s not the–far from it.

Prof. KROEGER: People in my book are really honorable, nice, regular folks, and yet it forces them into situations that require deception, that require covering, that require hiding parts of themselves that are central to who they are.

(Footage of people walking)

MORIARTY: (Voiceover) And it is a deception, says Professor Kroeger, that will remain with us as long as there are people in this society who feel that liberty and justice are not for all.

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