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 presented to men and women living in a country obsessed with racial distinctions. It also tells a tale of loss.
As racial relations in America have evolved so has the significance of passing. To pass as white in the antebellum South was to escape the shackles of slavery. After emancipation, many African Americans came to regard passing as a form of betrayal, a selling of one’s birthright. When the initially hopeful period of Reconstruction proved short-lived, passing became an opportunity to defy Jim Crow and strike out on one’s own.
Although black Americans who adopted white identities reaped benefits of expanded opportunity and mobility, Hobbs helps us to recognize and understand the grief, loneliness, and isolation that accompanied—and often outweighed—these rewards. By the dawning of the civil rights era, more and more racially mixed Americans felt the loss of kin and community was too much to bear, that it was time to “pass out” and embrace a black identity. Although recent decades have witnessed an increasingly multiracial society and a growing acceptance of hybridity, the problem of race and identity remains at the center of public debate and emotionally fraught personal decisions.
A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life
Author: Allyson Hobbs
Harvard University Press, 2014
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.), choosing to live as a white person. The term used in the book is racially ambiguous.
While most people think of the gains of passing, there were losses at the same time. Depending on the era which the passing occurs different gains were realized. For example, during the era where slavery was legal, freedom was the potential gain. After the emancipation education, employment, housing, etc. were the potential gains. Losses in all eras were loss of contact with black family members (loneliness, grief, etc.), loss of identity, etc.
The author hopes that the book will explain the gains and losses which occur in passing.
During slavery freedom was the main reason from passing. If a slave looked white they could move freely. Whether going from plantation to plantation, traveling from town to town, or state to state they were not questioned or asked for a pass. This ability could also assist the mobility of other slaves. The author provided examples of passing used to facilitate escapes to freedom.
During the Jim Crow era passing could facilitate a better live. Simple things like drinking fountains, restaurants, restrooms, shopping, theatre seating, etc. became available by passing. Education, housing, employment, and other gains could also be realized.
Author and activist Charles Waddell Chesnutt could have passed for white, but for the most part preferred to be recognized as an African-American. The author discusses his activism and choices. Also, the author cover the reconstruction era and its impact on racially ambiguous persons and society.
The loneliness and grief due to the loss of one’s family was a major impact on those who chose to pass. It is hard to imagine leaving home never to return. The fear of being found out led most to severing all contact with their black family and friends.
Racial integration opened the door to a more equal society. One no longer needed to pass for equal education, equal housing, and equal employment, theoretically anyways.
This is a well-researched scholarly work. I recommend this book to anyone interested in topic of passing.
Allyson Hobbs is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Stanford University.
Allyson’s first book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, published by Harvard University Press in October 2014, examines the phenomenon of racial passing in the United States from the late eighteenth century to the present.
A Chosen Exile won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award for best first book in American History and the Lawrence Levine Award for best book in American cultural history.
A Chosen Exile has been featured on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, C-SPAN’s Book TV, the Tavis Smiley Show on Public Radio International, the Madison Show on SiriusXM, and TV News One with Roland Martin. A Chosen Exile has been reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, Harper’s, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Boston Globe. The book was selected as a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, a “Best Book of 2014” by the San Francisco Chronicle, and a “Book of the Week” by the Times Higher Education in London. The Root named A Chosen Exile as one of the “Best 15 Nonfiction Books by Black Authors in 2014.”
Allyson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and she received a Ph.D. with distinction from the University of Chicago. She has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, and the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity at Stanford. Allyson teaches courses on American identity, African American history, African American women’s history, and twentieth century American history. She has won numerous teaching awards including the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize, the Graves Award in the Humanities, and the St. Clair Drake Teaching Award. She gave a TEDx talk at Stanford, she has appeared on C-Span and National Public Radio, and her work has been featured on cnn.com, slate.com, and in The Chronicle of Higher Education. She lives in Atherton, California with her labradoodle, Clover. Source: Author’s Website
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 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 high racial conflict (i.e., Jim Crow, Restoration, etc.). This book covered the history of passing from American Slavery until the present day.
While it was apparent that Allyson Hobbs did her research to the best of her ability, I felt that her thesis's narrative and points were somewhat repetitive in places. Yet, I did give her leeway on some accounts since it is natural that if a black person was constantly in danger of being discovered to be lying about their race in previous times, there is no way to accurately track how many people passed or what their actual experiences were. So, the book itself is built on an uneven cornerstone. However, Hobbs makes her thesis work by using well-known political and historical African-American figures and drawing on the works of other sociologists and anthropologists who have studied this exact topic.
