Between the late eighteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries, countless African Americans passed as white, leaving behind families, friends, and communities without any available avenue for return. As historian Allyson Hobbs explains in A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, scholars have traditionally paid far more attention to what was gained by passing as white than what was lost by leaving a black racial identity behind. Her book, she writes, “is an effort to recover those lives,” to write the history of passing as a history of loss.
That recovery was particularly challenging, given that Hobbs’s aim was to document a phenomenon that, by definition, was intended to be clandestine:
Conventional wisdom is that few sources exist because those who passed carefully covered their tracks and left no record of their transgression, and that writing about passing is an undertaking fit for novelists, poets, playwrights, and literary critics, but not historians. To reveal the history of passing, the historian must seek out unconventional sources that vary at different historical moments, both in the evidence presented and in the consequences of the act. The textured accounts of family histories cast the personal losses of passing in the starkest relief whereas other types of sources bring a blurred history into sharp focus.
Stories of passing can be found in “the private and innermost spaces of African American lives,” discovered as unintended but unmistakable threads through family histories that offer firsthand accounts of the interruptions, gaps, and omissions created by a relative’s decision to pass. As Hobbs discussed with NPR’s “Code Switch” for an All Things Considered segment yesterday, she was able to uncover many of these somtimes-haunting stories through the course of the decade of research behind A Chosen Exile.
In the book she describes the risks that’d adhere to a passing person facing contact with the life they’d left:
To pass as white was to make an anxious decision to turn one’s back on a black racial identity and to claim to belong to a group to which one was not legally assigned. It was risky business. In today’s multiracial society, the decision to pass may seem foolish, frivolous, or disloyal; it may be reminiscent of an unexpected plot twist in a novel or a film; or it may be understood as a desperate act compelled by the racial constraints of the bygone era of segregation and racial violence. Once one circumvented the law, fooled coworkers, deceived neighbors, tricked friends, and sometimes even duped children and spouses, there were enormous costs to pay. In each historical period, those who passed experienced personal and familial losses differently. Their experiences open a window onto the enduring problem of race in American society and onto the intimate meanings of race and racial identity for African Americans. The predicaments of those who could pass as white offer a lens to view the changing meanings of race in American history. From the late eighteenth century to the present, racially ambiguous men and women have wrestled with complex questions about the racial conditions of their times, and they have fashioned complex understandings about their places in the world.
In a TEDx talk at Stanford earlier this year, Hobbs recounted how a story from her own family’s history inspired her project, and how passing, so often portrayed as an individualistic enterprise, was in fact a collective practice, dependent as much on the families left behind as on those who leave. You can watch her talk below.