A wife lives in constant fear that her husband will discover she’s not who she claims to be. A black aspiring architect is mistaken for an ethnicity other than his own and is offered a job he never would’ve accessed had he corrected the error. A pregnant mother prays nightly that her baby’s skin won’t betray a bit of brownness. Such are the predicaments of characters in the early 20th century “passing narratives” I’ve loved since my days as an undergraduate English major.
To “pass,” as African American writers in the early 1900s defined it, was to choose to escape from the violence and discrimination attendant to blackness — a privilege possible only for those whose skin was light enough to pull it off. Peaking in popularity by the 1930s, passing narratives were often melodramatic and cautionary, detailing the myriad dangers of abandoning one’s black identity in order to take cover amid the white communities that systemically oppressed black citizens.
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