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The Great Secret: “Passing” in African-American Literature

[By Goyland Williams]
A common trope in African-American literature is “passing”—black characters light-skinned enough to pass for white. Given the long history of white supremacy and racial discrimination in the United States, blacks who were afforded the privilege by virtue of their mixed-race heritage, sometimes employed this practice as a right of power and privilege.
Looking at the database of the “100 novels project”, I will explore a few works that address this dominant trope in African American literature. Such an analysis resists the temptation to avoid such a complicated history, a present reality, and more importantly, the complexity of the human condition.

Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter (1853) William Wells Brown
Throughout the novel, several characters of mixed-raced heritage attempt to pass as white in order to escape slavery and enjoy opportunities previously not afforded to them. However, the novel reveals the tragedy of those getting caught.
Imperium in Imperio (1899) Sutton E. Griggs
While one of the protagonists of the novel (Bernard) doesn’t attempt to “pass” in the traditional since, he definitely adheres to a white value system. Bernard, and Belton both believe that to speak proper would ensure recognition of one’s rights as an African-American. Their passing occurred by virtue of the erasure of the racial self.
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) James Weldon Johnson
The narrator reveals early on in the novel that he is an “un-found- out criminal”. He is not white (which he exposes). While he very much longs to identify with his blackness, certain horrific events, and his success as a real estate investor propels him to live as a white man.