Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Passing Strange, by Martha Sandweiss

I can't tell you how intrigued I was to learn about Passing Strange. It's the true story of Clarence King, a white man in the late 1800s, who marries an African-American woman. Already I wanted to know more. But here's the crazy part: during his marriage, Clarence led a double life, "passing", pretending, to be a black man. His wife, his children and the community in which they all lived knew King as James Todd, an African-American who worked as a Pullman Porter. Meanwhile, he hid his marriage and biracial children from his family of origin and the white community at large, where he worked as a geologist.

I had immersed myself in the history of the African-American Lacks family featured in "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks", so I was ready and eager to get the scoop on this peculiar story of race in America. Even without reading, I knew that "passing" usually refers to non-whites pretending to be white so as to gain social and financial advantages that have historically been conferred to whites. Given this, why did King pretend to be black? This had all the makings of a thrilling read.

Unfortunately, Sandweiss approached this tale like a high school history teacher, (at least the ones from my high school). She included reams and reams of insignificant facts, making the mistake that because these things had happened that they were automatically interesting. I'm not sure how this potentially riveting story might have been crafted differently so as to come to life, I just wish that it had. It might have worked better as historical fiction. But that shouldn't have been necessary. There was enough drama, subterfuge and intrigue already within the story that it shouldn't have needed to be "doctored up."

One of the few sections that held my interest spoke to the late 1800s trend of "slumming", of well-off whites touring poor black neighborhoods. This was one of the ways that King's attraction to black culture was piqued. This brought to mind the recent story about a tour company in L.A. that takes tourists, safari-like, on buses through dangerous, gang-ruled neighborhoods.

Sandweiss also spoke to the historical belief that even one drop of "black blood" rendered a person black. This was how the white-skinned King was able to convince his wife that he was black. This, of course, brought to mind the Nazi edicts on Jewish heritage.

I would pass on Passing Strange. A recent article in Salon proved a more thought provoking introduction into racial history in America. Mo'nique is, by far, the most fascinating character in the Disneyland-plasticness of Hollywood and her performance in "Precious" was the truest thing I've ever seen. Her Oscar acceptance speech referenced Hattie McDaniel, the black actress from Gone With the Wind, who was the first ever African-American to be allowed into the Oscar ceremony in any capacity other than server. Read Kate Harding's informative observations on our country's struggle with racism as she comments on Mo'Nique's speech via the link below.

In defense of Mo'Nique's Oscar speech

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