Op-ed: One Drop Passing as white, denying your identity

By James Michael Brodie
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

“You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word ‘Negro’ is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore black. I am brown.”

–Langston Hughes

John Grant’s parents made a life-altering decision in response to racial segregation in the 1940s. It was a decision that would change the face of his family for generations.

John was a child when his father got a factory job in St. Louis. It was a good-paying job, one that allowed the family to leave rural Kansas and have a chance to establish themselves in the big city. The job afforded Mr. Grant a certain amount of stability, status, security. All of that came crashing down when his employers found out where the Grants lived, in the Black part of town. The bosses knew right away, based solely on the address that they had not hired what appeared to be a white man for their coveted position, but a fair-skinned black man.

Mr. Grant was summoned into the office, confronted with the damning information and immediately fired.

Mr. Grant lost everything. Suddenly, he would not be able to support his family. He would have to find a job that paid the same wages, but no such job was available to people identified as black. Despite his family’s outward appearance, in the eyes of the law, they had inside of them just enough black blood to make him undesirable in a white world. One drop of black blood was all it took.

One drop.

The painful decision

After tortuous nighttime conversations, Mr. and Mrs. Grant made a painful, but in their minds, necessary decision. They would pass for white, something they easily could do given their complexions, Germanic features and straight hair. The family cut ties with all things black in their world, including any connection with friends and family members that might expose their true identity and return them back to the bottom of the barrel. They moved into a whites-only neighborhood, where the parents instructed their children on how to carefully present themselves as members in good standing in their newly adopted world.

The Grant family lived with the conflict of knowing that their existence was rooted in both sides of the Civil War: They had African ancestors who celebrated freedom and white ancestors who had fought to keep them in chains.

From the outside, the choice to pass was working. The family seemed to slide smoothly into a new existence. But the Grant family’s new life carried with it the constant danger of being found out, the fear of what would happen to them if their new white friends uncovered their dark secret. The pressure was most keenly felt by Mrs. Grant, who carefully groomed her children to be just right — hair straight enough, nothing out of place, and rejection of any black person who crossed their paths.

World War II was ramping up. Young John asked his mother about the leader of Germany, and what it would mean if he won the war. She explained to her son that if Adolph Hitler was victorious, his siblings might stand a chance, but he would die because his features were ambiguous at best.

All over one drop of black blood.

One drop.

A history to the one-drop rule

The One-Drop Rule was and, to a certain extent still is, a social principle of racial classification created by people who identified as white to ensure that only those with the proper amount of “purity” would benefit in American society. The premise was a simple one: any person with even one ancestor of black ancestry anywhere in their past would be defined as “Negro” or “colored” and would be ostracized for carrying the stain — a racial scarlet letter.

The one-drop concept was codified into state laws in the 1900s, but has its origins in the early days of the nation. It lumped mixed-race people into one group, regardless of the combination of ancestry they possessed.

In the antebellum years, free people of mixed race typically were considered legally white if they had less than one-eighth (octoroon, or had a black great grandparent) or one-quarter (quadroon, or had a black grandparent) African ancestry. Having a black parent made one a mulatto, and technically black. Therefore, many mixed-race people were accepted as white based on whether they looked the part, and were accepted by the right people.

Following the Nat Turner-led slave rebellion of 1831 in Virginia, which resulted in the deaths of more than 30 white plantation owners and their families, the Virginia legislature imposed restrictions on free blacks, but stopped short of establishing a one-drop rule.

The reason was a practical one. They could not be sure who was truly white enough due to a long history of race mixing. In 1853, Virginia legislators debated a proposal from Travis H. Eppes, but concluded that such scrutiny would harm whites.

An op-ed in a Charlottesville newspaper summed up the situation: “If a one-drop rule were adopted, I doubt not, if many who are reputed to be white, and are in fact so, do not in a very short time find themselves instead of being elevated, reduced by the judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction, to the level of a free negro.”

At the end of the Civil War, the former Confederate states, in response to Reconstruction, created racial segregation laws between 1890 and 1908, effectively disfranchising black Americans until federal civil rights laws were passed in the 1960s.

These Jim Crow laws soon spread throughout the South. Tennessee adopted the first formal “one-drop” statute in 1910. Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas followed in 1911, Mississippi in 1917, North Carolina in 1923, Virginia in 1924, Alabama and Georgia in 1927. Meanwhile, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Utah passed “blood fraction” statutes based on a one-sixteenth and one-thirty-second formula.

Books, films highlighted complex history of ‘passing’

Charles Waddell Chesnutt, an African-American author, essayist, political activist and lawyer, explored the complicated issues of race and identity of those times in his books. Chesnutt, fair enough to pass as a white man, openly identified as African American.

His most notable work, The House Behind the Cedars, was published in 1900. In the novel, Rowena Walden, a young woman of mixed white and black ancestry, left the South to join her brother up North, where he lived as a white man. She shortened her name to Rena, which sounded whiter, following her brother’s lead and lived as a white woman.

All was well until she fell for George Tryon, an “enlightened” white aristocrat. Upon discovering that Rena was not of pure white blood, George rejected her as being “worse than dead” to him.

