Sunday, May 15, 2011

Passing for somebody (else)

Several years ago, we lived in a house much like this one, (but not quite as fancy) in West Adams, which at that time was a mostly middle class African-American enclave somewhat West of USC, in the heart of Los Angeles. We--white and Jewish, clinging to Middle Class by our fingernails--were fortunate to have found that particular neighborhood at that particular time.

The area had been built around the turn of the 20th century and ranged from mansions to more-than-comfortable homes. By the Great Depression, the fancy part of town had moved North and West to Country Club Park. During those tough years of the 1930's, many of the great homes of West Adams took in boarders while paint faded on their mammoth walls.

By 1947 and 48, the first Negroes (as they were then called in polite company) moved in. These were the educated and the well-to-do--lawyers, insurance company owners, teachers, nurses, doctors, some of them movie stars on the order of Hattie McDaniels, the first African-American to win an Oscar. That didn't matter.  The impolite response was burned crosses, minor riots and white flight. Soon the neighborhood was almost completely Black with a smattering of Asian, mostly Japanese.

But it turned out, our block had someone of color who had moved in long before 1947. According a neighbor down the street, her great-aunt had built their sweet Craftsman cottage in 1908, when that branch of the family was passing for white. Successfully--Nonny (not her real name) even mentioned one of them who was an Admiral. In the Navy. Yup.

Her story started me on the long road to writing my novel, "The Color of Safety," which is about a hundred years in one house in West Adams, and which is in part about someone in the first half of the last century who is "passing for white," as that slip across the color line is called.

But trying to research what it was like to pass proved tough. Oh, there are literary sources. Charles W. Chestnutt wrote of men who succeeded and women who were punished for crossing the line. Nella Larsen, who was scarred emotionally when her mother crossed over, leaving her behind,  wrote of passing in terms that screamed, "Danger, Danger." Chester Himes wrote a painfully hilarious almost-sketch of a story (Dirty Deceivers, 1948) in which a couple, both passing, believe they have married "up"(i.e. white) only discover that their beloved wife/husband is--yes--just a person of color, passing, like they are. Though at first, they are delighted--it turns out they are even distantly related--within paragraphs, they feel cheated that they didn't manage to catch someone 100% white. The very short story ends with them suing for divorce. So, yes, those literary sources certainly gave me insight, particularly Himes'.

But I wanted details. After all, if you're going to write a novel, you have to know about, oh, smells, sounds, tastes. What you're seeking are those perfect minutia, that pebble in the shoe that makes each moment come alive as someone reads it. Those--those just weren't there.

So I started calling around academia, history departments, looking for any kind of oral histories. And I ran, slam, into a stone wall. Sure, okay, I get it, white woman doing research on passing? In most well-to-do families, the idea of passing was a shameful thing. Only classless people would not want to be wealthy and African-American.

And today, it really carries a sense of shame, as if these people didn't realize that Black is Beautiful, without much understanding of what folks in the past were really up against.

So what I heard was, "Oh, well, that sort of thing really didn't happen. I mean, people would pass to sit in the front of the street car, or maybe to get a job, but then they'd come home and within a block, they could go back to being Negro again, return to the family, relax."

"But," I'd say, "What about what Walter White said in his autobiography?" (Ironically titled, "A Man Called White" since White was then the blue-eyed, blond-haired, fair-skinned president of the NAACP.) "In 1948, White wrote: 'Every year approximately twelve thousand white-skinned Negroes disappear—people whose absence cannot be explained by death or emigration. Nearly every one of the fourteen million discernible Negroes in the United States knows at least one member of his race who is “passing”—the magic word which means that some Negroes can get by as whites, men and women who have decided that they will be happier and more successful if they flee from the proscription and humiliation which the American color line imposes on them."

"And," I'd say, "What about Melba Pattilo Beals? You remember, she was one of the kids who integrated Little Rock High school. She wrote in her absolutely brilliant memoir, 'White is a State of Mind,' about her fair-skinned cousin, Griffin, who went north to college and on his first day, fell madly in love with a white woman, love at first sight. Knowing she was from Alabama, he was instantly sure she would never marry him if she knew he was Negro, so he called his mother and said he was going to live his life white.  And now this cousin, Griffin, was a sheriff in a small southern town by day and a member of the Klan by night. He had to be, or he would have been found out (and couldn't have maintained his place in Alabama society.) And he was calling to warn Beals' parents that the Klan was offering a reward to anybody to kill all five of the children integrating the school."

That was when my academics would start to talk. Not that they had much to offer. Because how do you get oral histories of people who have vanished into the whitewashed woodwork? Even Shirlee Taylor Haizlip couldn't do it. Taylor Haizlip, in case you missed the Oprah episodes like I did (because my kids leave me no time to watch TV) by dint of persistence and energy, found and reconnected with her aunt who had left the ranks of "Colored" around 1916. But--and for me, this was a huge but--though she talked with her new-found "white" cousins, Taylor Haizlip was too kind to ask her eighty-some-year-old aunt the questions that would have come out of me like a hail storm, rat-a-tat-a. Not. . .not ethical questions, no. I understand that there was--and probably still is--a tangible need to pass. After all, I am a blonde Jew who could easily pass for English or Swedish and I am married to the child of Holocaust survivors. Of the very few Jewish children who survived the Holocaust, almost all of them were able to pass. If those eleven cousins of my husband who died during WWII had been fair enough (and lucky enough--at least two of them were blond, so we're told by those who still miss them) and if parents' Polish or French had been good enough, and if all the stars had aligned enough, they might have survived the war.

What haunted me, though, was the idea that this cousin of Beals, Griffin, was not only a sheriff, but had joined the Klan. But of course, he would have to, wouldn't he? If you were passing, you'd have to be the worst of them. And you'd have to keep an eye on them, the way Griffin did for his little cousin, Melba, back in Little Rock. You'd have to brag about your pure white sheet and trash-talk Niggers--and maybe even lynch a few--in order to survive.

And then there was the rest of Walter White's introduction to his autobiography: "Often these emigrants have success in business, the professions, the arts and sciences. Some of them have married white people, lived happily with them, and produced families. Sometimes they tell their husbands and wives of their Negro blood, sometimes not. Who are they? Mostly people of no great importance, but some of them prominent figures, including a few members of Congress, certain writers, and several organizers of movements to “keep the Negroes and other minorities in their places.” Some of the most vehement public haters of Negroes are themselves secretly Negroes.”

My (Jewish) mother always said to me, "Be careful about marrying out of faith. Because if you don't teach your children to be proud of being Jewish, the world will teach them to be ashamed of it. And if you scratch the grandchild of someone who converted to Christianity, you're likely to find an anti-Semite." Of course,  Mom's rule doesn't hold true for all the world, but there is something twisting in  having to hide who you are. (And one other Jewish girl in my class (there were only about seven in my whole school) the one whose Dad had married a non-Jew, used to wear a cross on a chain around her neck, and pretend nobody at her house at matza around Easter)

And if you have to hide who you are in a world that holds who you are in contempt, then who do you become? What happens to you on the outside? What happens to you on the inside? Do you become that mouth-foaming, gay-hating politician who plays footsie in the Minneapolis airport? Do you become Griffin, the Klan Klegal, who is secretly black?

That was the origin of my complicated novel, the Color of Safety. I hope to lead you on the journey of discovery along with me as I finish the last section of the book.

Sara Selznick
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1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written, Sara. It touches my heart. I look forward to future posts!