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Hidden history of racial passing in America

Stashed in: Stories, America!, Chicago!

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As American increasingly becomes a country of ambiguous and personally-defined ethnicities, the stories of those who crossed the color line to pass as white may come to seem incomprehensible. Some of the anecdotes here are truly heart-rending, like the author's own distant relative who was unable to come home to see her own father as he lay dying.

Thanks for sharing. Some of these stories are so sad!

Hobbs, who teaches American history at Stanford University, started by reading literature and going through the correspondence of Harlem Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes and Nella Larsen, picking out the gossip they exchanged about themselves and their acquaintances passing for white. “It was kind of this obsession or intrigue with them,” she says. But the crevice opened wider when she read the papers of sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, PhD’31. Frazier’s dissertation, The Negro Family in Chicago, became a groundbreaking text in the field. As a professor at Howard University, where he taught from 1934 to 1959, he asked his students to assemble family histories. Many of them, Hobbs found, reading his papers, couldn’t do it. “It was fascinating how many of the students really struggled,” she says. Relatives who’d passed as white and vanished from the family left wide gaps in the family tree. Sometimes one whole side would be blank. “They would say, ‘Well, I really don’t know much about this relative or that relative.’ Or, ‘I don’t know that much about my father’s side because this person passed as white and we never heard from them again,’” Hobbs says. “I was really struck reading these family histories and seeing all these examples of people who could barely tell the stories of their families.”

That’s when she began to see loss as part of the narrative. “I thought, I’ve really got to write about the people who were left behind,” she says. “Because they’re so much a part of the story. They’re often the ones who are describing the loss.” Later she thought again of her distant cousin married to a white man in Los Angeles, unable to come home to the South Side as her father lay dying. “What did she feel like when she hung up the phone?” Hobbs asks. “Her father was dying, she could never come back, she would never see her brothers again.”