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Morning Forum of Los Altos speaker shares inspiration behind project on racial passing


Allyson Hobbs shed light on racial identity in her presentation “A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life” at the Morning Forum of Los Altos Oct. 16.

Hobbs, associate professor of history and director of African and African-American studies at Stanford University, invited the audience to participate by asking them to recall a time when their identity was mistaken, based on racial, gender, regional or religious identities, and then share their stories.

She explained that the inspiration for her project on racial passing – which documents the stories of African-Americans who passed as whites – was a compelling story her aunt related about a distant cousin who grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1930s.

The last time the cousin would enjoy racial pride, community and togetherness was watching the historic Bud Billiken Parade, the largest African-American parade in the country. She was a young black woman who was very light-skinned and looked white. The young woman’s mother insisted that she move to Los Angeles to pass as a white woman. She married a white man and never returned to Chicago, even when her father died.

The curious phenomenon of passing is that there are few historical records.

Hobbs searched the archives to find ghosts and discovered that the deeply personal act of passing often had painful consequences. The loss and pain of exile, alienation and isolation often outweighed the gain. Those family members and friends who were left behind shared the pain and the loss.

‘The darkness of loss’

During the antebellum period, Hobbs said, blacks knew they could be bought or sold; therefore, passing meant escape from slavery. Racially ambiguous persons used dress, behavior and mannerisms to pass as white. Ellen Craft passed as Mr. William Johnson, while her husband played the role of her slave. After the Civil War, there was great upheaval, and passing was more possible.

During the Jim Crow era, many blacks migrated to Northern cities. During the years of segregation, better jobs, better neighborhoods and more respectful treatment could be gained if an African-American could pass as white. Racially ambiguous blacks often “worked white” and passed from 9-5, according to Hobbs. Novelist Nella Larsen passed temporarily to eat in a white-only restaurant in the South. Hobbs shared the heartbreaking account of Elsie Roxborough, who was from a wealthy black family. She changed her name when she moved to New York City, passed as white and later took her own life.

By the 1940s and 1950s, passing was disavowed due to improving economic conditions, Hobbs noted. Dr. Albert Johnston, a light-skinned radiologist, and his family passed as white for 20 years, until it was revealed that he had belonged to a black college fraternity.

Eventually the Johnston family moved to Hawaii.

By the 1960s, she said, racial politics had again changed. Passing was rejected because it was no longer viewed as advantageous and “black was beautiful.”

“Each generation must navigate the social currents and racial realities of its own making,” Hobbs said. “There is a universality of loss in passing. The light of freedom is often overshadowed by the darkness of loss.”

The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. Subscriptions are open to new members. For more information, visit morningforum.org.

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