Printer Friendly

Not entirely strange, but not entirely friendly either: images of Jews in African American passing novels through the Harlem renaissance.

"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line," W. E. B Du Bois famously asserted in the "Forethought" to his classic The Souls of Black Folk a full century ago now (209). Events proved his prophecy to have been all too accurate. Interestingly enough, however, one of the most problematic aspects of this "problem of the color line" has proven to be the concept of the color line itself. What exactly does the term "the color line" mean? First of all, we must acknowledge that no such line actually exists as a tangible entity, even in the way that something like the Mason-Dixon Line or the Maginot Line can be said to exist; there is nothing that we can point to or draw on a map or graph and say, "There's the color line." Secondly, the idea of a dividing line indicates that all items can be separated and placed on one side of the line or the other, yet the long history of the figure of the mulatto proves that this is not the case with regard to the color line, as mixed-race people have a legitimate claim to belonging on both sides of the line--unless, of course, we apply the "one drop rule," which is itself an idea fraught with problems. Finally, the color line differentiates based on appearance, and yet we all know that there is often a discrepancy between appearance and reality: a person may look "White" while being "Black." (1) As a concept, then, the color line disintegrates even as we begin to try to explain or define it.

Nowhere have the problematics of the color line been made more salient than within the tradition of racial passing in African American culture and literature. If a person is able to "cross" the color line without anyone else realizing it, then what does that line actually signify? The project of the African American passing novel can thus be seen as deconstructive, undermining the very basis by which racial identity is theoretically determined. As Jacquelyn Y. McLendon has noted in writing about Jessie Redmon Fauset and Nella Larsen, "By drawing attention to physical appearance versus biological reality, both writers call into question socially constructed notions of race" (72). Samira Kawash, similarly, writing of James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), asserts that "the figure of passing as it is narrativized in these [passing] novels challenges the received notions of race, identity, and cultural difference that continue to inform our understanding of the politics of representation. [T]he passing narrative is not about the representation of blackness or whiteness; rather, it is about the failure of blackness or whiteness to provide the grounds for a stable, coherent identity" (62-63). Johnson's title makes this point clear: if being colored is an essential part of one's being, then how can one cease to be colored without ceasing to exist altogether? And yet that is exactly what the protagonist, the "ex-colored man," claims to have done. By the end of Langston Hughes's satirical short story "Who's Passing for Who?" (1952), to cite another example, the reader can't tell whether two of the characters are Blacks passing as Whites passing as Blacks, or Whites passing as Blacks passing as Whites. Thus Valerie Rohy, like McLendon and Kawash, has stated that "The discourse of racial passing reveals the arbitrary foundation of the categories 'black' and 'white'" (227), while Valerie Smith has written that "The bodies of mixed-race characters defy the binarisms upon which constructions of racial identity depend" (45). African American writers, in telling stories about Black characters who pass as White, can therefore be seen as urging readers to do away with such terminology altogether, to disavow the whole notion of the color line as an antiquated concept, one that is incapable of explaining a reality more complicated than such an "either/or" division allows.

And yet these same writers more often than not castigate the very characters who try to cross the line, either killing them off (think especially of Clare Kendry in Larsen's Passing [1929] but also Clarence Garie in Frank Webb's The Garies and Their Friends [1857] among others) or having them return to their "proper" place on the "Black side" (as do Iola Leroy in Frances Harper's novel of that name [1892] and Rena Walden in Charles Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars [1900], to cite two instances). Johnson's narrator in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man opts to stay on the "White side" for his children's sake, but he realizes that, personally, he has "chosen the lesser part, that [he has] sold [his] birthright for a mess of pottage" (511). As Patricia Ramsey has pointed out, "invariably those who 'pass' suffer" (4).