That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book in terms of learning about black historical figures I didn't know of before, finding books to read from the ones Hobbs quoted in her research and just learning about how the psyche of those who passed worked. My mediocre rating of this book is spurred on by the fact that I do think that Hobbs reiterated her points too often and seemed to go on a circular tangent to present the book's ideas to readers.
If you enjoyed Isabel Wilkerson's book, The Warmth of Other Suns, you'll more than likely love this book as well since Hobbs' book focuses on the scant few who chose to seek their freedom by going one step further than their brethren who migrated North during the Great Migration.
A scholarly work by Allyson Hobbs published in 2014, which gives us a history of "passing." Passing means a light-skinned black person passes for white in order to have a better life in racially-conscious America. It's most understandable that light-skinned slaves would pass as whites to escape slavery. In the period of Jim Crow segregation, there were those who passed to live as whites in cities, especially in the North, in order to gain greater opportunities. Hobbs points out the tragic side of passing, as those who passed had to cut themselves off from their families, friends, and the black community. For Hobbs, this is a tale of loss. She feels that the grief and isolation that accompanied the rewards of passing were often not worth it. I was particularly interested in the stories of individuals relating to passing. Nella Larsen was the author of a novel titled "Passing," published in 1929. Dealing with a woman who passes for white, the book has a tragic conclusion. I have not read it but saw the excellent 2021 film based on it. Larsen had a white mother and black father, who was from the Danish West Indies. That marriage failed and her mother remarried a white man. Larsen was sent away. She was ambiguous about her African-American identity and remained an outsider to the black as well as white world. Compare her story to that of Langston Hughes. He was also from a mixed-race background; his parents were both light-skinned. Hughes loved being around black people and, indeed, he lived in Harlem and became an important part of the Harlem Renaissance. His father could not understand why he wanted to associate with blacks...For Hughes, the "Negroes" were his inspiration, especially the poor black migrants coming from the South. While neither Nella Larsen or Langston Hughes passed as whites, they both wrote about the experience. Hobbs gives us a number of cases of passing. Reading such cases, I can only think about all the people who passed that we don't know about. Surely, there was a countless number of black people who passed and were thus lost to their communities. Perhaps it's one sure sign of progress that mixed-race people embrace a black identity (think of Barack Obama) rather than pass. As our society becomes increasingly multiracial, we are much more accepting of mixed-race persons than we used to be in this society and, maybe, just maybe, we, especially the younger generations, are even starting to look beyond categorizing people as "black" or "white."
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 extended family because of it. Reading about multiracial ancestry answered some of the issues of perception and self-identity- yet it didn't really focus upon or name this condition that I've come across within my student worker population- twice in severe situations. Once with dire psychological outcome over time. Trying to help her, I think it did help within her college years and with her son's perceptions, but eventually she also relocated and cut many contacts of her origins and immediate family. She never considered herself as passing, but her siblings thought otherwise just from her education and life choices.
So the legacy of labeling can remain still horrendous in some cultural nuance or location, of that I am completely sure. Marrying into another race (not the one self-identified by this birth family) can also intensify the birth family's disdain too for those with mixed race appearance.
It's extremely hard on Black children and young adults who have freckles, green eyes, and Caucasian features who do not want to be anything other then themselves. Even now, it still is. They are sometimes accused of being favorites, having advantages and trying to pass when they are just being themselves.
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 multiracial ancestry assimilating into the white majority during times when legal and social conventions of hypodescent classified the person as a minority, subject to racial segregation and discrimination."
With loads of painstaking research and a passion for the subject at hand, Allyson Hobbs was able to get her points across while uncovering the detailed cultural histories of Americans of African descent who disconnected all family ties by passing into a society where they would be giving some of the privileges of whites as white. Parts of the cultural histories are morose, while others truly inspiring. This is a candid book well worth it merit!
5 sensitive stars for thought-provoking subject *****
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/racism that has existed and still exists that has caused biracial people to be treated as the minority race and thus identify as that, but as a country we should aim to move past these strict racial lines, and to change the language we use to describe people. The majority of us are probably mixed to some extent. I'm sure there are many many Americans who identify as white and have ancestors who were Native American or African American.
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 that wishes to view itself, and the country, as post-racial.
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 good read!
"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 way around restrictive work opportunities in the Jim Crow era (when Blacks were prevented categorically from joining many professions and more lucrative forms of employment and even very talented graduates of prestigious universities found doors shut to them because of race).
