Passing for White

Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom by Ilyon Woo (Simon and Schuster), The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray (Berkeley), “Passing” from Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen (Rutgers)

Essay by Jinny Webber

What do black women passing for white have in common? A nonfiction history and two novels describe what compelled three women in three eras to take on white personas and the consequences for each. Each must have exceptional fortitude, imagination, and a sense of the white world she plans to join, and their stories are far more gripping than a short review can reveal. Woo is an admirable researcher; Benedict and Murray a gifted team to describe Belle Greene’s historical role; and Larsen a brilliant writer of the Harlem Renaissance who faded into obscurity. Deborah E. McDowell penned an excellent introduction to this Rutgers reissue. 

In 1848, enslaved Ellen Craft in Ilyon Woo’s Master Slave Husband Wife disguises herself not only as white but as male to flee her owner in Macon, Georgia, with her husband William acting as her personal slave. Ellen served as lady’s maid to her half-sister, so can convincingly pretend to be an ailing Southern aristocrat with a loyal black man to tend  to ‘his’ every need. William trained as a cabinet maker from childhood, has saved money, and their careful planning and courage enable them to make the thousand-mile trek to free Philadelphia in four days. The most significant white skill they lack is literacy, so, knowing there will be documents to sign, Ellen keeps her right arm in a sling through their journey. Soon after they reach the free north, a Quaker family teaches them to read and write. Ellen gives away her male clothes and takes on a feminine demeanor, but she and William aren’t safe in the North. The Fugitive Slave Act regards fugitives as property to be returned to the South. Nonetheless, the Crafts join the black showman William Wells Brown on the lecture circuit, where audiences are amazed that a pretty fair-skinned woman could have been enslaved. But passing for white, either female or male, will not save her from being returned to bondage, and Ellen and William must continue their courageous battle to remain free or die.  

The Personal Librarian, a novel by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, tells the story of Belle da Costa Greene, personal librarian for J.P. Morgan. Although this rare position was beyond her dreams, Belle had long prepared. Her father Ralph Greener, the first black Harvard graduate, gave her Bernard Berenson’s Venetian Painters of the Renaissance for her tenth birthday and provided precocious Belle with every educational benefit. But when the family moved from Washington D.C. to New York, Belle’s mother, distressed at the limited opportunities there for her four children, determined all were light enough to pass. As a Civil Rights activist, Ralph couldn’t condone a white family, and left. 

From then on, Belle takes on much of the responsibility of supporting them, using her brains and education to secure a job at the Princeton University library. Through her acquaintance with J.P. Morgan’s nephew, she interviews as Morgan’s personal librarian, and her witty, assertive personality wins her the job. Although  exceptionally knowledgeable about books and art, Belle isn’t experienced with New York high society where she must mingle confidently. By imitation, she develops the sophistication, wardrobe, and flirtatious teasing of society women. Over time Morgan develops an affectionate friendship with her, though his daughter Ann is suspicious, saying Belle possesses something of the tropics.  

Morgan trusts Belle to attend manuscript auctions, even abroad. In London she and her mother are moved to discover there’s no color line. When Belle becomes friends with (and secret lover of) Bernard Berenson, they share personal concealment. Morgan slurs Berenson, who poses as Catholic, for being Jewish; we suspect he’d slur Belle if he knew her truth. In the end, Morgan leaves her $50,000 and a directive to his son Jack to retain her as librarian. Belle continues to work at the Morgan library until retirement, fulfilling her dream of opening the precious collection she did so much to amass to the public.  

Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella Passing, made into a film by Rebecca Hall in 2021, depicts the beautiful Clare Kendry and her girlhood friend Irene Redfield. After the death of Clare’s parents, black offshoots of a white family, she’s raised by her white aunts—chiefly as their servant. She dreams of wealth and fine clothes and freedom from poverty, harsh rules, and servitude. Along with fashioning a future such as she sees in magazines, Clare develops a strong will: she’ll do anything to get what she wants, regardless of risk. When she’s 18, she meets a young man recently returned from getting rich in South America and elopes with him, never admitting to her black parentage. Years later when she runs into Irene, she’s gorgeously dressed, saying she has everything she ever wanted.  

The other side of passing: consequences and losses. Ellen and William’s lives are still in danger after they’ve made their way to free soil, so they look back at Macon with dread rather than nostalgia. After Emancipation they can fulfill their civic-minded, adventurous destiny—not always with total success, as Woo depicts in her Coda, but remarkable for their time, never pretending to be other than they are.  

Belle grieves the loss of her father and would love for him to know about her achievements and how much she owes him for setting her on the track that led to her position of power with J.P. Morgan. Toward the end of the novel they meet—awkwardly, but Ralph has followed her career. 

Clare Kendry experiences the sharpest loss from passing. In a surprise encounter with Clare’s husband, Irene sees he’s a racist who takes her for white as well. Though light-skinned, she’s never had reason to pass, living contentedly in Harlem with her black physician husband and two sons. Clare envies Irene: despite her wealth and elegant wardrobe, she’s profoundly lonely. She pesters Irene to be her friend. After receiving no reply to her letters, Clare comes to Irene’s house and befriends her maid, her sons, and her husband Brian, who regarded Clare as a nuisance until he meets her.  

Clare feels at home in Harlem with Irene, Brian and their friends. Irene always took being Negro for granted, but she sees that for Clare, hiding that is a constant concern. ‘Between them the barrier was just as high, just as broad, and just as firm as if in Clare did not run that strain of black blood. In truth, it was higher, broader, and firmer; because for her there were perils, not known, or imagined, by those others who had no such secrets to alarm or endanger them.’ (Larsen, 192)  

Of the three women, Clare suffers the deepest loss, having created a supposedly ideal white existence that denies her origins and the culture she so intensely experiences in Harlem. Thus, she’s the only tragic figure of the three.