The tradition of the passing novel in African American literature would thus be more accurately termed the tradition of the anti-passing novel. What these characters discover time and time again is that passing as a solution to one's personal problems brought about by racism "do[es] not seem to work" (Ramsey 3). The authors insist that, while the concept of the color line may be arbitrary and unreal, mixed-race characters "belong" on the Black side and should be content to stay there. Though the appearance may be that such a line does not exist, the reality is that it does, if only in the minds and attitudes of other people, both Black and White, and that crossing it is therefore physically or at least psychically dangerous. After deconstructing the color line, in other words, the African American novel of passing builds it up again, higher and stronger than it was before. This reconstitution is apparently what Valerie Smith means when she writes that "classic passing narratives seem ideologically self-contradictory" (44), that they are in fact "sites where antiracist and white supremacist ideologies converge, encouraging their black readers to stay in their places" (44).

Passing thus, to use Mary Conde's phrasing of the same point Smith makes, "both destabilizes and reinforces the construction of ethnic identity" (93) because it shows, on the one hand, that identity is a construction, a socially ordained rather than a biologically necessary distinction, and, on the other hand, that identity is nevertheless different on the two sides of the color line. It may appear that passing as White is physically easy for the person who appears White, but the reality is that it is not, since Black and White are, indeed, as different as black and white. And so we arrive at the definition of passing that I paraphrase in the title of this essay: Nella Larsen's description of passing as the "breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one's chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly" (157). The cultural differences between living White and living Black are such that a Black person's attempt to cover over them by passing is frequently less salutary than the passer thought it would be. The two racial identities can be compared to a point, but only to a point, after which the analogy falls apart.

Despite the obvious permeability of the color line, passing novelists conclude that relations between Blacks and Whites can only go so far. These novelists make much the same point with regard to relations between Blacks and Jews. The best-known African American passing novels often refer to Jews or even introduce Jewish characters. Occasionally, such allusions illustrate that African Americans are not the only people for whom passing is a serious concern; more often African American writers who interrogate racial passing determine that Blacks and Jews can only be compared up to a point, specifically, to the point at which they end up on opposite sides of the color line. And they determine that their situations are similar but are not in fact the same. From their African American perspectives, Jews are not entirely strange, in Larsen's phrase, but because they ultimately are not Black, they are not entirely friendly either.

Jews challenge the myth of the color line in much the same way that mixed race people do: by seeming to stand on top of it rather than to one side or the other. Throughout the nineteenth century, Jews were thought to occupy some physical space between Black and White. As Sander Gilman points out in his essay, "Dangerous Liaisons: Black Jews, Jewish Blacks, and the Vagaries of Racial Definition," Jews were considered by such racial "scientists" of the day as Robert Knox and Johann Caspar Lavater to be physiognomically Black; they wrote of "'the African character of the Jew,'" and pointed to "'their short, black, curly hair, their brown skin color'" and, most notably, an alleged close relation between the Jewish nose and the African nose (45). Even into the twentieth century, the Nazis were not alone in racially aligning Jews and Blacks.

Several African American passing novels foreground this "Jew as Black" strain. In Fauset's Comedy: American Style (1933), for example, the light-skinned and color-struck mother figure, Olivia Blanchard, is relieved when her son Christopher is born light enough to pass; Fauset writes that she "was not the least fraction worried over the closely curling tendency of his slightly reddish hair. She had known Jews with hair much kinkier" (38). In George Schuyler's satirical novel about rupturing the color line, Black No More (1931), Dr. Junius Crookman, the inventor of a process which turns Blacks into Whites, notes that "'many so-called Caucasians, particularly the Latins, Jews, and South Irish ... show almost Negroid lips and noses'" (32). Indeed, when so many Blacks have turned White that African American beauticians are losing business, their only remaining steady customers for hair straightening are Jewish girls whose hair otherwise "wouldn't stand inspection in the Nordic world" (60). A final, telling example of this rhetoric can be found in John Oliver Killens's The Cotillion (1971), less a passing novel than a satirical expose of the Black Bourgeoisie, a group Killens constructs as trying to pass as White in action if not in appearance. The protagonist's father, Matthew Lovejoy, asserts:
 All them Jews were colored in them
 [Biblical] days. And the white man,
 talking about the Romans, they had
 colonized them, and Jesus was a Black
 Power man and was trying to freedomize
 them. That's how come they
 crucifixed him. A lot of them Jews
 were toms, and they panicked after
 Jesus split, and they went off to Europe
 for two thousand years and miscegenated
 with them white Europeans
 and passed on into the white race.
 That's how come some of them suckers
 still got kinky hair, I mean to this very
 day. They ain't nothing but light-complected
 Negroes passing. (29)

Lovejoy unifies Blacks and Jews as two groups confined to one side of the color line by both physical characteristics and a high desire to cross over to the other side.

