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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Rachel Dolezal, Dolphus Raymond, Reverse Passing, And The Vagaries of History

I would be profoundly surprised if Rachel Dolezal is the first person in history to successfully pass as black. When you live in a world of multiple gradations of color that have been divided in power for centuries into black and white, there will be many people who find those flat boundaries don't fit, and who choose ways to cross them.

Some will do it blindly and with self-hatred, like Clarence Thomas, some via fairytale, like Rachel Dolezal.

Then, there's Dolphus Raymond from To Kill A Mockingbird, who pretended to be a drunk so that the white people in his community would allow him to live away from their pale hypocrisy, with his colored family. (And who surely must be based on a real, creative problem-solver, a man who was obviously not the only one in the country.)

It's just, we almost never hear about those people, just as, until recently, it was harder than pulling a healthy tooth to find out about people in this country who were able and willing to pass from black to white.

When I was calling academics, looking for contemporaneous oral histories or accounts of people who crossed the color line, I got, "Oh, that never happened. People might pass to ride the bus at the front, or to shop inside a department store, but as soon as they came home, they reverted back to their true selves."

I understand the desire to pretend this is true. When you're working so hard to find pride in that which is considered shameful by the outer world, when you're struggling every day to imbue your children with pride in themselves, in a culture that shames them, it can be deeply painful to consider those who gave up the battle, who painted on the face powder and left their fellows behind. This is something I'm exploring in my novel, "The Color Of Safety."

Still, Walter White, the blue-eyed, blond-haired, fair-skinned president of the NAACP for many years, said in his 1948 biography, "'Every year approximately twelve thousand white-skinned Negroes disappear—people whose absence cannot be explained by death or emigration. Nearly every one of the fourteen million discernible Negroes in the United States knows at least one member of his race who is “passing”—the magic word which means that some Negroes can get by as whites, men and women who have decided that they will be happier and more successful if they flee from the proscription and humiliation which the American color line imposes on them." 

So, back to Dolezal, who was raised under a different kind of oppression, in a Christian cult that believes children are carriers of the virus of original sin, and thus must have the evil beaten out of them. Dolezal was sixteen when her parents adopted four young children of color and would have been older when her parents sent two of they children off to a camp that was even more harsh than their upbringing at home, in an effort to free them from the devil. Those two children have completely rejected their parents, with one even filing for legal emancipation--something that has to be tough in the rural Western state where he lived.

So, somewhat like Dolphus Randolph, Dolezal recreated herself. In his case, that involved a brown paper bag and a pretense at drunkenness. In hers, it meant studying the culture she had been sideswiped with as a child. She has, it appears, become an expert in black hair, (something a friend of mine who was then starring on a soap opera fought to have but never got.) She has, it appears, become an expert on aspects of black history and politics. She married an African-American man and is raising two African-American boys, and somehow has persuaded herself that color is something you can convert to, like Judaism, or, these days, like gender.

Twenty, thirty, a hundred years ago, that would have been that, she would never have been found out.

But this is now. The world of the Internet makes everything viral. Dill would have blogged about Dolphus Randolph and his secret would have been blown.

The white world ridicules Dolezal. The world of color seems divided, with some saying, 'Welcome aboard," and some saying that she is a deluded example of White Privilege.

Yet, I cannot believe that Rachel Dolezal is historically alone in either her life-masquerade or her choice.

Does anybody have any historical stories of those who passed for black? What do you think about Dolezal's choices? And why?

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