MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 838-840
[Access article in PDF]
Gayle Wald. Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century US Literature and Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 2000. 240 pp.
Race is the immovable force in the modern Western world. It was instrumental in the Atlantic formation, reaching its zenith in the United States with its one drop of black blood rule. The blood work of race leaves its stain across the body politic and colors identity. In a world constructed where the moral natures of black and white are supposedly fixed and immutable, the person who passes raises the possibility of complexity and fluidity. Those people of color fair enough to pass contradict the notion of a stable racial order with its carefully defined boundaries.
In Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century US Literature and Culture, Gayle Wald examines how subjects have sought to defy, rewrite, or reinterpret the scripting of racial identities [End Page 838] according to "the socially dominant narrative of the color line" (5). This book in fact might be subtitled "Passing and the Politics of Transgression." Wald's study is informed by the observations of W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish, and a gender critique of race as she interrogates the "wages" of whiteness: power, prestige, and privilege. The passer moves beyond the lines of demarcation that define a politically stable identity.
Wald discusses the issue of passing in texts that date "from the era of the New Negro to the early years of the civil rights movement, encompassing categories of high, low, and middlebrow culture" (9). The first chapter, "Home Again: Racial Negotiations in Modernist African American Passing Narratives," illuminates how "racially marked subjects deploy race to their own ends and desires" in the work of James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Fauset, and Nella Larsen (28). Subsequent chapters discuss representations of passing in pop or mass culture. Chapter 2, for example, examines the "modes and strategies of self-representation" of Mezz Mezzrow (1899-1972), a flamboyant clarinetist born in a middle-class home of Russian-Jewish immigrants who immersed himself in black culture (56-57). His 1946 autobiography Really the Blues (which could be subtitled "Performing Blackness") was considered the "bible" among aspiring white musicians and a must read for writers such as Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer, who were committed to a hipster ethic. Chapter 3 analyzes cinematic representations of passing in Pinky and Lost Boundaries, two movies made in the afterglow of World War II, with its emphasis on nativist solidarity. Wald interrogates "the racial narratives" of liberalism itself in a society that "continues to use 'race' as a means of discipline and control" (87). Tempted by the siren song of passing, the protagonists, played by white actors, renounce their desire to cross the line and return to a black/white binary, with the issue of agency for the title characters unresolved. Chapter 4, "'I'm Through with Passing': Postpassing Narratives in Black Popular Literary Culture," turns to popular black periodicals of the 1950s (Ebony, Jet, Color, and Tan) to gain an "understanding of African Americans' cultural representation of 'crossing the line'" (119). Wald's discussion of "postpassing" must be read against the backdrop of four markers that defined the 1950s: the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education in 1954, the death of Emmett Till in 1955, Rosa Parks and the emergence on the national stage of a young preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1955, and E. Franklin Frazier's 1957 study Black Bourgeoisie. Those practitioners of an "integrationist poetics," in Houston Baker's term, would soon yield to the gathering storm known as Black Power, with a communal tip of the hat to "passing"—R.I.P. [End Page 839]
An unintended irony in Wald's discussion of "crossing the line" occurs in note 6 of chapter 2, where she discusses Mezz Mezzrow against the backdrop of Jewish assimilation into the American "melting pot" and...