Passing in present tense

Nov 19, 2003 at 12:00 am

I haven’t seen or heard from my friend Eddie in about 20 years, ever since I left Chicago and moved back to Denver. We had some pretty wild times on Chicago’s South Side, but my mother might be reading this, so I’ll leave it at that.

What brought Eddie to mind was when a friend suggested maybe I’d be interested in writing about the culturally tragic phenomenon known as “passing.” Most black folks already know that this one word is short for “passing for white,” which is something a fairly large number of African-Americans have done since the days of slavery. Those whose skin was light enough to allow them to slide into white society undetected sometimes did so at the urging of a considerably darker parent who honestly believed that it was in the best interest of that child to sever all ties with the family in pursuit of a decent “white” life away from the lash and the cotton fields. Other times family members would wake up to find that a light-skinned brother/sister/son/daughter had simply disappeared, never to be heard from again.

As a recent article in the online magazine points out, “passing is anything but passé.” It’s been the topic of novels, memoirs and academic tracts in recent years, and it’s on the screen these days in The Human Stain, the movie based on Philip Roth’s novel of the same name, inspired in turn by the life (and racial subterfuge) of the late New York Times literary critic Anatole Broyard.

Incredible as it may seem to some, there are still those who believe that living as an African-American just isn’t worth the struggle — especially when there are options. I couldn’t pass if I wanted to, but I hate to say that in some ways I can understand that level of self-hatred. Being black today is obviously much easier than it was during slavery, or even during the ’50s and ’60s, but it has yet to reach the point where you’re likely to hear white folks wishing they had been born black. Whites may love a lot of things related to black culture, and some may even go so far as to try the culture on for size, but that’s as far as it goes. If you ever hear a white person saying he or she would have had a better chance at success in this life if only he or she had been born black, that is a white person who has lost his or her mind and probably shouldn’t be left alone with sharp objects.

Back to Eddie. Eddie had the build of a pro linebacker, a somewhat thin, airy voice that didn’t quite match his immense size, and his skin was whiter than many white people I know. Matter of fact, Eddie’s skin was so white that he couldn’t catch a tan. The only thing excessive sun would do for Eddie was to spell out red reminders across his flesh of how little influence his African blood had on his appearance. He had blue-green eyes. His lips were thin and his nose flared just slightly. He had a German last name. The only way you would ever know Eddie was black was by looking at his hair. No, not the color of it, which was a light reddish brown. It was those tight, tight, dead-giveaway coils — some might call them naps — that announced his heritage like a trumpet.

True enough, Eddie went out of his way to talk as “black” as he possibly could. He also latched onto just about every black militant radical idea that came his way. He reveled in laughing and talking about how much he hated white folks, and I’ll confess that during that period of my life his views and mine weren’t far apart — and for similar reasons. Eddie was overcompensating because he felt almost guilty about being so light-skinned and because he wanted desperately to be accepted by the “brothers,” who couldn’t resist occasionally poking fun at his complexion. He was nearly passing in reverse as a white-skinned black man trying to pass back into his own race, trying to prove he was black enough for the club. As for me, I was overcompensating because I had grown up around whites and therefore felt a need to prove my blackness every chance I got, even though I later learned that my skin complexion was all the proof I would ever need.

So Eddie and I made quite a pair. We frequently swapped stories about what it was like living around whites, and I’ll never forget one story Eddie recounted about the time he passed for white while in college. It was only for a brief period, not more than a few hours, but it was passing nevertheless. Wearing a knit cap pulled tight over his close-cropped hair, Eddie told me how he sidled up to some white students on their way to the college dining hall. Feeling mischievous, Eddie decided to inject the subject of race into the discussion, just to see where his prompt would lead. It didn’t take long for Eddie’s new companions to begin venting their frustrations about the blacks on campus, and what was wrong with all of “them.” When he got to the point where he couldn’t stomach it anymore, Eddie yanked off his cap and announced that he was one of “them.” The way he described the looks on their faces had me in stitches for weeks.

Eddie essentially “passed” out of curiosity, like a spy gathering intelligence about “the other side,” and it had worked. It confirmed his worst suspicions of how some whites spoke of blacks when blacks weren’t around. He told me of other times when whites had mistakenly thought he was white and therefore felt comfortable making certain ugly racial remarks; the rage that had built up within him over the years from this type of confusion had reached the boiling point. Eddie liked to slip in and out of the white world just to wreak havoc and revenge, but I wondered if maybe deep down he didn’t sometimes secretly wish he could pass once and for all, one way or the other, and be done with all the madness.

My great-grandmother on my mother’s side, who I’m told had milk-white skin, fine features, raven-black hair (from the Indian in her) and could easily have passed without wearing any kind of cap, decided instead to marry my great-grandfather, a dark-skinned black man with unmistakable African features. They lived together on a farm in Mississippi. Why a black woman who could have left all her black misery behind (and who had many more reasons to pass than my friend Eddie could even conceive of) would choose instead to be married out in the open to a dark-skinned black man in one of the most racist places on Earth is a question I don’t have an answer for — unless it was that she loved the reality of my great-grandfather more than the illusion of a better life as a fictional person. At least that’s what I’d like to think.

During our days in Chicago, Eddie seemed at times obsessively determined to make whites pay for the confusion he was forced to navigate every day. It was whites who were responsible for his last name, the color of his skin, the identically near-ivory color of his mother’s skin, and the color of his eyes. He hated them for it, and I think maybe he hated himself too.

I wonder if he ever figured out who he hates the most?

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]