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Being someone you are not

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is the author of several books, including "Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie" and, most recently, "Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years 1960-1975."

Readers of “Passing” may, as I did, think of a number of personal instances of short- or long-term passing. I immediately recalled trying to pass for a non-Okie when, at age 20, I moved with my husband to San Francisco from Oklahoma. A general national disdain for Southerners -- and in California, where Dust Bowl memories were still fresh, for “Okies” -- was not something I understood until I encountered derision and even insults. My remedy? A tape recorder and practice in losing my accent, as well as identifying myself as being from “the Midwest” or even “back East,” neither of which was strictly a lie and apparently satisfied the questioner. Within a year or so, I fit in and no longer received negative reactions from colleagues and shopkeepers.

Brooke Kroeger, the author of “Passing,” is a professor of journalism and former foreign correspondent who has written two well-received biographies: “Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist” and “Fannie: The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst.” Her biographical and narrative skills give nuance and depth to the touchy, often explosive topic of “passing” in this set of short biographies of lesser-known individuals. The subtitle, “When People Can’t Be Who They Are,” is key to understanding the text. Kroeger is not dealing with impostors, frauds or men with multiple families unknown to one another. Her definition of passing includes several elements: First, it refers to individuals who “effectively present themselves as other than who they understand themselves to be”; second, other people must accept the identity that the passer projects; third, “Passing involves erasing details or certain aspects of a given life ... "; fourth, and important, the passers do not have to change anything in their outward appearance. Passing involves, more than anything else, the control of information. Some of the attributes required for successful passing, Kroeger writes, are stealth, gumption, cunning, agility, social conceit and guile. She probes ethical questions about passing, such as the significance of authenticity, the responsibility of individuals to tell all about themselves, the thin line between disclosure and lying and the possible effects on the passer’s character.

The heart of “Passing” consists of six case studies. Each is vividly specific but also representative of a larger aspect of identity in the United States, historically and currently. The individuals who shared their stories with the author -- ordinary people, not public figures or celebrities -- are young, smart, well-educated and engaging.

The first two studies are the most compelling and both concern racial passing, in different directions. David Matthews, a light-skinned African American whose mother was Jewish and died when he was a child, was raised by his proud, activist African American father. Unbeknownst to his father and other relatives, Matthews led a double life from early childhood, presenting himself to the world outside his family as white and Jewish. Kroeger weaves into the telling of this fascinating story the history of factual and fictional instances of African Americans passing as white. She also discusses Matthews’ case with Princeton University professor Anthony Appiah, whose work on the question of identity is well known and who expresses reservations about such behavior -- but also compassion for the individual who makes the choice. Invoking New York Times literary critic Anatole Broyard, who died in 1990 at the age of 70 without ever having made known publicly or even to his children that he was black, Kroeger poses the question: How does what we think we know or are told about another person’s identity affect our response to that person’s work? In Broyard’s case, she argues that passing allowed him to transcend the inevitability that he would be viewed racially in a career in which race is irrelevant. I would put it another way: Literary criticism was and is a field dominated by white men, and when it does allow females or people of color inside, their work is hardly ever viewed as objective.

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The second case study is of an unnamed half-WASP, half-Italian woman who found herself inadvertently passing as African American. Her eyes and hair were dark, her hair was silky straight, her skin tanned easily. Her boyfriend at her university was adopted and uncertain of his parentage; he had been raised by his Puerto Rican mother, but others assumed he was African American. After graduation, she took a job in a small Virginia town that was half black and half white. The apartment complex where she lived was integrated, and she made friends with her neighbors. Her boyfriend visited her a couple of weekends each month. She also dated black men in the local community. She was invited to join a local social organization that turned out to be all African American women. When she realized she was passing, she attempted to correct the misperception; her African American friends, of course, assumed she was trying to pass for white. She left town thoroughly confused by the experience. In telling this story, Kroeger provides a wealth of material on segregation and integration in the South.

Then there are three cases, interesting but not as rich as the stories of racial passing, that deal with religion and gender identity. In one, a young woman of Puerto Rican heritage identified herself in childhood as “Spanish” and as an adult converted to Orthodox Judaism, allowing her congregation to consider her a Sephardic Jew. In another, a Jewish seminarian hid his growing awareness of his homosexuality in order to become a rabbi. In the third, Kroeger deals with the awkward and destructive “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the U.S. military, recounting the experience of a lesbian career military officer who persuaded a male friend to marry her “for the record.”

The final case study is problematic. A critically recognized but penniless poet in her 30s founded, under a pseudonym, what turned out to be a successful zine for adolescent girls, letting readers and even her own editors believe that she herself was a teenager. This particular tale is a misfit and rather undermines the core of Kroeger’s argument, which distinguishes passing from deception. In her introduction, Kroeger acknowledges as much: “The last story takes a few slightly different turns because of the context in which it takes place. I chose it for reasons that will become clearer in the telling.” The reasons did not become clear to me, and I found it the weakest of her stories for the purposes of the book.

In a brief final chapter, Kroeger deftly ties the stories together. She finds a suitable definition of passing in a dictionary entry for the musical term “passing note” or “passing tone”: “A passing note is not part of a composition’s harmonic scheme, but one the composer introduces to ornament the work or allow for a smoother transition from one tone or chord to another.” After much research, interviewing and thought, the author concludes that such “transitions” are not always a negative experience and, although dissonant, not necessarily to be condemned.

One cavil: Curiously, an example of the most common form of passing in the United States, past and present, does not appear here. Economic and social class status is not supposed to exist in this country, but of course it does. Passing as middle class is a mass phenomenon, one that I myself indulged in in my youth, presenting myself as the daughter of fallen rural gentry (Scarlett O’Hara?) instead of a dirt-poor sharecropping family. My mother, who was part American Indian, regarded herself as having married up in snagging my father, a landless farmer and rural worker, and vowed that her children would escape lower-class status. Having mightily struggled to marry well and gain a higher education (which eventually included a doctorate), I ran into the reverse phenomenon in the 1960s: upper-middle-class individuals ratcheting down their economic or social status to claim working-class credentials or taking jobs in factories and assuming that they had changed classes. Having spent a decade “improving” my own social status, I was regarded by some of these passers as hopelessly bourgeois. A case study of class passing in either direction, given Kroeger’s penetrating research and analysis, would have been an excellent addition to her fine text. *


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