'A Chosen Exile': Black People Passing In White America : Code Switch From the time of slavery, some light-skinned African-Americans escaped racism by passing as white. The new book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, explores what they lost.

'A Chosen Exile': Black People Passing In White America

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The act of passing is a little understood part of our nation's troubled history with race. From the days of slavery to the civil rights movement and beyond, some lighter skinned African-Americans escaped the often brutal realities of racism by creating new lives as white people. Now, Stanford historian Allison Hobbs explores their stories in a new book titled "A Chosen Exile: A History Of Racial Passing In American Life." Karen Grigsby Bates, of NPR's code switch team, has this report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Perhaps the most enduring image of passing came from the 1934 movie "Imitation Of Life." In it, a young light-skinned girl, Peola Johnson, yearns to escape the stigma of race, even if it means abandoning her family.


FREDI WASHINGTON: (As Peola Johnson) I'm not black. I'm not black. I won't be black.

GRIGSBY BATES: When Peola grows up, she runs away from the Negro college she was attending to live life in a new city, as a white woman. She has a job that would've been closed to her if she'd acknowledged her colored blood. Her heartbroken mother dies soon after. Historian Allison Hobbs says too much of the story of passing is focused on what was gained - new jobs, new freedoms - rather than what was left behind.

ALLISON HOBBS: I started to realize that writing this history of passing is really writing a history of loss.

GRIGSBY BATES: So Hobbs devoted 10 years of research to this part of the story. We're in Hobbs' office at Stanford University, where the walls are hung with pictures of black Americans throughout history. She's flipping through a huge notebook stuffed with stories of fair-skinned black people who passed as white. But the true inspiration for Hobbs' book came from her own family's history. Several years ago, a favorite aunt told her about a distance, very fair cousin, whose mother forced her to leave her hometown in the 1930s and move to Los Angeles to live as a white woman.

HOBBS: Her mother really felt that this was the very best thing that she could do for her daughter. She felt that this was a way of offering her daughter opportunities and a new life that she wouldn't be able to have if she lived as a black woman on the south side of Chicago.

GRIGSBY BATES: So the cousin moved to California, passed, married a white man and raised children who knew nothing of their black heritage. About a decade later, her phone rang. The woman's father was dying and her mother wanted her to return home to see him one last time.

HOBBS: Our cousin says I can't come home. I can't go back. I'm a white woman now. And there's just no turning back.

GRIGSBY BATES: The cousin missed her father's funeral and never saw her mother, or her siblings, again. Hobbs was haunted by this story of gaining whiteness while losing family.

HOBBS: And it made me think about all of the families that likely have a story like this.

GRIGSBY BATES: Her research found many - people like Elsie Roxborough from a distinguished black Detroit family, who left to live as white in New York - something noted in the local black press - and Harry S. Murphy who had attended the University of Mississippi in 1945 for an entire year as a cadet in a military program because a commanding officer assumed Murphy was white.

HOBBS: In 1962, when James Meredith was integrating Ole Miss, Harry S. Murphy said that Ole Miss was fighting a battle that they had no idea that they had lost years ago.

GRIGSBY BATES: There were people who passed for work and returned to their black lives in their private hours, their employers none the wiser. And others who left everyone and everything they knew forever. But some African-Americans who passed reversed themselves later, like the Johnstons, a prosperous family in New Hampshire that, after 10 years of living as white, grew tired of the lie and publicly declared themselves Negro in 1949. Hobbs says the Johnstons became a national story.

HOBBS: This is after World War II. And this is a moment when there's a sense that perhaps integration is on the horizon. So a lot of the newspapers that covered this story were looking at the Johnstons as being kind of emblems of the integrationist era.

GRIGSBY BATES: True integration wouldn't occur for decades. The civil rights movement removed de jure segregation that was often the catalyst for many people's decision to pass. Later, black pride would make the practice de classe. And the continuing evolution of multiculturalism in America would seem to make passing irrelevant.

HOBBS: I'm sure it still exists because, certainly, there are still benefits that accrued to being white. But I think that it's important to kind of locate the practice of passing within the particular political and economic and social conditions of the time period.

GRIGSBY BATES: Hobbs' hopes her book helps people understand that most black people who passed during this painful period didn't want to be white. They just wanted to be free. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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