I. Contextualizing Masculine Forms of Racial Passing: Jean Toomer
Our thinking of about multiracialism has evolved from slave rape, the two-drop rule, miscegenation laws, and more recently to public speculation over racial identities as a political agenda. Thus, it is now at the forefront of Western discourse. In a dialectic with American events, mixed-race writers and their subjects have established a unique canon marked by time period; there were once authors who chose to pass, and their existence has prompted creative interrogation and exploration for contemporary multiracial authors. Once threatened by cultural erasure, this group has powerfully emerged as a voice within American society at large. I am interested in racial passing as both a narratology and a social phenomenon. I have found early 20th-century works helpful in this study, long before the emergence of multiracialism as a term; “hybridity” was not openly a part of American political discourse until the 1990s. I believe that this recognition is long overdue, and that passing is an effective lens through which to tell the multiracial or biracial story before they reached their full culmination. Most early American passing narratives catalyze thematic and social questions concerning how the subject is regarded in public spheres, and this probing causes suffering in both overt and nuanced forms. The process of passing necessitates the creation of a fiction, which has its proposed social benefits but ultimately entails self-mutilation and dissociation.
Jean Toomer published a collection of short stories titled Cane in 1923. I argue that Toomer problematically uses slavery as a vehicle to show the brutality which immobilized the black body, and yet the author strangely denounces blackness as a part of his own heritage. Toomer’s work is heavily marked by blackness, while ironically he rescinds his own; I see Toomer’s denial of his own ethnicity as intentionally oppositional to his creative objective in Cane. I question whether works of racial passing, when written by a multiracial individual, can separate the author’s biographical experience from the perhaps didactic forms of their work. In consideration of Washington’s acting roles and statements, I want to continue to grapple with Toomer’s proposition that whiteness is not only a means of equality, but is also a proclamation of a “human” status to which he chose to submit for professional (albeit more personal) reasons. Toomer explained that he saw himself as more of a “man” than a specific race, and that he wanted to be regarded as independent from the Harlem Renaissance and thus avoid genre grouping. In his eyes, this decision would legitimize his work as intellectual, and distinguish him from writers “too” persuaded by their ethnicity. Toomer states,
“Here in America we are in the process of forming a new race, that I was one of the first conscious members of this race. I had seen the divisions, the separatisms and antagonisms [yet] a new type of man was arising in this country—not European, not African, not Asiatic—but American. And in this American I saw the divisions mended, the differences reconciled—saw that we would in truth be a united people existing in the United States, saw that we would in truth be once again members of a united human race” (Smithsonian.)
II. Imitation of Life as Washington’s Breakthrough Role & The Tragic Mulatta Framework
Washington had humbled and disciplined beginnings in the black theatre community, which show her involvement in a city where African-Americans sought to amalgamate the aesthetic functions of blackness with the political; such a force was a declaration of a safe space and a strong presence. In Box 1, there is a letter to Washington from Josef Israels II. Lyric Theatre on W. 42nd St which compliments her acting in “Run, Little Chillun”, in which she was the only woman participant in 1933. There is also an undated review of her performance written in “This Week in NY.” It appears that Washington was not only dedicated to her craft, but also was not afraid to break career barriers on the basis of race and/or gender; this points to her theatrical and cinematic choices as social commentary in terms of minority representation in addition to her career diligence. I therefore read her acting roles as hybrid in both form and function: she uses her fictional roles to draw attention to what were significant tensions and remain so.
