Tag Archives: racial identity

“Run” by Ann Patchett

I found this book by accident, during my first post-Covid IRL visit to my local library! HOW did I miss it before? Run was Patchett’s second novel (2007), after the wonderful Bel Canto (2005)

Run was ahead of its time in its consideration of race. The book triggered my curiosity about transracial adoption. 

The plot: A prominent white urban politician (and his wife) adopt two black children to “complete” their family after infertility thwarts their desire for a second child. The wife dies, and the father is left to raise a ten year old son and two preschoolers. Almost two decades later, the father learns that the birth mother of his two younger boys has “stalked” his family persistently. Perhaps this revelation had been inevitable. Everyone has to rethink his/her identity and role. A girl, the younger half-sister of the adopted boys, emerges as a major character. 

All these characters are strongly drawn and believable. The oldest son, Sullivan, is particularly interesting, reminding me slightly of Marilynne Robinson’s “prodigal” son Jack Boughton in the Gilead series, another story in which race is examined. 

I can’t think of any other novel with a one word-three letter name. “Run” has so many meanings. A politician “runs” for office. A manager “runs” an office. I “run” to catch a train. Life, in many ways, is an endurance run. Patchett’s characters are all struggling to do their best with what life throws at them. 

I’m glad that there are several more books by Patchett for me to read. 


“Passing” by Nella Larsen


This book surprised and intrigued me! I’d never heard of Nella Larsen (1891-1964). The title Passing refers to racial identity and presentation. Some people with African blood look “white”, and hence can choose to “pass” and live as white in America.

Larsen was a multiracial child raised in a Danish immigrant family in Chicago. Her mother was born in Denmark and emigrated to the US. Larsen’s father was a mixed race immigrant from the Danish West Indies (now US Virgin Islands) who died (or disappeared) soon after his daughter’s birth. Her mother then married another Danish immigrant and had a second daughter. From 1895 to 1898, the family lived in Denmark, then they returned to Chicago. 

Nella Larsen had no conventional “place” in American society. White people considered her a Negro (hence of low class), but she had little in common with the African Americans (mostly descendants of the formerly enslaved) who began moving North around 1915. Larsen attended Fisk University briefly. At age 23, she took up nursing. Later, she participated in the Harlem Renaissance (aka the Negro Awakening) which emerged in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. In addition to working as a nurse and a librarian, Larsen published two novels. The first, Quicksand, was largely autobiographical. 

Passing features three African American women who look white, who can “pass” as white if they choose. Irene marries a successful (but discontented) Black medical doctor. In contemporary terms, Irene identifies as African American. (Larsen says Negro.) Clare hides her racial background, opportunistically marries a (racist) white man and lives simultaneously in material splendor, fear and ambivalence. Gertrude, a minor character, marries a white man who knew her from childhood, and accepted her background without question. 

For these women, “passing” is a freighted decision. Children are a big issue. Who will a child resemble? Clare has one daughter, who looks white. She declares she could not possibly risk another pregnancy. Irene calmly announces to her friends that one of her two sons is “dark”. The ideas of “tainted” blood and genetic unpredictability are strong. Gertrude has twins, but refuses to consider the idea of conceiving another child, despite her husband’s total acceptance of her identity. 

What about the men? Irene’s husband wants to move to Brazil, to get away from American racism. Irene wants “security” above all and argues against leaving New York. Clare’s husband is a sketchily drawn stereotype, hateful and extremely angry. We don’t meet Gertrude’s husband. He is described as the successful owner of a grocery store.

Another big issue for these three women is the idea of “going back”. If you pass as white, must you surrender all ties to your black family and friends and culture?

Clare is savagely ambivalent, repeatedly asking Irene and her husband to take her with them to Harlem when her husband is out of town. Irene considers this incredibly reckless and dangerous, and, indeed, Clare’s bigoted husband learns of her background and tragedy ensues. I did not foresee the ending. 

Much more is explored in this book. Highly recommended!

“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. 

“When I Was White – A Memoir” by Sarah Valentine


Another lucky grab from the “New Arrivals” shelf at my local library. Sarah Valentine was a mixed race child born into an otherwise white American family.

Ms. Valentine’s childhood was in most respects idyllic – suburbia, good schools, friends, family (including two younger brothers). Her parents were devoted to their children. She was athletic as well as academically talented.

