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A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  423 ratings  ·  67 reviews
Between the eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, countless African Americans passed as white, leaving behind families and friends, roots and community. It was, as Allyson Hobbs writes, a chosen exile, a separation from one racial identity and the leap into another. This revelatory history of passing explores the possibilities and challenges that racial indeterminacy pre ...more
Hardcover, 382 pages
Published October 13th 2014 by Harvard University Press
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A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life

Author: Allyson Hobbs

Harvard University Press, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-674-36810-1

382 pages.

The author has written a scholarly book about a subject that has often been misunderstood or not discussed, in our American history. The term passing as discussed in this book is a mixed race African-American (a black and a white parent) whose appearance is not consistent with black physical characteristics (skin color, hair, facial features, etc.), choo
I gave this book 3.5 stars.

Update: I talked about this book in a video for the Beyoncé Book Tag I filmed on my BookTube channel.

I randomly found this book through an Amazon book search and knew I had to have it immediately. Allyson Hobbs' book looks at the history of racial "passing," which is the shedding of the one's black identity by a racially ambiguous (i.e., light-skin African-American) person lieu of being "white" so that you can better navigate through life during historical times of hig
Good look at the past's color line by law within certain states that caused interfamily turmoil and absurd labeling. Labeling that carried differences to most levels of interactions both within their own families and within the greater society. And the writing style is as good as the research too.

My main reason for reading this though was never really addressed in any category but vaguely. That is for the young person who is NOT passing but who appears White and is rejected by their siblings or
Dee's Reading Zone
After Rachel Doležal's race was called into question, this book was a must read for me. Although written in a scholarly fashion, "A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America" focuses on racial passing in America from the 18th century to present.

Accordingly, Wikipedia denotes racial passing is " when a person classified as a member of one racial group is also accepted as a member of a different racial group. The term was used especially in the United States to describe a person of mul
Nov 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Movies like "Imitation of Life" and "Pinky" opened up a new world to White Americans, the world of African-Americans who were "passing", living as white people and hiding their African roots.

This fascinating history explores 200 years of passing in America, what it meant to the people who made these choices, their families, and to society as a whole. It's a sad and important story that's neglected in American history classes, and Hobbs' excellent book brings these tales to life for a generation
Mississippi Library Commission
The cover and the title grabbed our attention and lured us in. A Chosen Exile is well researched and provides insight into the myriad of reasons pro and con of passing as white in America. Ms. Hobbs explores the history surrounding this choice, what was gained, and what was lost. Most of all, A Chosen Exile explores the psychological and social impact of identity and the personal consequences of denying a part of oneself and the toll that is exacted on the individual, friends, and family. It's a ...more
Nov 09, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, civil-rights
It bothers me that the author would refer to someone who is 1/8th black as an African American. He's a white man who has a great grand parent who is black, or at the very least biracial. It seems like she is continuing the one drop rule of characterizing biracial people by their minority race. How often have we heard Obama be referred to as African American, when he is really only half and that is just as ridiculous as calling him Caucasian, which no one would do. I understand the prejudice/raci ...more
Oct 13, 2014 rated it liked it
This is an eye opening book for anyone who is not familiar with "passing". It sheds a light on some mixed race people who chose self-preservation above all else to escape the bondage of slavery or racial discrimination.

It also expresses the complexity of some mixed race people who opted to stay true to their African American bloodlines and the effect this decision had on their lives.

I would recommend this book to anyone that is interested in the subject of ”passing".
Oct 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, 2019
Well. This book is incredible. Hobbs has written a nuanced history of race in the US, shown through the lens of racially ambiguous black Americans who made the difficult decision to pass as white. This is a carefully constructed exploration of how race as we understand it in the US is a completely invented structure intended to uphold white supremacy. A highly recommend read for anyone. Would make a great gift for anyone in your life who tries to claim that racial categories as we use them in th ...more
Feb 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: grad-school
The methodology was kind of all over the place and it was a bit of a slog to get through but I thought the subject was fascinating.
Julieann Wielga
Feb 08, 2015 rated it really liked it
A Chosen Exile begins with an excerpt from a poem by Langston Hughes. The poem was written about a Sunday in Harlem:grandma, parents and kids. One has the deep sense that one wants to be there. Then the poem ends with "the one who have crossed the line to downtown miss you, Harlem of the bitter dream, since the dream has come true. That is what this book is about: the large group of people who could "pass" and yet never quite belonged. On page 14, the author, Allyson Hobbs writes succinctly abou ...more
May 17, 2016 rated it liked it
"A Chosen Exile" is a history of light-skinned African Amerians (basically, mixed-race and racially ambiguous people) "passing" as White throughout history, with a focus primarily on the mid-19th through mid-20th centuries. A fascinating look at how context drives our perception of race underlies the history presented. As opportunities ebbed and flowed during this period for African Americans, passing became more or less lucrative: first as an attempt to escape slavery plausibly, then later as a ...more
Dec 29, 2016 rated it really liked it
Hobbs does a remarkable job of weaving individual stories of passing (from roughly the early 19th century through to postwar America) into larger historical frames. This is a difficult history to uncover, given that most people who passed left little to no record of their activity. Beginning with passing in pre-Civil War America, where racially indeterminate Americans passed for white ("the color of freedom"), through to the postwar cry that passing had "passed out," Hobbs charts the myriad moti ...more
Sep 28, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: real-people
Very interesting book that covered passing in the US from the 17(?)/18th century to the eve of the civil rights era. This was a subject about which I knew almost nothing, and I appreciated learning about the experiences and sacrifices of people who passed.

