Passing Was Becoming Passé
The origin of the term “passing” finds roots in its connection to 19th-century African American slave narratives such as Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (1860), where “two slaves successfully escape from bondage by having the light-skinned Ellen ‘pass’ for the white (and male) master of her dark-skinned slave husband William” [Henderson, “Critical Forward”, Passing, (2002): xxiii]. Like the mode of the slave narrative, “the passing genre explicitly and implicitly challenges hierarchical and discriminatory social, political, and economic practices” [ibid.: xxxiii], while also critiquing patriarchal authority and the inequality it breeds. These forms, Henderson contends, were popular with black and white audiences, because they “ethnographically educated readers about black life while simultaneously constructing and critiquing whiteness for them” [ibid.: xxxiv]. At the time of its inception, the passing genre “dialectically opposed the postbellum literature that sought to reinscribe the rigid color line” [ibid.: xxxiv], which means that white writers such as Thomas Dixon (the writer responsible for The Clansman, which would later be turned into The Birth of a Nation by Griffith) “tried to paint the mulatto as threatening or dangerous to Southern, white society at large, the passing novel put the onus of blame for oppression and terror on whites” [ibid.: xxxiv].
The only film bold enough to look at the phenomenon of passing during the slave period is also the last to formally, cinematically address the subject in that era. By 1957 passing was becoming passé, and African American Civil Rights became the primary, pressing focus in films about the black experience, manifested in the desire of black society to be able to enjoy a larger degree of parity in the white-dominated culture after years of being legally denied. It’s hard to say what stance director Raoul Walsh’s operatically messy Band of Angels is trying to take in either dialogue, if any, but it remains a bizarre, defacto history lesson nonetheless about the dire treatment of most women during slavery: white, black, and especially biracial. Desperately, perhaps even unknowingly bigoted, and rife with imagery that invokes some of the most horrible racist stereotypes ever coined – “the coon, the tom, the buck, the mammy, the tragic mulatto” (see Bogle) abound – the film is tough to watch because of its outmoded portrayal of black language and themes.
Telling the story of Amantha “Manty” Starr (the lily white Yvonne DeCarlo, ten years too old for the part), the film begins with a young Manty being told the story of her beloved, deceased mother by a requisite mammy figure caricature. The slaves know the secret Manty does not: her mother was a very light-skinned slave owned (yet inexplicably loved) by her white father. In effect, the adult Manty is not made aware of her own involuntary passing until her father’s death, when she is publicly decreed a “mongrel” and “chattel” by white racists who force her to not only abandon her previous life as an affluent white woman for the oppressed life of a black woman, but to actually be put on the auction block as a slave because of the “one drop” rule that dictated a person with any black ancestry be classified as non-white, and therefore not fully human in the eyes of the law [Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (1988): 37].
Because of her near-white skin, Manty realizes quickly the currency her racial ambiguity can afford her, yet once she finds out about her roots, she never denies her blackness, and insists on being treated like all of the other slaves despite her obvious great beauty and value as the trophy child bride of an alcoholic, elderly white master Hamish Bond (Clark Gable, clearly drunk in real life throughout the performance, and repulsively too old to be playing DeCarlo’s lover). While Manty’s circumstances elicit a hidden militancy in her, she is still subjugated as the property of a white man, as his exotic object of sexual fetishization and morbid, violent carnal desire. It seems that Bond’s had a succession of enslaved lovers, and Manty’s predecessor, the housekeeper Michele (Carolle Drake), tells her she should feel fortunate rather than angry.
Manty never consciously tries to pass for white, though, and when she finally does, she immediately finds that passing leaves much to be desired; unlike the protagonists of both versions of Imitation of Life, Peola (Fredi Washington) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), who find that passing for white might have some benefits, but will ultimately force them to meet with scathing, life-altering, devastating consequences that will render them yet another figure of the tragic “mulatta” trope [Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks (4th ed., 2009): 19]. With Manty, on the other hand, we are supposed to be happy for because she allegedly breaks the rule of the racist archetype by living a happy life hidden away from society in the swamp, wife of a drunken old white man by the film’s end. But her end, even if portrayed as upbeat, is arguably quite tragic.