Her parents kept from her the fact that she had a different father from her two younger brothers. She was told that her skin tone (darker than her brothers) and relatively curly hair came from her father’s Greek and Italian ancestors. There’s too much for me to summarize here. Ms. Valentine still identified as white when she finished college, but considered herself African American or multiracial when she finished her PhD (in Russian literature) at Princeton University.

One thread running though is book is the power of secrets. The choice to keep a secret, to withhold important information from another person, is weighty. Secrecy distorted Ms. Valentine’s relationship with her mother and greatly troubled her brothers.

Ms. Valentine was a very high achieving child and continued to earn academic honors during college and graduate school. In this respect, she reminds me of Michelle Obama, whose memoir I reviewed on December 14, 2018. I wonder if the two ever met? Each is a very accomplished woman, but Ms. Obama has never had to wonder who she was or where she came from. Her identity was secure, though she occasionally encountered criticism for being “too white”. Ms. Obama, who has spent at least 15 years in the public eye, may envy Ms. Valentine’s “private citizen” status.

“When I Was White” is a wonderful, energetic autobiography and a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of race in our country.

“The Color of Water” and “Kill ‘Em and Leave” by James McBride

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother was published in 1996. (I don’t remember when I first read it.) As the struggle for racial justice continues, this book deserves to make a comeback. If you missed it, read it now! First person writing at its best.

I just came face to face with Mr. McBride in the pages of the New York Times. His picture is self effacing, and I nearly missed him. The occasion of his appearance in the Times is publication (April 5!) of his latest book, Kill ‘Em and Leave, subtitled Searching for James Brown and the American Soul.

According to NYT reviewer John Williams, McBride found writing about musician James Brown, aka the “Godfather of Soul”, excruciatingly difficult. Not only was his life riddled with mysteries and contradiction, but after his death, his heirs clashed over distribution of his estate in a grim and wasteful debacle.

Between these two books, McBride wrote three books that sound like fictionalized history (not to be confused with historical fiction), drawing his inspiration from figures like Harriet Tubman and John Brown. His journalism careers includes writing for major newspapers (like The Boston Globe) and magazines including Rolling Stone. Also a musician, he plays tenor saxophone and works as a composer.

I hope McBride keeps working in all these media. He has a powerful voice and deserves to be heard.

“Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance” by Carla Kaplan

I didn’t read this book yet. I went to an author lecture. (I also didn’t buy the book. I hope it turns up at the Library soon!)

Who was “Miss Anne”? It’s a generic term for a white woman, usually from a privileged background – the woman for whom so many black women worked. Kaplan studied everything she could find about several dozen of these women who cast their lot with Harlem at its time of great intellectual and artistic vigor. She selected six for inclusion in her book.

For her lecture, Kaplan focused on Josephine Cogswell Schuyler. JCS hid her marriage and her daughter from her wealthy Texas family for decades.

I’ll save further comments about the book until I read it. Observations from the lecture: Language changes over time. I could feel people around me cringe at the words “Negro” and “colored”.

The term “cultural appropriation” didn’t come up. I know people who would analyze the “Miss Anne” phenomenon through that lens.

Kaplan is listed (Amazon.com) as an “ethnic and gender studies” professor. Tony Judt (see blog entry September 30, 2013) considers “identity” a dangerous word and slams “identity studies”  as “introspective” (my term) to the point of negating the purpose of liberal education. I have reservations, too. Maybe only “mainstream” (white middle class) students should be allowed free run of the “identity studies” majors, minors and certificates. It’s good for us/them to learn the details of some other part of the world, and/or about people very different from themselves. Maybe everyone else should be directed to into some program other than their “own”.

Harlem was full of “identity” conundrums, the  “wannabe” Negro (generally unpopular), the honorary Negro (respected for contributions to the community) and the volunteer Negro (almost revered for living “Black” despite appearance that would permit her or him to “pass” as white).

By the way, Charlie LeDuff who wrote the book about Detroit that I reviewed on September 7, 2013, discovered his Black ancestry while writing the book. His Black friends and co-workers weren’t impressed. Census records reveal that his great grandfather “discarded” his “Negro” classification during the great migration of Black Americans to the industrial North. This had important consequences, allowing him to work in a skilled trade (carpentry). LeDuff had been told that his ancestors were French.

More to follow, when I actually read the book!