Chestnutt wrote, “For if he had seen her lying in her shroud before him, he could at least have cherished her memory. He could overlook any other flaw, including illegitimate birth, but race could not be ignored.” While, in real life, many African Americans skirted the racially restrictive laws by passing themselves off as white people in good standing, others did not.

Actress Fredi Washington did not choose to pass,
but used her personal story portray a light-skinned black
woman who denied her black mother in the 1934
film Imitation of Life. Broadway legend Carol Channing did
pass, and only acknowledged her black ancestry in
2002, when she released her memoir at the age of 81.

For example, actress Fredi Washington did not choose to pass, but used her personal story portray a light-skinned black woman who denied her black mother in the 1934 film Imitation of Life.

Offscreen, Washington embraced her blackness and pushed the movie industry to be more diverse. Ironically, when the film she starred in was remade in the 1959, white actress Susan Kohner was chosen for her role.

Broadway legend Carol Channing did pass, and only acknowledged her black ancestry in 2002, when she released her memoir at the age of 81.

In her autobiography, Just Lucky I Guess, Channing revealed that she was in fact, part African American. In several interviews after the release of the book, she confessed that her mother Adelaide Glaser was German Jewish and her father, George Christian Channing, was African-American and German. Her father was a journalist and a Christian Scientist. She said her mother told her about her father’s heritage because she didn’t want Carol to be surprised if she “had a black baby.”

The high cost of denying yourself

Albert Johnston had not intended to pass, but circumstances forced him to do so. In the 1920s, he graduated from the University of Chicago Medical School. He and his blue-eyed black wife, Thyra Baumann, made no secret of their African heritage.

All of that changed when he tried to find work as an intern. Hospitals that accepted blacks were full, others refused to hire a black man.

Maine General Hospital in Portland accepted him without asking his race. In 1929, the internship over, he moved his family moved to Gorham, N.H., and started a successful private practice. At that point, the Johnstons were accepted as white.

In 1941, Johnston volunteered for the Navy and won a lieutenant commander’s commission. About a month later, his commission was revoked because he was found to have had African ancestry. The official reason for his dismissal was his “inability to meet naval physical requirements.” Only then did he tell his children about their history.

Despite the family’s fears, the feeling of the townspeople were generally unchanged when the news spread. Johnston’s story was fictionalized in the 1940 film Lost Boundaries, starring a young Mel Ferrer in his film debut.

The Grant family was not so fortunate.

The danger, the denial of heritage, the self-loathing, the uncertainty, and the regret had taken its toll on Mrs. Grant. The lie she had tried to live had been too much for her. She eventually took her own life.

As the Grant children grew up, the family split apart, with some re-embracing their black side while their siblings distanced themselves even further, clinging for dear life to their secret white lives and passing that identity down to their children and grandchildren.

Grant, now in his 80s, still struggles with what it meant to give up his identity to live a painful untruth. He could see what black-skinned people faced in a pre-civil rights world. He hated the racism that he witnessed, and he felt guilty that he was not in the struggle along with the others.

“Passing is death,” said Grant, who resents having passed for white. “If you try to convince yourself that you can fool them. You tell yourself that if you listen to enough classical music, if you score high enough on your tests, you won’t be found out. All the time, you are lying to yourself. You know that you can never truly pass for white because you are killing off all the parts that make you, you.”

Grant is German, Jewish, Native American and African.

Today, there are no enforceable one-drop laws in the United States, but its impact is still with us. As the nation moves to acknowledge its complex ethnic diversity, it also wrestles with old labels and the stereotypes that come with them. But while this new debate concerns blackness, the rules seemed to have changed, with the conversation now focused on whether Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris is truly “black enough.”

As the nation moves to acknowledge its
complex ethnic diversity, it also wrestles
with old labels and the stereotypes that
come with them.

The debate over her ethnicity mirrors what then-presidential candidate Barack Obama faced in his bid for the White House in 2008. Questions about birth, intelligence, “Americanness” dogged Obama and may be an issue for Harris going forward. It’s nothing new and evokes a time when such questions were the stuff of law meant to limit black participation in American society.

And in a society where being black still means being at the bottom rung, the irony is not lost on Grant, who ponders how the emergence of an Obama and a Harris, rising to the seats of power, is forcing many to rethink the importance of that one drop.

Said Grant, “It begs the question as to how a nation founded on racial classifications moves beyond race and allows us to be all of who we really are.”

Learn more:

Birth Right, by Jacqueline Trescott, The Washington Post, 1996

‘A Chosen Exile’: Black People Passing In White America, by Karen Grigsby Bates, Code Switch, 2014

Passing, in Moments: The uneasy existence of being black and passing for white, by  Mat Johnson, Topics, 2019

James Michael Brodie is a Baltimore-based writer, journalist and author. His books include “Created Equal: The Lives and Ideas of Black American Innovators” and “Sweet Words So Brave: The Story of African American Literature.” A University of Colorado graduate in English, Brodie’s current project is a collection of personal narratives titled “The Black and Gold Project.”

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  1. Brian Covert says:

    Excellent, thought-provoking article, Mr. Brodie — much substance here to think over and follow up on. I still have a copy of your book “Created Equal” from 1993 (one of the most prized possessions in my library). It’s great to find your column here in the Telegraph, and I look forward to reading your future writings.

    Brian Ohkubo Covert
    Kawanishi, Japan