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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Sinclair Lewis' Passing Novel--Kingsblood Royal

This is a photograph of George Bonga, a Minnesota fur trapper and one of the first African-Americans born in Minnesota. He was the grandson of two slaves brought to Mackinac by a British officer and freed there, and his mother was an Ojibwa woman.) 

In 1947, Sinclair Lewis published, a satirical novel that was nominally about George Bonga and much more directly about America's complicated relationship with race. The novel's hero is a very white man in a very white suburb doing research to prove that he's descended from royalty, who discovers, instead, that his ancestor was essentially George Bonga--which makes the hero of Kingsblood Royal, a man of color--at least according to the one-drop rule. 

The hero is shocked by this discovery, but as he starts telling people, his world falls apart, leading him to wonder what life is really like for those poor black folk who live so separately on the wrong side of town. 

The white press couldn't stand Lewis' novel. There's no way, they said that any such well-to do guy would have been so stupid as to claim his hidden heritage. The black press loved it and thought it was very astute. Paul Robeson's wife, Eslanda, said she appreciated Lewis' approach to material "from the white side," and--get this--said that she was working on a novel about somebody passing for white from the "other side of the medal." You may not know this--I did not know this--but Paul Robeson's wife was an author, civil rights worker and anthropologist. 

I wonder why most of us have never heard about Kingsblood Royal, or George Bonga or his father, Pierre or his Ojibwa mother? And why the heck have we never been taught about Paul Robeson's wife, who--by the way--co-wrote a book with Pearl Buck? I also want to know how to find that manuscript of Eslanda Cardozo Robeson's the one approaching this material from the other side of the medal.  Oh, how I would love to read that. 

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