For all that, however, physical similarities between Blacks and Jews can only go so far, as Larsen makes clear in a scene from Passing where the dual main characters, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield, converse with another African American woman, Gertrude Martin, about their mutual acquaintance, Claude Jones. Gertrude informs them that Jones "was no longer a Negro or a Christian but had become a Jew" (169). Although he seems to conform to all of the Jewish laws regarding diet, worship, and personal grooming, none of the novel's Black characters take his conversion seriously. Most of them agree with Gertrude's husband who "'says [that] he's crazy'" (169). Irene herself tries to defend him, arguing that "'he might possibly be sincere'" (169), but the other women's laughter overcomes her. The difficulty these Black characters have in accepting Jones's Jewishness is that, like most contemporary Americans, especially African Americans, they think of Jews as being White. (2) No doubt because the majority of American Jews are of Ashkenazi (European) rather than Sephardic (Arabic) background, they have found themselves in somewhat the same position that Julia Stern describes as the lot of the Spanish gentleman in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852): "the non-black, nonwhite other passes [as White] precisely because such otherness remains relatively unintelligible in the terms of a manichean hierarchical system" (110). (3) Here again, then, we see the concept of the color line undermined: if Jews are White and Jones is a Jew, then Jones must be White, but he's not. The truth of the matter, of course, is that, Jones's having become a Jew does not mean that he "was no longer a Negro." Indeed, there are many people throughout the world who are both Black and Jewish, as Gilman has observed. Nevertheless, the laughter that Jones's position inspires in Gertrude and Clare indicates that, no matter how Jewish Jones might act, he still "looks Black," and one cannot, to their way of thinking, be both Black and Jewish at the same time. As far as they're concerned, Blacks and Jews are not the same, and the categories are in fact mutually exclusive. So, the idea of a member of the first category passing into the second is absurd. The connection can only go so far before it becomes untenable.

More often than describing the physical, phenotypic resemblance (or lack thereof) between Blacks and Jews, however, African American passing novelists who posit an affinity between these groups tend to do so less tangibly by historically or spiritually aligning Jews with Blacks. In The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, for example, Johnson's narrator points out that, as a young man, he "picked up the thread of history on which are strung the trials and tribulations of the Hebrew children" and "followed [it] with feverish interest and excitement" (405). The implication, of course, is that there is a correlation between the history of this oppressed people and the history of his own Black ancestors, a common trope notable in spirituals such as "Go Down, Moses," one of the texts that Johnson turned into a poetic sermon in God's Trombones (1927). Later in the novel the narrator describes how, returning by ship to America after a trip to England, he and another passenger "discussed the race problem, not only of the United States, but as it affected native Africans and Jews" (477). Again persecution theoretically connects the two groups. Furthermore, in Fauset's Comedy: American Style, the Black character Phebe, argues against racism by referring to a famously persecuted Jewish figure:
 "I think we all spend too much time on
 color," she says. "It doesn't seem to
 make sense to me.... We're all people,
 aren't we? It's like that thing we had to
 learn in The Merchant of Venice....
 'Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew
 hands, organs, dimensions' ... and all
 the rest of it. Perhaps some day the
 world will see how silly it all is" (237).

