passing for white -- 9/13/17

Today's selection -- from Our Kind of People by Lawrence Otis Graham. "Although I spent six years researching Our Kind of People, I could never have been prepared for the controversy it elicited from various groups upon its initial publication." So wrote Lawrence Otis Graham in the most recent edition of his hotly debated 1999 book. In this book, Graham, a Harvard-trained lawyer with an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a best-selling author of 14 books, wrote of class divisions within black society. In one particularly controversial chapter, he wrote of light-skinned black Americans who attempted to "pass" as white. To do so they often "divorced" from family and friends to help ensure that they weren't discovered while trying to create a new life as a white person. In one heartbreaking story, he tells of a black woman growing up in the 1950s and 1960s whose father went to great lengths to hide not only his own skin color, but hers as well:

"Unfortunately, there is a high price to be paid by family members­ -- particularly the children of blacks who pass. There are many stories of families who have been polarized on the issue of racial passing. ...

"There have been many blacks who have managed to divorce their parents or fool their friends and colleagues, but the passing blacks create an even more complex situation when they raise children. The passing black who marries a white will sometimes tell the spouse and sometimes not. If the white spouse objects, it's something that he or she can avoid or dismiss through divorce. But what happens to the child of passing blacks? How are they affected by the lies and by the fact that their racial makeup is permanent and will always be called into question?

" 'Kids used to think I was adopted when I was in college. They'd see the photo of my parents in my dormitory room and say, "Who's that?"' says Loretta Josephs, a fifty-two-year-old light-brown-complexioned woman who now wears her graying brown hair in small braids, as she tells the story of how she grew up as a dark-skinned child in a family that lived as white people. It took her twenty years to come to terms with the fact that her parents had developed all kinds of lies to avoid confronting the family's true racial makeup. ...

1934 film Imitation of Life, Peola (right, played by Fredi Washington), an African-American woman who decides to pass as white and her mother Delilah (left, played by Louise Beavers).

" 'My mother was white and my father was black -- but passing -- so I was a real problem. My two older brothers came out real light, but I came out dark. I was a throwback child.' ...

" 'My parents hoped I would get lighter, because, as you can see from [family] pictures, we lived in a white world -- went to a white church, lived in a white neighborhood. My mother used to scrub me twice a day -- hop­ing that my skin would lighten up. She would make up a bath mixture in the tub using up a quart of milk, two squeezed lemons, and a teaspoon of liquid bleach. When she was done, she'd rub my knees and elbows with the halves of the lemon, all the while saying to me, "Now, if you stay off your knees, they'll lighten up."'

"And there was something else Loretta remembers that was always kept near her bathroom tub. 'And she always kept a jar of Nadinola Bleaching Cream within reach. It was in the bedroom, in the kitchen cabinet, in the glove compartment of our car. Nadinola Cream -- for clear complexions. That was a popular thing back then, but I remember you could only find it in the black neighborhoods, so my mother always had our maid get it for her. Of course I had no idea that all kids weren't scrubbed this way every morn­ing and night. I thought it was normal.'

"Like many very young children of color-conscious parents, it was a long time before Loretta even noticed her own color difference. It was a long time before she noticed that she was considerably darker than her parents and brothers. Like other children, she saw size and gender as the primary differences between herself and her brothers and parents. The distinctions her parents drew and the rules they established seemed to be logical and fair when they were issued to her.

" 'When I was told by my parents not to play with the kids in the neighborhood, I thought it was because I was a girl and they were wor­ried that I'd get hurt. When we went to the beach and they kept me fully clothed with a visored hat pulled tightly over my head and ears, I thought it was because it was unladylike to get tanned. As they held me under umbrellas, protecting me from what Mom called "the sun's harsh rays," they offered an innocent explanation for everything. They wouldn't allow me ever to pick up the telephone because they said little girls didn't do that. It wasn't until I was about five years old that I sensed real differences and started to realize there was more behind the special rules and special treatment. One example was when my mother used to hot-comb my hair with a blazing iron comb every morning. Once again, I thought all ladies got their hair hot-combed.'

" 'One day, my brother Jimmy came in the room and asked, "Why do you do that to Retty's hair?" My oldest brother, Sammy -- who was eight or nine then said, "Because she's got nigger hair when she wakes up every day."'

" 'Even though Sammy didn't speak the words in a mean tone -- and though I wasn't quite sure what "nigger hair" was, I could immediately tell it got my mother mad. That night, my brothers and I heard my mother tell my father, "You know, Sam, Retty's going to be a problem for us when she starts school in September." All we could hear then was my father say, "I'm sorry." Then we heard mom start crying.'

" 'About a month later, to our complete surprise,' explained Josephs, 'my mother announced that she and Dad had hired a maid.'

" 'Your father and I decided that with Retty starting school in two months,' my mother said gaily, 'I will need more help around the house. ...

"Loretta then remembers her father interrupting the discussion to explain how she and her brothers were to address the new maid. ' "You are each to call her Mam when she gets here."'

" '"Mam?" my younger brother asked. "What's her name?" "Mam -- that's her name and that's what you will call her." My par­ents then got up from the dining-room table with their plates and went into the kitchen.' ...

"The following month, when 'Mam' joined her family and moved into a bedroom over the garage, Loretta was moved into a bedroom that allowed her to share Mam's bathroom. As her mother walked her broth­ers to school, Mam took Loretta by bus to an integrated Catholic school that was just on the other side of her town's border.

" 'By the time I was in the fifth or sixth grade, I realized a lot of things. I realized that neighbors were whispering things about me being a Negro, or that I was a half-breed, or that I was Mam's child. I realized also that my parents had kept me from answering the phone because people had been calling and saying racist things into the phone. But most devastating of all for me was when I realized that the reason why Mam was hired as "my maid" was that she was, in a sense, acting as my "mother" for the people who were watching from the outside world.'"



Lawrence Otis Graham


Our Kind of People


Harper Perennial


Copyright 1999 HarperCollins Publishers


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