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Near Black

White-to-Black Passing in American Culture

Baz Dreisinger

Publication Year: 2008

In the United States, the notion of racial “passing” is usually associated with blacks and other minorities who seek to present themselves as part of the white majority. Yet as Baz Dreisinger demonstrates in this fascinating study, another form of this phenomenon also occurs, if less frequently, in American culture: cases in which legally white individuals are imagined, by themselves or by others, as passing for black. In Near Black, Dreisinger explores the oft-ignored history of what she calls “reverse racial passing” by looking at a broad spectrum of short stories, novels, films, autobiographies, and pop-culture discourse that depict whites passing for black. The protagonists of these narratives, she shows, span centuries and cross contexts, from slavery to civil rights, jazz to rock to hip-hop. Tracing their role from the 1830s to the present day, Dreisinger argues that central to the enterprise of reverse passing are ideas about proximity. Because “blackness,” so to speak, is imagined as transmittable, proximity to blackness is invested with the power to turn whites black: those who are literally “near black” become metaphorically “near black.” While this concept first arose during Reconstruction in the context of white anxieties about miscegenation, it was revised by later white passers for whom proximity to blackness became an authenticating badge. As Dreisinger shows, some white-to-black passers pass via self-identification. Jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow, for example, claimed that living among blacks and playing jazz had literally darkened his skin. Others are taken for black by a given community for a period of time. This was the experience of Jewish critic Waldo Frank during his travels with Jean Toomer, as well as that of disc jockey Hoss Allen, master of R&B slang at Nashville’s famed WLAC radio. For journalists John Howard Griffin and Grace Halsell, passing was a deliberate and fleeting experiment, while for Mark Twain’s fictional white slave in Pudd’nhead Wilson, it is a near-permanent and accidental occurrence. Whether understood as a function of proximity or behavior, skin color or cultural heritage, self-definition or the perception of others, what all these variants of “reverse passing” demonstrate, according to Dreisinger, is that the lines defining racial identity in American culture are not only blurred but subject to change.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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p. vii

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pp. 1-14

When do white people lose their whiteness? Consider four scenarios:
In his Picture of Slavery, published in 1834, George Bourne describes the case of a seven-year-old white boy who is stolen from his parents and “tattooed, painted and tanned. Every other method was also adopted which wickedness could devise, to change the exterior appearance of the unfortunate creature, ...

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Chapter 1 - White Panic and White Passing: Slavery and Reconstruction

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pp. 15-40

In his 1816 antislavery tract The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable, the Reverend George Bourne declared that “slave-holders would wade through seas of the blood of white men, as well as black men, to gratify their despotic propensities if they were not restrained.”1 ...

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Chapter 2 - Dy(e)ing to Be Black: “Mars Jeems’s Nightmare,” Black Like Me, and Watermelon Man

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pp. 41-69

Socially speaking, white passing involves a move from the center to the margin. Why might such a move be made? In the texts discussed in chapter 1, it was made by slaves, who had this shift foisted upon them; they were products of what Jane Gaines has called “coerced passing.”1 In this chapter I consider the move from center to margin as made by those who do possess varying de-...

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Chapter 3 - Black Like She: Grace Halsell and the Sexuality of Passing

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pp. 71-92

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, miscegenation was broadly conceived in terms of its transformative power: it could potentially turn white babies black. In the popular imagination, however, more than the baby could be blackened by sexual proximity between black and white. In 1732 the South Carolina Gazette published a poem, “The Chameleon Lover,” which envisioned...

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Chapter 4 - Contagious Beats: Passing, Autobiography, and Discourses of American Music

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pp. 93-119

In 1926 the Salvation Army of Cincinnati received a court injunction to halt the construction of a movie theater next door to one of its homes for expectant mothers. It was not the sights emanating from this theater that so vexed Cincinnati residents but rather the sounds that might seep out of its doors. ...

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Chapter 5 - Is Passing Passé in a “Post-Race” World?

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pp. 121-140

Is passing passé? Evidence to the contrary abounds. Recent years have witnessed an upsurge in racial passing narratives, the theme remaining central to at least three highly touted novels—Danzy Senna’s Caucasia (1998), Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1999), and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000)—as well as to the screen adaptations of Roth’s novel, starring Anthony...

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Epilogue: Hits and Misses of a Racial Free-for-All

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pp. 141-150

Not all white-to-black passing scenarios make for poignant memoirs or become gripping films. Some make headlines and become talk show fodder. In 1988 the New York Times reported on Philip and Paul Malone, “fair-haired, fair complexioned” twins who applied for jobs as firefighters in Boston in 1975 but were rejected because of low civil service test scores. They reapplied two years...


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pp. 151-178


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pp. 179-184

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760833
E-ISBN-10: 1613760833
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558496743
Print-ISBN-10: 1558496742

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 794701579
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Near Black

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Whites -- Race identity -- United States.
  • Passing (Identity) -- United States.
  • United States -- Race relations.
  • Popular culture -- United States.
  • Motion pictures -- United States -- History.
  • Race in literature -- Congresses.
  • Race in motion pictures.
  • American literature -- History and criticism.
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