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'A Chosen Exile': Black People Passing in White America

Mon, Jun 15, 2015 at 11:14:57 am

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More: 'A Chosen Exile': Black People Passing in White America : Code Switch : NPR

Several years ago, Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs was talking with a favorite aunt, who was also the family storyteller. Hobbs learned that she had a distant cousin whom she'd never met nor heard of.

Which is exactly the way the cousin wanted it.

Hobbs' cousin had been living as white, far away in California, since she'd graduated from high school. This was at the insistence of her mother.

"She was black, but she looked white," Hobbs said. "And her mother decided it was in her best interest to move far away from Chicago, to Los Angeles, and to assume the life of a white woman."

"Her mother really felt that this was the very best thing she could do for her daughter," Hobbs continued. "She felt this was a way to offer opportunities to her daughter that she wouldn't have living as a black woman on the South Side of Chicago."

In California, the young woman passed as white. She married a white man, and they had children who never knew they had black blood. Then, one day, years later, her phone rang.

It was the woman's mother with distressing news: Her father was dying, and she needed to return home immediately to tell him goodbye.

The cousin replied, "I can't. I'm a white woman now."

She missed her father's funeral, and never saw her mother or siblings again.

Hobbs was haunted by the story, and constantly went back to it in her mind. It made her realize that all the tales she'd heard about passing over the years involved the gains that people expected for leaving their black identity behind. But through her research, she came to understand there was another, critical part of the experience:

"To write a history of passing is to write a history of loss."

'Who Are Your People?'

Loss of self. Loss of family. Loss of community. Loss of the ability to answer honestly the question black people have been asking each other since before Emancipation: "Who are your people?"

More at NPR.