“I Passed for White” by Reba Lee as told to Mary Hastings Bradley (1955)

I passed for white,

I Passed for White.jpg

When I compiled my list of blog posts about race in America (November 1, 2020), a memory crossed my mind. I remembered a book entitled I Passed for White, which I glanced at but didn’t check it out of my hometown library. I remember a photo of a girl about my age, 12 or 13, and reading that she told a (white) friend that her dark-skinned Dad was not her “real” father, but rather her stepfather.

Sure enough, I found the book for sale on Amazon.

To my surprise, the title led me (via Wikipedia) to a movie version of the book, which was referenced as a novel, not (as it seemed to be) a memoir. The 1960 movie adaptation was salacious. It made a much bigger splash than the book. A poster shows a negligee clad young woman lounging on a bed. The caption reads “I look white…I married white…now I must live with a secret that can destroy us both!” This from Fred Wilcox, the director who brought us “Lassie Come Home” and “The Secret Garden”! It was his last movie.

I couldn’t find information about Reba Lee. I found more than one obituary, but none that mentioned publication of a book.

Mary Hastings Bradley turns up in Wikipedia, but I’m not certain of the match. Bradley was a prolific writer of travelogues and novels, several of which were made into movies. Her last novel was published in 1952, and she lived in Chicago, the initial setting of I Passed for White. 

According to the movie plot summary, the protagonist left her community, married a white man, lost a child to stillbirth and divorced without revealing her mixed race heritage. Thereafter, she returned to her previous home and identity. 

None of which, I guess, was particularly surprising for America in the 1950s. Reba Lee was probably scantily compensated for her story (whether fictional or actual), and her personal history was, I suspect, sensationalized. I’m glad there are still copies of the book available. Perhaps there’s more to be learned here. Recently, the book I Passed for White has attracted some academic interest. 

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1 thought on ““I Passed for White” by Reba Lee as told to Mary Hastings Bradley (1955)

  1. My great grandmother passed for white. It was clearly something that bothered her, her entire life but it enabled her to feed her children. Once she told me she visited family in Canada but she felt badly because she didn’t tell them she was “colored”….. (The family in Canada was not…)

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