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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Being Something Else, or Passing

Many in the majority community may not even have heard of "passing" as the word is used here, but it is well known to those in the Rainbow community -- or at least the parts of it familar to me. (I have no idea what the younger generations of any persuasion know. I don't have an inkling of what they are even saying, unless they speak very slow.) By "passing" I mean presenting one's self as having an ethnicity different from what it actually is.

When, as a young man of 28, I was traveling alone through Japan on a college fellowship, in the summer of 1959, I was amused though discomfited when I saw that the Japanese didn't readily take me to be what in my mind I so obviously was, a hotshot American. I didn't care for being asked if I was an "Indo," that is, a native of India. My opinion of the U.S., for all its faults, was and still is considerably higher than it is of India.

Till then, at home in the U.S., I had never been seen as being anything other than "colored," or "black," or, believe it or not, often in a fond sense, depending on who was using the term, "a nigger." Was this a case, then, of passing, even if unconsciously? It couldn't have been, because the idea wasn't in anyone's mind at the time, and I'm glad of that.

My father was dark-skinned and obviously with many recent ancestors of sub-Saharan African heritage. My mother, on the other hand, was so light that she could almost have been described in the same way that Richard Wright, the author of "Native Son," spoke of one of his grandmothers, when in his autobiography "Black Boy" he wrote that she was so light-skinned that anyone would've thought she was white, which meant that she was white.

This was because my mother's father was of Scotch-Irish extraction, with some French thrown in. (This was in Louisiana.) She gave me the impression that her mother, however, was dark, like my father. It's hard to understand how the genes interacted there, because my mother and her siblings -- at least the two that lived long enough for me to see them -- could all have passed for being "white." And that, in fact, is just what one of them, her brother, did.

I don't remember how old I was before I finally saw Uncle John, but I had been around for a while. He lived for years in distant Chicago. I think he was a postal worker on the railroad, or some such. Maybe I remember hearing that he had a "white" wife there, but I'm not certain of that. He always kept in touch, however, with his two surviving sisters, and finally he moved to D.C. to be close to them in his final days, while incidentally returning to the Rainbow world.

Sometimes I wonder what Uncle John's life was like, posing in Chicago as a "white" man for so many years. Most likely it was easy. It has always seemed to me that Euros are not nearly so conscious of blood mixtures as are Rainbows. The latter group has often felt constrained to be alert to it, while the descendants of Europeans can keep burbling along in other directions.

The only time that my mother "passed" was purely unintentional. Once, as a very young woman traveling alone on the train from New Orleans, her hometown, to her new home in D.C., she had a long layover in Nashville. To pass the time she wandered into a movie theater close to the train station. This was probably in 1916. She enjoyed the film, but when the lights came up she was horrified to see that all the faces around her were "white." She got out of there fast.

She had been conditioned to do that, because the theaters in New Orleans were segregated, a policy and a custom enforced officially by the law and unofficially through threats, beatings, lynchings, and the like. But her features were such that no one in there was any the wiser, and it probably didn't hurt, either, that she was also good-looking.

I wonder if, after she boarded the next train out, whether she spent any time meditating on the irony that those theater-goers who had terrified her so much had been her father's people.


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