As her breakthrough role, Fredi Washington (1903-1994) played the racially passing woman Peola in the first Imitation of Life in 1934, directed by John M. Stahl. As opposed to career-driven masculine characterized passing, feminine passing is usually impulsive and victimized. The film featured a black and white cast which played a white mother-daughter duo and their black counterparts. The scripted generosity of the white mother-daughter duo are depicted early on as heroism or salvation; they take in the black mother-daughter duo in what is essentially domestic labor. The black mother fits within an Aunt Jemima archetype, and bellows “yes’m” or “no’m” to precede most of her lines. Problematically even for the time, Peola and her mother work in a pancake house, with the profits used to pay the white family out of gratitude. The black mother even ascertains at various points that she does not want to keep any of her own earned money, which demonstrates her written financial illiteracy and moreover her uncomplicated compliance. Black and white viewers had varied reactions—as did the cinematic community. There was backlash that the plot perpetuated mammy stereotypes through the jolly Aunt Jemima character that were exhausting and overdone, while others saw the integration of black and white mother daughter duos working together in a liminal space as optimistic. The overarching trope in Peola’s character belongs to,
“The tragic mulatto myth (which) dates back to 19th-century American literature. The myth almost exclusively focuses on biracial individuals […] who pass for white. They are sometimes unaware of their black heritage. Upon discovering their African ancestry, tragedy ensues because such characters find themselves barred from white society and, thus, the privileges associated with whiteness. Distraught at their fate as people of color, tragic mulattoes in literature often entered a downward spiral, unsure of which community to join, sometimes ending in suicide.” (University of Houston Clear Lake.)
Peola’s existence as somewhere in-between black and white is constantly employed when she cries out for her singular whiteness, especially in scenes of embarrassment when her mother interrupts her. The writing of the black mother is scripted as obedient and non-dimensional to the extent to which is almost too “easy”, from a contemporary viewership, to kill off her character. Within a tragic mulatta framework as quoted above, it seems as though Peola’s fate serves as a possible warning as to “what can happen” if one decides to racially pass, and furthermore foreshadows the perceived threats of an integrated American society as it develops. For example, once Peola tries to leave the status into which she was born in pursuit of white superiority, she is thwarted and destroyed in the most intimate way possible: her mother, a signifier of culture through bloodline. The film’s release during The Great Depression appeases a white audience in a time of economic downturn—the failure of black life could indicate white prosperity and ownership, as shown by the pancake house. The white mother-daughter duo who grant the black mother an extravagant funeral are again brought to a position of “goodness”, and Peola is reduced to the implicated consequences. Most importantly, Imitation of Life allows visibility for the passing subject as a member of what was considered a silent subgroup, which brings issues of multiracialism to the forefront of American speculation.
III. Fan Correspondence
In Box 1 of the Washington papers at The Amistad Research Center, there is a letter from a James Samson dated March 5th, 1935. Samson introduces himself as a colored man from Chicago, and responds to the thematic content of the film, but groups it as having biographical meaning for Washington. He proposes that Washington should attempt to pass for white as her character did, not because whiteness is necessarily superior, but because it would allow both Washington and Peola livelihood. Much of Washington’s correspondence consists of black fans’ fixation over Peola’s ambiguous beauty and admiration of the character’s choice to racially pass. These items demonstrate the national shame associated with blackness and are painful to encounter, which psychoanalytically show African-Americans seeing themselves as the very labor and domesticity to which they are subjected. Thus certain black fans understand and even sympathize with Peola’s written choice instead of asking how Peola could be so cold or senseless to the identity which raised her. Interestingly, most of the fan correspondence praises Washington’s role as Peola, without much reference to the traumatic loss of her black mother which to me held most of the film’s emotional weight.
“I think you played your part wonderful and I like the part that you played because I am colored and I think every person that look as much like white as you did I think that they should pass for white not because I believe that they are better than colored people but I believe your chances are better if you could pass for white.”
The omission of punctuation and grammar mistakes throughout this letter indicate that that the film reached people with perhaps less resources, educational or otherwise. This letter offers an invaluable sense of representation for those who are not necessarily heard, respected, or considered “cultured” in mainstream America.
Another example from Box 1 folder 9 is shown above, which is a letter from Mary Slecknoe dated for March 10th, 1935. Slecknoe states that although she has not written a letter in years, she wants to take this opportunity to express how moved she was by Washington’s role. Slecknoe states that the picture (the film) was one of the first to highlight the racial tragedy of “looking white and being black” in a unique way and concludes, “If I were colored, but looked white, I should try to pass.” This sentence reveals that our writer is a white woman. Thus as the researcher, I saw how fans of different backgrounds played into an evolving race question. Imitation of Life was a cultural marker because the viewers were hypothetically placing themselves in the position of the character and applying the situation to a realistic American event. Slecknoe continues through the statement, “You looked like a dusty foreigner […] (like) a Spanish girl. I wonder how much white or dark blood you have.” Slecknoe asks what Washington’s racial makeup is, and urges Washington to not be offended by her curiosity–showing that exoticization is the fan’s largest take away from Washington’s work. She was certainly not the only one. Even for back then, these few sentences point to the offensive and unnecessary nature of racial probing to define who is a white American–and therefore successful–and who is not. The subtleties of the fan letters along with the screenplay reveal microaggressive racism, to which Washington responded by calling for a social revision.