Unfortunately for those researching the topic, the story of these individuals is not well documented. Hobbs relies mostly on interviews, biographies of prominent families, popular fiction and nonfiction accounts, and a couple of research theses conducted during the Jim Crow era. The point that passing took a huge psychological toll on those who left behind their families and communities for the opportunities living as white provided is heavily belabored. When Hobbs is talking about history, the book is a page turner; when she lapses into liberal arts graduate school jargon it's less so. Overall, though, an interesting look at the "boundary cases" of race for those interested in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow periods of US history.
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".
This book was exhilarating to read as I got the chance to learn the stories of other racially ambiguous Black and mixed-race Americans like me. Hobbs’ willingness to tackle the complexity of the matter helped me feel seen and challenged (in the best way). I appreciated her reminder that racial identity is not just about skin color: it is also, and perhaps more, about relationships and shared memory, culture, and history.
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 about this: To pass as white meant to lose a sense of embeddedness within. Passing reveals that the essence of identity is not found in an individual's qualities, but rather int the ways that one recognizes oneself and is recognized as kindred. These forms of recognition may begin with superficial markers such as skin color, speech and dress, but those are only indicators of associative relations, ways of being in the world, and an imagined sharing of a common origin and iconic experience."
Now to be politically correct, we glibly say that race is a social construct, but on page 17, more circumspect the author writes: I join scholars who have argued that race is socially constructed and performative, but I keep my eye on what race and racial identity mean to those are are racialized... The line between black and white was by no means imaginary; crossing it had profound, life-changing consequences.
The author follows the sources in a mostly historical time line of countless people who "passed". What it meant to pass at differed at different moments in history. During harder times, it was better to pass. During slavery it was worth one"s life to pass.During reconstruction, many mixed race individuals created a new black elite in hopefulness for a permanent future that was a mirage. Astonishingly between 1867 and 1876, in S. Carolina alone of the 487 elected to public office were black. 2000 African Americans held public office. Blanche Bruce was the first Republican Senator who served a full term. The overturning of the Civil Rights act in 1875 and Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 issued in a new era of lost black freedoms.
Post World War One, as the South tightened its control on racial lines, Harken expanded its notions of racial identity and flowered. Post World War 2 brought a second loosening. With the coming of the Civil Rights era passing no longer was a noted phenomena, but the path was ahead was still long.The author ends with "Each generation must navigate the social currents and racial realities of its own making."
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 white without clear evident that neither parent had a drop of black blood. (p. 131) Passing, sometimes compelled by the kinds of traumatic confrontations that were recounted in African American autobiographies, provided an unusual yet effective means of authoring one's own life. The practice allowed those who could pass a means of clandestinely navigating the Jim Crow order. Passing offered much, but it could not mend splintered relationships with ones family; it could not ease a deep-rooted sense of alienation and longing for ones people. Passing was unfit for the task, borrowing from Du Bois, of merging two selves "into a better and true self." This curious phenomenon granted economic privileges and societal courtesies, even transformational opportunities for self-fashioning, but often at a terrible cost. (p. 133) "Crossing over" was a proven strategy for navigating "chilly water"; at the same time, it raised concerns about how black families would remain whole when nearly white relatives moved away, formed new families, and started new lives. The 1926 article in Opportunity hinted at this dilemma framing "this subtle migration" as the "most ambitious offensive ever launched by the sons of Ham," but worrying about "the deliberate annihilation of ethnic affiliation when physical appearance does not proclaim it. (p. 142)
From Half-Truths: Towards the end of the book, Lillian's father confronts Kate. Kate had thought that if Lillian passed she'd have a ticket into a better life: “Do you have any idea what happens to a Negro who tries to pass? Lillian’s Aunt Dorothy left Charlotte so she could blend into life in New York City.” Mr. Harris scoffs. “She was barely twenty years old and broke her momma’s heart. Sure, she got herself a fancy radio job and married a white man—but she left her history. Her mother, her sister, all her relations—they don’t exist for her no more. They’re as good as dead.”
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 motivations behind the decision to pass. Passing points to the subjective, relational nature of race in this country, as Hobbs makes clear. Yet Hobbs is at her best when excavating the emotional costs associated with passing--the anguish of leaving a black family and life to pass as white, the anxiety associated with maintaining a falsehood in a community that might otherwise be openly hostile. Hobbs, with moving prose, reminds us that we cannot understand passing without accounting for both the historic context and the emotional and familial sacrifices.
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 in the 20th century. The author noted that there was an outpouring of published stories of people who gave up passing in the 1950s, but we only really got one story (although it was an in-depth view).
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.
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.
