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.