This high-sounding rhetoric is all well and good as theory, but it goes only so far in the real world, as other passing novelists point out. In Iola Leroy, for example, the light-skinned titular heroine has a hard time finding work because she refuses to pass as White. Having been forced out of one job when the other salesgirls become aware of her background, Iola applies for a position with Mr. Cohen. After informing him that she is "colored," he responds that "it made no difference to him," but he also tells her, "'Don't say anything about it to the girls. They might not be willing to work with you'" (206). Indeed, when they discover that she is Black, they confront Mr. Cohen about it, and he "yielded to the pressure, and informed Iola that her services were no longer needed" (207). While there is no explicit reference to Mr. Cohen's Jewishness in this brief scene, Harper implies that he is a Jew-the name could not be more obvious--and I surmise that his initial lack of concern about Iola's background stems from his belief that all people, whether White, Black, or Jewish, deserve an equal chance at economic success. At the same time, though, he shows himself weak, only espousing such equality when it doesn't threaten his business. Rather than standing up for Iola's right to work in his establishment, for his own right to grant opportunity where he pleases, he gives in to the other shopgirls' narrow-mindedness. His willingness to help Iola shrivels up when aiding her threatens his operation.

A similar pattern appears in the two most extensive portraits of Jewish characters in African American passing novels: Rachel Salting in Jessie Redmon Fauset's Plum Bun (1929) and Sylvia Smith (originally Bernstein) in Walter White's Flight (1926). Fauset's novel details the history of Angela Murray, a light-skinned Black woman who, following the death of her parents, changes her name to Angele Mory and moves to New York City, intending to live as a White woman and pursue a career as an artist. Having taken an apartment on Jayne Street, Angele discovers that a Jewish woman lives in the apartment above her. One interesting aspect of the novel's depiction of racial appearance and reality is that, while Angele is able to hide her Blackness, at least for a while, Jewish characters are never able to hide their Jewishness. Indeed, this had been the case even in Angela's native Philadelphia when she had been passing so as to attend an art class. Her "true" racial identity is disclosed one day when a childhood friend comes in to pose for the class and refuses to model for another "colored" person; the instructor assures her that there are no colored students in the class, but she asks him, "'Isn't that Angela Murray over there next to that Jew[ish] girl?'" (71). Angela has been able to fool all of the people in the class; none had intuited her blackness. And yet this other Black woman instantly knows that the girl sitting next to Angela is Jewish. The same instant recognition of the Jew happens later in the novel, after Angela has moved to New York and taken on a new identity. She begins to meet the other members of her new art class and discovers "a beautiful Jewess with a pearly skin and a head positively foaming with curls" (95). And it happens again with her neighbor, who is first introduced to the reader as "the Jewish girl who lived above [Angele]" (107), and later described as having hair that is "jet black and curling" and eyes that are "large and almond-shaped" (211). Because such similar passages occur three times with regard to three different women, Fauset implies that Jewish racial identity is immediately apprehensible based on appearance, whereas African American blood only shows Black to Black.

Be that as it may, Angele and Rachel Salting, as two young women living alone in the same building, eventually become friends, although Rachel never suspects that Angele is "really" an African American passing as White. They tell each other about their dreams and, especially, about their love lives. Angele has recently begun dating a rich White man, Roger Fielding, while Rachel, it seems, is engaged to be married to a tall blond man whom Angele has seen several times in the apartment building. The problem is that Rachel's fiancee, John Adams, is not Jewish. Her concern about getting their parents to consent to the marriage, Rachel tells Angele, is "'nothing you'd ever have to bother about'" (213), an obviously ironic comment given the (unknown to all but herself) fact of Angele's interracial affair with Roger. Still, Rachel is excited about her future and paints glowing pictures of what her life with John will be like, pictures that remind Angele very strongly of the stories her own parents had told about their lives together as poor but happy young marrieds. As time goes by, and particularly after Angele and Roger break up, the two young women grow increasingly close, to the point where Angele begins to think of Rachel "as though the later were her own sister instead of a chance acquaintance whom she had known less than a year" (248). When Rachel is offered a job in a distant section of Brooklyn, however, their friendship is threatened, a situation that is particularly problematic for Angele, who has few other friends in the city and, as with most characters who are passing, is always looking over her shoulder lest her "true" identity be uncovered.