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 exploitation, particularly on the part of white slave owners. I was thinking, reading this book, that all those movies about slavery (with the clear delineation of skin tones) don't quite get it all right. Instead, it may be more historically accurate to show that slave owners enslaved their own children, and that there were many lighter-skinned and multiracial people than you might expect from popular media. But back to this great book. Instead of drawing a simple picture of passing as a way to chase privilege or a way to "trick" people, the author describes the many reasons and experiences that people chose to pass or not pass from the times of slavery to the present. Along the way, she illuminates the absurdity of how race is constructed. Not only that, but she illustrates the exile from community and the family secrecy that often accompanied those difficult choices. And further, she gives a quick overview of the history of Black elites, particularly during Reconstruction, and of the Harlem Renaissance, through the lens of racial ambiguity at times when white people insisted that race was unambiguous.
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 chapters looks at three writers of the Harlem Renaissance—Jean Toomer, Nella Larsen, and Langston Hughes—and how they navigated their mixed race heritage. Ultimately, she argues, passing pits a network of heritage and social networks against one’s ambitions in a racist society; to pass, in most cases, is to be out of the history of one’s people. But hers is a sympathetic and non-judgmental history of a complex phenomenon.
Read for the Read Harder 2021 prompt: Read a work of investigative nonfiction by an author of color
I asked my librarian for advice for this prompt and this is the book they gave me!
It was a very interesting and enlightening history of racial passing in America, which I knew nothing about going into the book. The book spanned from the antebellum period to the Civil Rights movement, and dipped its toe into the 21st century in the epilogue. I learned so much, and honestly wish there was more depth to some of the stories, which I know is hard with little first hand accounts.
I will say, the chapter about Harlem seemed a little shoehorned in, less about passing and more biographies?
TW: racism, sexism, antisemitism, KKK, lynching, slavery, discussions of war, separation from family
Author Allyson Hobbs tackles the topic of what it was like to be a black person with skin light enough to pass. Some chose to do so even with the risk of discovery. Those discovered often lost jobs and social position. "Passing" meant they could not associate with other black people, and the inability to interact with friends and family sometimes led them to embrace their blackness. While the author tells an important story, the book's academic writing style limits its audience. I believe the book's impact would be tremendous if written for a popular audience and with shorter sentences and more active verb choices instead of the passive tenses and "be" verbs typical of much academic writing. The author's citations demonstrate the breadth of her research.
I don’t normally read non-fiction but last year I became interested in Nell Larson and Brit Bennett. As a mixed race person I find passing fascinating, and reading the book made me realise how “black-passing” has now come to replace it. As someone who is sometimes sought out as a “black” designer I feel so weird with where I stand on race. The book hasn’t given me a defined answer as to where I should stand or how to respond but has highlighted instead themes of dignity and loyalty. The personal/ historical stories were also fascinating and inspiring.
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.
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 historical figures in the book, like Jean Toomer, I'm glad that Hobb discussed them thoroughly about their experiences through passing. I was already familiar with Nella Larsen and her book Passing but I did not know much about her life until I read Hobb's book. Very interesting facts to read. I would recommend this book for anyone curious about being mixed-race in American history.
Readable account of what prompted “passing” in the 19 and 20th centuries and the impact it had on families who passed and families left behind. Passing was escape from slavery, then a way of getting better jobs or lives. By post-war civil rights era shift to embracing own black culture, passing on passing. Tells the history through the stories on individuals; hard to find reliable data on how many passed.
Solid handling of the subject matter! Ask any African American person over the age of 50, and they will most likely verify the fact/effect of at least one relative passing, in their own family history--myself included. I felt like some of the examples of passing might have gotten a little bogged down in the details; nevertheless, having all these examples in one tome created a novel, and engaging, reading and learning experience for me.
This is a subject that I knew next to nothing about. There are three sections: the 1700s to the Civil War, after the Civil War until about 1950 and then from there until the present time. The author presents stories about different people in each section and she has researched them well. The movie Lost Boundaries is included which is a movie that I have seen. After reading about it, the question that I had is included in her discussion. Did the people of Keene NH who appeared to accept them really accept them or were they just tolerated? It is probably a question that should not be pursued but is strongly considered in thinking about this
It's sometimes difficult for me to grasp the thread of historians' arguments, so I may be missing something, but it did seem to me like this one was maybe not as organized as it needed to be. There's lots of interesting information, but it was often quite difficult to see what that information was pointing us toward. And the end is really badly copy-edited.
It is an interesting read, but the interest is not in the read, if you know what I mean.