J.R.'s Reviews > Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line

Passing Strange by Martha A. Sandweiss
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Sep 22, 10

bookshelves: biography-autobiography
Read in September, 2010 — I own a copy

Whites passing as black is not as common an occurrence as the reverse. But it has occurred at various times through history and for a variety of reasons—ranging from political statement to eccentricity or a mere lark.

Clarence King wasn’t making an obvious political statement or exercising a lark. A respected geologist and U.S. government official, King appears to have acted from a motive of love. In what had to be a difficult and stressful effort, he moved somewhat successfully for a long period of time in two vastly different worlds.

In one he was a debonair member of a privileged white class, the provider and protector of a widowed mother and other family, and the cohort of Henry Adams, a descendant of presidents, and Secretary of State John Hay. In the other, an African-American James Todd, a Pullman porter, the husband of Ada Copeland, a former slave from Georgia, and the father of their five children.

Philosophically, King believed America should abolish the concept of race. In an 1885 article in the North American Review he wrote, “when the composite elements of American populations are melted down into one race alloy, when there are no more Irish or Germans, Negroes and English, but only Americans, belonging to one defined American race,” could there be a true and distinctive form of cultural expression.

Unfortunately, society was not ready for such an amalgamation and he was unable to live up to his own ideal. He may have loved Ada. But not enough to risk his position in the white world and the opinion of his family and friends. He didn’t reveal his deception to Ada until he was near death. He assured her he was leaving a trust to support her and the children. Rather than giving her full details, he left the matter in the hands of white friends and she eventually had to go to court to ascertain her rights.

Ada lost that lengthy court battle and was depicted by the press and representatives of King’s friends as a “black mammy” trying to take advantage of a wealthy white man. Still, she lived out her long life in dignity, surrounded by family and certain of King’s love for her.

Sandweiss has written an important and moving book which inspires the hope one day we might move above the minor differences which separate us, amalgamating even beyond King’s ideal to a truly “human race.”
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