It’s also important to highlight that passing as a genre was a concern that specifically pandered to an educated, affluent audience and that fairer skin was often associated with the upper classes [Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (1988): 184-5]. Though the popularity of the genre suggests that passing was an important social issue from the immediate post-slavery period and on, at its height of the Harlem Renaissance, the topic of passing was a much-discussed one amongst mainly for upper and middle class blacks and whites, but remained a relatively unknown concern and topic for lower class, darker-skinned blacks [Henderson, “Critical Forward”, Passing, (2002): xxx]. The topic of passing in literature, and eventually in film, is usually centered on class, and the idea that passing for white will result in some kind of cultural capital for whoever is passing.
The light-skinned Washington and Beavers, a dark-skinned, full-figured actress, were in fact the first major black female stars, and Delilah and Peola were the first substantial black female role to date in the still-young film industry. Despite a sappy milieu filled with problematic, ignorant liberal goodwill by today’s standards, Beavers still managed to infuse her stock mammy character with a degree of humanity, but in many ways was still represented in a humiliatingly racist way by the script, particularly when her big, dramatic moment finds her reclaiming the title of “mammy” defiantly (“I ain’t no white mother, I’m your mammy, child.”) The actress was widely criticized by the black media of the time, to which she countered “I would rather play a maid than be a maid” (DVD extras documentary). Delilah and Bea form a bond that transcends employee-employer, one that is more akin to the dynamic of a husband and wife, or family. Bea, the most viable choice to be the “breadwinner” as Bogle calls her [Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks (4th ed. 2009): 59], goes out to make money hawking her deceased husband’s famous maple syrup, while Delilah stays home to take care of the kids and run the household.
The Great Depression is in full swing and both women—in fact all women irregardless of color—are marginalized. This renders the scrappy spirit of Imitation of Life a bit false, and the alliance these women form while relying on each other’s strength to transcend is deceptively joyous, given the white characters benefit from the black characters’ unpaid labor. When scrutinized closer, the power dynamic between Bea and Delilah is very disturbing. Symmetrically, Delilah offers up her family recipe for pancakes – the perfect compliment to Bea’s burgeoning syrup empire – as a gift. She considers the privilege of being Bea’s domestic slave payment enough. When the business really takes off, Bea offers her servant a mere twenty percent of the profits, which Delilah refuses. “Oh, honey chile, please don’t send me away,” she begs, as though she can’t exist without being subservient to her white mistress. It’s no wonder Peola doesn’t want to be black: she sees her mother constantly humiliated while the fair Bea gets more and more powerful and rich at Delilah’s expense, enjoying an autonomy that few women were familiar with in that era. Peola hates being black, ostensibly because she cannot enjoy any of these white privileges that she sees every day, and, as a result, she chooses to live as a white woman far away from home.
With a growing popularity in literary form, and Civil Rights a cause celebré, the concept of passing quite naturally translated into popularity in film with John M. Stahl’s adaptation of Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life. Of the four films discussed here, only the 1934 version of Imitation of Life actually casts a woman of African American descent to play the role of a black woman passing for white – the others are all played by actresses of various backgrounds passing for black. There are not, and have never been, a huge variety of roles for very light-skinned black women outside of the classic racist archetype of the tragic mulatto.
Hurst’s Peola as written was definitely a cliché and in the film version, the tragic mulatto stereotype is perhaps ratcheted up a notch as Peola “rejects her mother, leaves home, and attempts to cross the color line [Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks (4th ed. 2009): 59].” As played with great humanity and pathos by Washington, an actress whose life eerily reflected the funhouse mirror distortion of her character’s warped self-image, Bogle argues that “Peola became a password for non-passive resistance”, rather than for tragedy. Ironic, then that Washington’s life and career would become synonymous with the character type of the tragic mulatto, the image she tried to fight against her entire life but ended up embodying.
