Passing Racial "Passing" in Literature and in History

Although Passing offers a unique approach to the complexities of race and identity, Larsen's novel is not the only powerful work of American literature to consider the theme of "passing" itself. William Faulkner's Light in August (1932) appeared only a few years after Larsen's defining compositions. One of the many characters who populates Faulkner's narrative is Joe Christmas, a Southerner who believes that he possesses black ancestors but "passes" as white--with tragic results. More recently, Philip Roth's The Human Stain (2000) introduced the character of Coleman Silk, an African American who feigns Jewish descent, obtains a respected college professorship, and meets a tragic end of his own.

Despite the pessimistic approach to racial passing that emerges from these novels, racial ambiguity is not always such a bleak matter. In 2003, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published the feature story, "Passing: How Posing as White Became a Choice for Many Black Americans." The author, Monica L. Haynes, called attention to the escape from oppression and injustice that real-life passing could promise: "Passing for white offered not only opportunities, but also the opportunities white people received. During slavery, it could mean freedom. There are many documented instances of fair-skinned slaves who posed as white to escape. In modern times, it meant being able to vote in the South. It meant a job in the office rather than a job cleaning the office."

To create her account, Haynes collected testimony from light-skinned African Americans whose passing maneuvers yielded a variety of results, and inspired a variety of emotions. Some of the individuals interviewed remembered the bigoted opinions voiced by white acquaintances; scenarios comparable to Irene Redfield's exposure to John Bellew's bigotry, one of the intense moments in Passing, were not impossible. Other individuals presented in the article expressed pride in their ethnic roots, along with feeling of kinship with African Americans of generations past. As one interviewee, an attorney named Wendell Freeland, declared, "I'm more proud of my great-great-grandmother's manumission [emancipation] papers than any drop of white blood."