Later in the novel an agitated Rachel comes to see Angele. She announces that her marriage to John has been called off by their parents, particularly her Orthodox father. Angele--who has recently suffered the end of another relationship, this one with an African American artist, Anthony Cross, who had called a halt to his pursuit of Angele because he thought she was White--urges her to get married anyway, asserting that "'Personally I think all this pother about race and creed and colour [is] tommyrot'" (312). Angele responds to her friend's distress at first, but when Rachel explains that she is afraid of her father's curse, Angele finds it "difficult ... to sympathize with an attitude so archaic" (312), and again she urges Rachel to disregard her parents' wishes and follow her heart. "'Love,'" she says, "'is supposed to be the greatest thing in the world but look how we smother and confine it. Jews mustn't marry Catholics; white people mustn't marry coloured--'" (313).

Here in the novel's most blatant statement of Black-Jewish affinity, Fauset is obviously pointing out the parallels in the situations of the two women whose hearts have been broken as a result of the artificial constructs reified as the color line and the religion line. She clearly condemns the power of these constraints. With Rachel's response, however, the whole situation sharply twists: "'Oh well, of course not,'" Rachel responds to Angele's statement that White people mustn't marry Blacks. "'I wouldn't marry a nigger in any circumstances. Why, would you?'" (313). Rachel can elicit Angele's commiseration, but she cannot extend the same feelings of sympathy beyond her own particular situation, in the reverse direction. That Rachel is still unaware of Angele's racial identity does not excuse her comment, particularly given her own line-crossing situation. At Rachel's bigotry, Angele "turn[s] and, burying her head in her pillow, ... burst[s] into unrestrained and bitter laughter" (313), leaving Rachel stunned and perplexed, without "'hav[ing] the ghost of an idea what to do for her!'" (313)

Indeed Rachel does not. Her understanding of Angele's situation is so determined by the fallacy of "racial" phenotypes and racist assumptions that she cannot begin to help her friend, even though Fauset posits their situations as similar. The novelist pares Rachel's final appearance in the novel into a terse, wordless statement: after Angela's attempt to pass as White is exposed, "from Rachel Salting [she did not hear] one single word" (357). Ultimately, the encounter between Angela and Rachel demonstrates that the similarities and affinities of Blacks and Jews align only to the point that Jews themselves recognize their own positions vis-a-vis whiteness and the color line. Fauset may have "challenged the irrationalities of the American attempt to classify races biologically and dramatized race as a cultural construct" (xxiii), as Deborah McDowell argues in her introduction to a 1990 reprinting of Plum Bun; yet this cultural construct has very real implications for the relationship between these two individuals and, by extension, between the two peoples they represent. As Black and Jew, Angela and Rachel are not entirely strange to each other, but they are not entirely friendly either.

Walter White's Flight depicts a more positive relationship between Mimi Daquin and Sylvia Smith than that between Plum Bun's Angela Murray and Rachel Salting, at least for the main character of Flight. But it, too, only goes to the point of Jewish willingness to align with Blacks on the same side of the color line when that coalition threatens Jewish sociopolitical standing in White America. Mimi first meets Sylvia two-thirds of the way through the novel when, having decided to pass for White, she gets a job with a fancy dressmaker, Madame Francine. Sylvia's sewing table happens to be next to Mimi's, where the experienced worker helps the newcomer to learn the ropes. When Mimi expresses her surprise at finding out that a Black woman used to be a fitter at the establishment, she and Sylvia enter into a discussion of racial prejudice. Echoing Angele's comments to Rachel, Sylvia asserts that "'Race prejudice is a lot of bunk'" and tells Mimi, "'Take me for instance.... My real name's Bernstein--but you can't get by in some of these places if they think you're a Jew. So my name here is Smith'" (218). The irony, of course, is that Mimi is passing as White for precisely the same reason: the conviction that she wouldn't be able to "get by in some of these places" if the employers perceived her as Black. The similarity between the two young women's positions clarifies the lunacy of racial constructs. Their feeling of connectedness is so strong, in fact, that Mimi "felt an urge to tell her new friend that she too was sailing under false colours, but she feared to reveal this fact so early in their acquaintance" (218). Indeed, despite her feeling that "she could trust Sylvia implicitly" (218), she never does reveal her secret; the two become friends, but Mimi resists Sylvia's efforts towards greater intimacy by declining offers to bond as well with Sylvia's other (non-Black) friends.