I only gave three stars because the intro and he first chapter felt like they kept repeating the same ideas over and over -- I wanted to shorten them. I was also disappointed that there were not more stories of those who passed, particularly i
Oct 30, 2014 rated it liked it
This was more of a dry academic tome than lets say Dorris Kearns Goodwin writing. I learned a lot, but I can't really recommend it, despite the deep interest the topic holds for me. I particularly liked the discussion of the topic in terms of what was left behind, the loss of culture. It is a backward looking book, not about some march to progress of being more affluent through passing. I liked that focus.
Anna Amato
Jun 07, 2015 rated it liked it
This is book for a person who doesn't have a clue about this history of passing. Having grown up in a small city that was truly bi-racial none of this was a surprise to me, so I just skimmed through it. Fortunately I learned about this early on in my life from people who knew people.
Oct 14, 2014 rated it it was ok
This could have been a much better book. There is such a thing as too many notes!
Carol Baldwin
Jul 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
But what about the Blacks who chose to pass? What was their life like?

Allyson Hobbs' book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, pointedly showed me the pain and difficulties associating with passing.
Jim Crow and Passing

In a section that reminded me of Mothers of Massive Resistance, the author talks about Walter Plecker who worked tirelessly to enforce the one drop rule:
Doctors and midwives received missives cautioning them that it was illegal to classify any child as w
Jun 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
There is so much in history that we do not learn, or we glance over, and it's always interesting to read an engaging book that uncovers another aspect of that history.
Through the use of many personal narratives and biographical profiles, the author discusses how the idea and practice of passing illuminates people's shifting understanding of African-American and white in the US.
Although the author doesn't really spend time discussing this, there is an underlying horror story of rape and sexual e
Sep 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Allyson Hobbs does a convincing job of opening a window into the phenomenon of “passing,” when light-skinned African Americans successfully live as White. Her history begins in slavery, when those with white slave-holding fathers and enslaved mothers were most easily able to escape bondage. In Reconstruction Blacks very briefly had hope that their identity would not hold them back, hope that was dashed in the South by the backlash against Black office-holders. One of the most fascinating chapter ...more
An interesting and informative look at a topic in black history that isn't talked about much, if at all. But a downside for me was that the book felt more like a history of biracial blacks than an actual history of racial passing, especially once you got past the prologue. Even though there was a great deal of information in the book it felt dry in places and near the middle and the end I found myself skimming.
Katz  Sebastian
Jul 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Hobb's book is well-written! There were a few moments I felt was a bit dry to read, but overall, its a good book.
I am mixed-race myself (black and white) and I wanted to read this book because of my personal experiences as racially ambiguous looking person. Most people are shock or surprised to learn I am somewhat black, since I passed as Hispanic/Jewish/Arabic. I literally met a few people who refused to believe I'm mixed-race because I don't look black!
I was never familiar with certain histor
Nov 02, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2017, required-uni
My rating is based off my enjoyment not my perception of its quality. Within the limits that Hobbs acknowledges, particularly regarding source material, a wholly fascinating and well-constructed work that accomplishes what it seeks to do, as well as providing some peeks at the phenomenon in the present day.
Aug 06, 2018 rated it liked it
I enjoyed the premise of the book but its started to get repetitive with the stories by the end. Took a while to get through the last part of the book.

The ending speaking on biracial real had been thinking about what passing means and how it has shifted the racial "hierarchy." Also had me thinking about Rachel Dozeal as much as I didn't want to in this context.

Ron Seckinger
Sep 29, 2018 rated it liked it
Despite its academic style, this is an interesting discussion of the practice of "passing," by which light-skinned African Americans sought to escape prejudice by moving to new locations and entering white society. The author points out that, while beneficial in many regards, the practice also cut off African Americans from their communities and culture.
April eclecticbookworm
This was an interesting subject and there were plenty of good examples and not told in a way that made the author seem biased about passing but it did drag a bit. I took longer to finish than I thought it would take but I’m not sure any of the individual examples should have been taken out since it did give a more varied experience.
Soraya Keiser
Nov 15, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: for-school
An interesting topic. A dry delivery. I really enjoyed learning about passing in America, yet I preferred it through novels such as Passing by Nella Larsen. This book was pretty repetitive and my pet peeve is long chapters. They are just so much harder to get through than lots of little chapters. Read for Honors Seminar.
Rebecca Debarros
Aug 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Hobbs did a remarkable job collecting this body of research. She presented this information with sensitivity and clarity. It was hard not to delve into the citations while reading this book. I had only wished there were smoother/more intentional transitions between ideas and research.
Jul 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
Though this book didn’t shift any paradigms in my understanding of racial passing and some motifs were used too repetitively, overall the book presents numerous historical examples from a variety of period to examine the phenomenon of passing. Recommended.
Enid G. Ballantyne
Jefferson's passing children

This was an interesting book but omitted the most famous passing: three of Thomas Jefferson's children with Sally Hemings passed into history never to be seen again. Hemings was 3/4 white.
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Allyson Hobbs is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Stanford University.

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  Tami Charles is a former teacher and the author of picture books, middle grade and young adult novels, and nonfiction. As a teacher, she made...
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