Washington is best-known, and received the most critical adoration as an actress, for playing Peola in Imitation of Life. Though author Charlene Regester says that both Washington and co-star Beavers “insisted they were unlike the characters they played in this film [African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900-1960 (2010): 107],” Donald Bogle contends that Washington’s “public persona and private life looked at one point as if they’d merged. Washington’s facial features and skin color rendered her “indistinguishable” from a white woman, and because of this, the actress proved hard-to-cast in film roles as producers didn’t know where to place her. Washington herself refused to deny her blackness or play up her whiteness and frequently spoke about “managers, producers, and film executives” who persisted that she pass for white in order to get film work, a notion which she angrily rejected (“Why should I have to pass for anything but an artist?” she once lamented) [Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks (4th ed. 2009): 123].
Imitation of Life (1934)
If the protaganist is a woman, such as Clare Kendry in Larsen’s novel Passing, she will be seeking a rich, white husband, from whom she will hide her “dark” secret in order to gain social status, and economic privileges and security. Clare passes in order to spare herself from the outright atrocities committed towards African American women during this period in which lynching, open racism, and outright hate speech were not only commonplace but also supported by laws and a government that had no intention of giving equal rights to any people of color, let alone to black people who were enslaved only a scant few years prior. Passing, as a concept, is in fact a direct consequence of slavery, a system that legally defined children whose mothers were slaves as slaves (matrilineally), no matter if there fathers were the white slave masters raping African American women or not (Psychologist Priscilla Schulz later described the situation as a form of “sexual tyranny”).
Mae Henderson explores this theory further, claiming that “idea of racial intermixing also lies at the heart of passing and hints at the threat to the ideology of whites at the time for perfect racial purity and for white supremacy, making it a fundamentally radical or ‘transgressive’ form of art” [“Critical Forward”, Passing, (2002): xxxvi]. During Reconstruction, there were few laws in place to protect newly-freed slaves, but quickly, as the period ended in 1877; Jim Crow laws began to prevent blacks from assimilating into free society [ibid.: xxxvi]. Even in the messy aftermath emancipation, Plessy vs. Ferguson was decided, declaring the “separate but equal” doctrine legal and thus justifying the continuation of racial segregation (this judgment would not be overturned until 1954 with Brown vs. Board of Education]. Historian Paula Giddings called the miscegenation laws in the United States that were in place as early as 1656 in Virginia “a circle of denigration which managed to combine racism, sexism, greed, and piety” [When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, (1988): 37]. It would not be until 1967 that the Supreme Court conclusively ruled on the issue in Loving v. Virginia, invalidating Virginia’s miscegenation laws as unconstitutional.
When Fannie Hurst first published her popular book Imitation of Life in 1933, it was necessary for Delilah the cook and maid (Louise Beavers) to explain to her white employer that her biracial character Peola’s father was a very light-skinned black man, which accounted for the child’s white-ish appearance. This is a key footnote that had to be included in the film adaptation, so as not to offend or shock white audiences who might believe that Peola was the product of an interracial union of any kind, which was a criminal offense that carried a sentence of up to ten years of hard labor in the state pen. The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 which strictly censored any even remotely questionable content in movies (and was also known as Hays Code), explicitly stated that the depiction of “miscegenation… is forbidden” (Wikipedia).
According to Donald Bogle, “the humanization of the Negro servant was carried to new and highly publicized heights” by Imitation of Life, and that while President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal hinted at growing American liberalism (57), yet Peola’s mother Delilah still had to explain just how her nearly-white daughter came to be so light-skinned in an era where the use of skin lighteners and hair straighteners in order to approximate standards of white beauty were the rage with black women. Products such as “Black-No-More” “questioned the sincerity of racial pride and concluded that blacks were really ashamed of their race” [Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, (1988): 186]. Delilah still must specifically speak to the issue of the race of her child’s father to appease the curiosity of her white employer Bea (Claudette Colbert), after the little girl befriends Bea’s daughter Jessie and they all move in together – but most importantly to the white spectator, just so they know that any real-life laws about interracial liaisons were not broken in this fictional, melodramatic universe. It’s a conservative move for a film that claims to be socially-conscious and one can imagine how much more subversive it could have been had that detail been left out altogether, because it’s truly not important to Peola’s story whether her father was black, white or anything in between.