Mimi admires both Sylvia's personality and her business acumen, her determination to one day have a salon of her own. Although Mimi has similar dreams for herself, she lacks the initiative that her friend has. Significantly, Mimi attributes this determination to Sylvia's racial background. She remarks that Sylvia is "'ambitious, [j]ust like a Jew'" (219). She immediately regrets this thought--"though she meant nothing derogatory," White writes, "she was ashamed she had used a phrase so often spoken in dispraise of Sylvia's race" (219), particularly since in their earlier conversation regarding the Black fitter she had assured Sylvia that "'I'm not prejudiced'" (218)--Mimi persists in thinking of her as Jewish, much as Angela always considered Rachel. This point is emphasized later in White's description of Sylvia's face as being "dark and in moments of intense feeling strong with the mark of Israel upon it" (220). In other words, Sylvia seems to be on the wrong side of the color line, whereas nobody suspects that Mimi is hiding her own racial background. A list of the unwary includes not only Sylvia but also Madame Francine, who turns out to be an Irish immigrant passing as French, demonstrating Valerie Smith's claim that "members of all disenfranchised groups ... depend upon masquerade for protection and power" (53). The fear of discovery may account for Mimi's refusals to "'go into partnership with Sylvia'" (225) when she leaves Madame Francine's to open her own shop. White leaves Mimi ultimately more comfortable with Sylvia than with anyone else she meets in New York, but afraid yet that were her heritage known, Sylvia would desert her (as Rachel deserts Angela in Plum Bun).

Even after Sylvia moves out of her life, however, and she begins to date Jimmie Forrester, a racist and anti-Semitic White man, Mimi continues to be attracted to Jewish life. She frequently finds herself "wander[ing] on the lower East Side through streets packed from curb to curb with Jews" (238): "She found down here a new standard of appraisal of these people, who, if for no other reason than that they, like her own race, had known bitter persecution, appealed to her with colour and romance and kindred emotions. She was often repelled by the bustling, noisy, aggressive younger generation, for ever [sic] concerned with profits and losses. But the older generation, the women of the calm eyes and heavy wigs, the men with magnificent beards and extraordinarily well-formed features, appealed to her more than almost any other type she had ever seen" (238). With the qualification "more than almost any other type," White insinuates that Mimi has a natural bond with other Blacks. For, as time goes on, Mimi finds herself drawn more strongly back to her own heritage; Black is the type that appeals most strongly to her, as she realizes at the very end of the novel. She comes to wonder "why in the days when restlessness had gripped her after a hard day at Francine's she had never come to Harlem as she had walked through the streets where French and Italian and Gipsy and Jewish people lived--wondered even as she knew why she had not come to Negro Harlem" (294). She has not come, of course, because she was afraid of being recognized as an African American, but it is only in the closing pages of the text, when she finally does return to Harlem and to her roots, that she gains a sense of wholeness and well-being. White implies that she has perhaps been led to this recognition by her encounters with Sylvia Bernstein and other Jews. But interacting with them is not enough; integrity can only come when she crosses back over the color line and takes her rightful place with "her own people," not merely with people who have faced similar situations.

Perhaps the lesson that Mimi finally learns, as do all protagonists of the African American passing novels examined here, is summed up in Mrs. Rogers's contention that "'life's like that--you can go tilting at windmills and getting knocked over for your pains or you can adapt yourself to the things you find around you'" (191). The color line may be just such a windmill--it's eminently worth tilting at, but trying to do away with it only results in one's being hurt and, ultimately, in deciding that one is better off staying where one began. While the narrator of Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars can speak of "our common race, the human race, which is bigger and broader than Celt or Saxon, barbarian or Greek, Jew or Gentile, Black or white; for we are all children of a common father, forget it as we may, and each one of us is in some measure his brother's keeper" (159), these novels reject such rhetoric as in fact unrealistic and impractical chatter. Jews and Blacks may have much in common, as the friendships of Angela Murray and Rachel Salting in Plum Bun and Mimi Daquin and Sylvia Bernstein in Flight demonstrate, but they remain divided by the color line, unable to obliterate that barrier which, intangible though it may be, always separates them. Fauset and White demonstrate that, in spite of the problems inherent in the trope of the color line, it continued to be an important factor in the relationship between Blacks and Jews (as well as between Blacks and Whites) through the period of the Harlem Renaissance, a full quarter century after Du Bois first uttered his prophetic remark.