IV. Washington’s Response and Political Activism
Washington felt the need to clarify that her role was not to be taken as her own position for debate and counteracted the film in a Chicago Defender article dated June 16, 1945 titled “To Pass or Not To Pass?” She states,
“Personally I don’t worry about the problem of color. I am a Negro and I am proud of it. I go where I want to and do what I like and enjoy life. I don’t try to ‘pass’ nor do I hang a sandwich sign on me to warn people that I am a Negro or to explain that I am not white. You can see how absurd that would be. I simply act naturally.”
I found her words to be helpful in my understanding of Washington as Peola, and Washington as her own black woman exercising her rights. The “sandwich sign” that she carefully portrays directly illustrates that she does not want to be seen as a product, but rather as a person. “Sandwich” also powerfully connotes consumption, and suggests that she is encouraging the public to stop invasively trying to make her into something that she simply is not. I see her in conversation with Toomer as wanting to just be a person, but moreover as rupturing notions of black shame and accentuating the “absurdity” behind racial hysteria. Her “natural” disposition and nonchalance towards “the problem of color”, then, are constructed on the premise that there is worthiness in one’s own blackness—a statement that could have potentially ruined her career. Washington alluding to “the problem of color” might have served a response to W.E.B. DuBois’s famous sentence, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea” (The Souls of Black Folk, 1903.)
Additionally, Washington’s activist relationship with Walter White, the head of the NAACP from 1931-1955 is documented. Box 1 at Amistad also has a newspaper article dated titled “Who Passes for White?” with page two headlined as “THE COLOR LINE COMPLEX.” The caption of his photograph reads that White uses “his appearance as a weapon against discrimination” in reference to White’s dangerous research on lynching and black inequality in the south while passing as a white man. These headlines were built around the premise that a black person could exist in white spaces, unbeknownst to anyone around them, and made it appropriate (or encouraged) to be curious. Interestingly, the article states that racial passing is explicable through black manipulation rather than white control. For example, the journalists cite that African-Americans want to enjoy the same luxuries as white people and that is why they pass; there is no citation of the oppression and injustice from which one would want to escape.
V. Transcending the Tragic Mulatta Framework: A New Multiracial Canon
I argue that Fredi Washington’s role and advocacy encouraged the telling and retelling of “racial passing”, especially from a gendered perspective. Ultimately, Washington’s work has evolved into the multiracial experience at large. Multiracial subjects affirming their blackness as an integral part to who they are proposes that with time, hopefully the subject can harmoniously exist as plural without resistance. Danzy Senna’s Caucasia (1999) writes of twin sisters Birdie and Cole who have opposite appearances but are very close; they might be read as representative of Senna’s own once conflictual identity. In regards to her duty to narrativize the multiracial experience, she states,
“Sometimes I feel exhausted and suffocated by it and stalked by it. This is something very important though: I don’t choose to make it an issue in my life; it is made an issue in my life. And I remember my grandmother, my White grandmother, saying to me, you know, ‘I wish you guys wouldn’t talk about race all the time.’” (JSTOR.)
Birdie and Cole are coded within their sisterhood and even have a made-up oral language called “Elemeno.” Only they understand it, which ironically unites their shared experiences within their physical differences. It is discouraged by the rest of the family, but it is a special part of the twins’ fragmented childhood together. This language also relates to the novel’s textuality; “Elemeno” is eternally understood by the shared bloodline, just as Senna uses language to show the challenges and tropes of biracial life as she understands it. Birdie and Coal often observe old photographs of their black relatives that they keep under their beds in secret, Birdie states that they are poignantly “the only proof that these people had existed” (Senna, 21.)