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  • A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs
  • Wilma King
A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life. By Allyson Hobbs. (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. [xii], 382. $29.95, ISBN 978-0-674-36810-1.)

An insightful introduction prepares readers for five deeply researched chapters and an epilogue constituting what Allyson Hobbs describes as a history of racial passing in American life. Two well-developed themes in the text add to its significance. First, Hobbs argues that the perceived need for racial passing changed over time. Before the Civil War, slaves passed to escape bondage, not blackness. Later, the promises of Reconstruction encouraged blacks to believe treatment equal to that enjoyed by whites was imminent. Instead, political disenfranchisement, social intimidation, and economic deprivation followed. Racial passing was a viable option to escape those circumstances. However, during the 1920s the Harlem Renaissance expanded conceptions of racial identity and offered alternatives to passing. The elimination of some racial barriers after World War II rendered racial passing passé. Second, the author calls attention to both the intended and unintended consequences of blacks passing as whites. On one hand, passing offered opportunities for economic gains, but on the other hand, there were social losses associated with leaving families and friends behind. “Once one circumvented the law, fooled coworkers, deceived neighbors, tricked friends, and sometimes even duped children and spouses,” writes Hobbs, “there were enormous costs to pay” (p. 5).

The author contends “the core issue of passing is not becoming what you pass for, but losing what you pass away from” (p. 18). Passing, a performative, subversive, and tactical exercise, required constant vigilance to protect a newly crafted identity from exposure. Eventually, those who passed, temporarily or permanently, faced questions about gains and losses. A variety of historical and literary sources, supplemented by materials from popular and mixed media, make A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life come to life as readers are introduced to racially ambiguous women and men, including Ellen Craft, Henry Bibb, John H. Rapier, and descendants of Sally Hemings and Sarah Martha Sanders, all of whom were interested in acquiring equal opportunities, suffrage, and citizenship, more so than in actually becoming white.

Hobbs is at her best when melding discussions about historical narratives, autobiographies, and biographies with popular literary productions. The deft treatment of works like Charles W. Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), and Langston Hughes’s Not Without Laughter (1930) and The Big Sea (1940) underscores the absence of a homogeneous identity among blacks. Toomer, described by others as a “Negro” writer, insisted that he was an American writer. Larsen appeared conflicted racially, while Hughes embraced blackness without equivocation. [End Page 465]

A Chosen Exile, a highly recommended read, concludes with a discussion about the Albert Johnston family of Keene, New Hampshire, who lived as whites and enjoyed special privileges until their son, who was unaware of his racial identity, made disparaging remarks about a black friend. Those comments prompted the family to examine its rationale for passing, ultimately choosing to tell their children and the world the truth about their racial identity. Popular magazines highlighted their life experiences, which served as the basis for the film Lost Boundaries (1949).

Finally, the epilogue reminds readers of the complexities involved in passing and highlights the fluidity of race making. Regardless of the era, old racial ideologies seem to reproduce themselves anew. Such an environment makes it possible for the agile to simultaneously embrace and transcend their race as needed. Demographic shifts result in more racial ambiguity and traction for “hybridity” (p. 274). Citizens may now mark more than one U.S. census identity category. Ultimately, the imagined color-blind and postracial society does not exist. Race continues to matter.

Wilma King
University of Missouri


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pp. 465-466
Launched on MUSE
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