(1.) These terms are placed in quotation marks to indicate that their definition is a highly contested issue. In questioning what "the color line" means, we cannot help but question what "Black" and "White" mean, and meet with more problems than solutions. These terms could refer simply to one's parentage, emphasizing biology and heredity. Or they could refer to physical appearance, thereby giving weight to the way in which others perceive one. Or they could refer to one's own self-identification, which group one feels aligned with personally. As I attempt to show in the pages that follow, these terms are so hard to pin down that they are almost useless, a fact which any investigation of African American passing or Jewish physicality soon reveals.

(2.) My primary evidence for this claim comes from personal experience: the interactions I have had with African American students during my years of teaching at historically Black Fisk University. When I co-taught a course in Black-Jewish relations there, for example, I heard this sentiment expressed several times. At a campus appearance by Julius Lester in 1998, furthermore, one student explained to Lester that she made no distinction between Jews and other white people; many members of the audience seconded her statement. She went on to explain that, for example, she had been a student in several of my courses before realizing that I am Jewish, and probably still wouldn't have known if she hadn't taken the Black-Jewish relations course.

On a scholarly level, confirmation for the idea that Americans in general think of Jews as white can be found in Karen Brodkin Sacks's essay "How Did Jews Become White Folks?" and in her book (under the name Karen Brodkin) How Jews Became White Folks and What that Says about Race in America. In this latter text she notes that Jews in America have found themselves in a "racial middleness: an experience of marginality vis-a-vis whiteness, and an experience of whiteness and belonging vis-a-vis blackness" (2). She further argues that, until World War II, Jews were largely seen as Black, but since then they have been considered White; unfortunately she doesn't say much about African American views on this issue. Seth Forman also presents a cogent and fascinating history of the subject, and he emphasizes the African American perspective, in "Race Relations and the Invisible Jew," the introduction to his recent book Blacks in the Jewish Mind: A Crisis of Liberalism (1-20). Sander Gilman has also considered the matter in his essay "Dangerous Liaisons," referred to above, where he argues (very similarly to Brodkin, although with an earlier date) that, although Jews were seen as Black until the 1920's, after that time they came to be seen, "and came to see themselves" (46), as white; his essay "The Jewish Nose: Are Jews White? Or, The History of the Nose Job" obviously investigates the issue of Jewish whiteness as well. Gerald Early--with whom I co-taught the course in Black-Jewish relations at Fisk mentioned earlier--writes in his essay "Who is the Jew?" that, "although Jews insist that their suffering not be forgotten in the American context, to the African American it is largely irrelevant because the Jew is white" (43). Finally, one should look at James Baldwin's statements in his essay "Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They're Anti-White," where he writes that, "[i]n the American context, the most ironical thing about Negro anti-Semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man" (430).

(3.) That the Spanish gentleman is actually an African American slave trying to escape by passing as Spanish only complicates the matter. For a statement similar to Stern's claim, see Forman's comment that Jews, being "neither 'Black' or 'white,'" therefore "represent a threat to the crude dichotomy" of racialist thinking, thus explaining why Jews have tended to be perceived as white (13).

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. "Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They're Anti-White." The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction, 1948-1985. New York: St. Martin's, 1985. 425-33.

Brodkin, Karen. How Jews Became White Folks and What that Says about Race in America. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1998.

Chesnutt, Charles W. The House Behind the Cedars. 1900. New York: Collier, 1969.

Conde, Mary. "Passing in the Fiction of Jessie Redmon Fauset and Nella Larsen." Yearbook of English Studies 24 (1994): 93-104.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Franklin 207-389.

Early, Gerald. "Who Is the Jew? A Question of African-American Identity." CommonQuest 1.1 (1996): 41-45.

Fauset, Jessie Redmon. Comedy: American Style. 1933. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995.

--. Plum Bun. 1929. Boston: Beacon, 1990.

Forman, Seth. Blacks in the Jewish Mind: A Crisis of Liberalism. New York: New York UP, 1998.

Franklin, John H., ed. Three Negro Classics. New York: Avon, 1965.

Gilman, Sander L. "Dangerous Liaisons: Black Jews, Jewish Blacks, and the Vagaries of Racial Definition." Transition 64 (1994): 41-52.

--. "The Jewish Nose: Are Jews White? Or, The History of the Nose Job." Encountering the Other(s): Studies in Literature, History, and Culture. Ed. Gisela Brinkler-Gabler. Albany: State U of New York P, 1995. 149-82.

Ginsberg, Elaine K., ed. Passing and the Fictions of Identity. Durham: Duke UP, 1996.

Harper, Frances E. W. Iola Leroy. 1892. Boston: Beacon, 1987.

Hughes, Langston. "Who's Passing for Who?" 1952. Calling the Wind: Twentieth-Century African-American Short Stories. Ed. Clarence Major. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. 151-54.

Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. 1912. Franklin 391-511.

--. God's Trombones. New York: Viking, 1927.

Kawash, Samira. "The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man: (Passing for) Black Passing for White." Ginsberg 59-74.

Killens, John Oliver. The Cotillion. 1971. New York: Ballantine, 1988.

Larsen, Nella. Passing. 1929. Quicksand and Passing. Ed. Deborah E. McDowell. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1986. 137-242.

McDowell, Deborah E. "Introduction: Regulating Midwives." Plum Bun. Jessie Redmon Fauset. Boston: Beacon, 1990. ix-xxxiii.

McLendon, Jacquelyn Y. The Politics of Color in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1995.

Ramsey, Priscilla. "A Study of Black Identity in 'Passing' Novels of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries." Studies in Black Literature 7.2 (1976): 1-7.

Rohy, Valerie. "Displacing Desire: Passing, Nostalgia, and Giovanni's Room." Ginsberg 218-33.

Sacks, Karen Brodkin. "How Did Jews Become White Folks?" Race. Eds. Steven Gregory and Roger Sanjek. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1994. 78-102.

Schuyler, George S. Black No More. 1931. New York: Collier, 1971.

Smith, Valerie. "Reading the Intersection of Race and Gender in Narratives of Passing." Diacritics 24.2-3 (1994): 43-57.

Stern, Julia. "Spanish Masquerade and the Drama of Racial Identity in Uncle Tom's Cabin." Ginsberg 103-30.

Webb, Frank J. The Gaffes and Their Friends. 1857. New York: Arno, 1969.

White, Walter. Flight. 1926. New York: Negro Universities P, 1969.

Adam Meyer is Associate Professor of English and Department Chair at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. In addition to articles in various journals, including MELUS, Studies in Short Fiction, Prospects, Comparative Literature Studies, and Shofar, he has published a volume on Raymond Carver in Twayne's United States Author Series and a full-length annotated bibliography of Black-Jewish relations in African American and Jewish-American fiction (Scarecrow).
COPYRIGHT 2004 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Meyer, Adam
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Sep 22, 2004
Previous Article:"It ain't your color, it's your scabbing": literary depictions of African American strikebreakers.
Next Article:"Like a violin for the wind to play": lyrical approaches to lynching by Hughes, Du Bois, and Toomer.

Related Articles
Nella Larsen's 'Passing' and the fading subject.
From the Wild, Wild West to Harlem's Literary Salons.
Haiti and Black Transnationalism: Remapping the Migrant Geography of Home to Harlem.
Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey, and Postmodern Popular Audiences.
Recent and Forthcoming Black-Interest Titles from University Presses.
Black history for the young: books recommended for every age that teach about our heritage.
Domestic violence in the Harlem Renaissance: remaking the record in Nella Larsen's Passing and Toni Morrison's Jazz.
Just the facts: reference works on African Americans are foundations of a good home library.
"In the glad flesh of my fear": Corporeal Inscriptions in Richard Bruce Nugent's Geisha Man.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters