SAMPLE READING LIST: Racial Passing and Masquerade in American Culture from the Mid-Nineteenth Century


In this minor field, I explore the boundaries of race in American culture by considering narratives of passing that begin in the mid-nineteenth century and continue to the present day. The first group of novels on my list includes the more traditional narratives of black-to-white passing, many of which were written during the Harlem Renaissance; I also include a film, Imitation of Life, that brought the issue to the big screen in both 1934 and 1959. My second group of novels and films deal with a subject less often considered in the context of passing: white-to-black passing and blackface. The subjects of these works are passing in the sense that they relinquish their white identity, if only for a brief time, in one form or another--whether for an experiment, as in Black Like Me and Soul Sister, a musical number, as in The Jazz Singer, or a college application, as in Soul Man. Although the boundary between passing and posing is sometimes difficult to draw, I also consider the white negro tradition, from Mezz Mezzrow to Norman Mailer to the boys of the 1999 film Whiteboys. The third sub-group on my list includes novels and memoirs that deal more broadly with the difficulties of determining racial categories. Though passing occurs in a number of these works (Pudd'nhead Wilson, for example) it is difficult to call them passing narratives since they so profoundly question the very notion of race, whereas "passing," in many respects, relies on the idea that race indeed exists, if only as an entity to be "passed" in or out of. The texts in this category describe scenarios of racial masquerade, as in Benito Cereno, or confusion, as when James McBride subtitles his memoir "a black man's tribute to his white mother." They highlight something that is often implied by the works in my other categories: Race is a social construct, but one that has very real consequences.

In keeping with this theme, my secondary readings in this minor field include not only literary and film studies on passing and blackface, as well as aspects of racial theory, but also critical writing on the idea of race--from Richard Dyer's White, a theoretical work, to F. James Davis' Who is Black? One Nation's Definition, a historical analysis. I include studies of how certain ethnic groups, like Jews, became redefined as white; these studies highlight the role of society in creating and maintaining racial categories. The fiction, memoirs, and critical texts on my list all examine the ways in which racial categories are established, and the ways in which this bears on the individual's life.




William and Ellen Craft
— Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860)
William Dean Howells
— An Imperative Duty (1892)
Charles Chesnutt
— The House Behind the Cedars (1900)
James Weldon Johnson
— Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912)
Walter White
— Flight (1926)
Nella Larsen
— Passing (1929)
Jessie Fauset
— Plum Bun (1929)
George Schuyler
— Black No More (1931)
Ralph Ellison
— Juneteenth
William Faulkner
— Light in August (1932)
Chester Himes
— "Dirty Deceivers"
— "The Ghost of Rufus Jones"
Langston Hughes
— "Who's Passing for Who?"
— "Spanish Blood"
— "Dear Ma"
— "Passing"

— Imitation of Life (1934 & 1959)
— Illusions (1996)


Mezz Mezzrow
— Really the Blues (1946)
John Howard Griffen
— Black Like Me (1960)
Grace Halsell
— Soul Sister (1969)
Norman Mailer
— "The White Negro" (1957)
James McBride
— The Color of Water (1996)

— The Jazz Singer (1927)
— Watermelon Man (1970)
— Soul Man (1986)
— Bulworth (1998)
— WhiteBoys (1999)


William Wells Brown
— Clotel (1852)
Herman Melville
— Benito Cereno (1855)
Mark Twain
— Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894)
Kate Chopin
— "Desiree's Baby"
Dorothy Parker
— "Arrangement in Black and White"
Claude McKay
— Home to Harlem (1928)
Norman Podhoretz
— "My Negro Problem--and Ours" (1963)
Gregory Howard Williams
— Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black (1995)



Sterling Brown
— "Negro Characters as Seen by White Authors"
Elaine K. Ginsberg
— Introduction to Passing and the Fictions of Identity
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
— "The Passing of Anatole Broyard" (from Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man)
Werner Sollors
— Neither Black nor White Yet Both
Samira Kawash
— Dislocating the Color Line: Identity, Hybridity, and Singularity in African-American Literature
Eric Lott
— Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class
— "White Like Me: Racial Cross-Dressing and the Construction of American Whiteness"
Susan Gubar
— RaceChanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture
David Roediger
— "Guineas, Wiggers, and the Dramas of Racialized Culture"
Richard Dyer
— White (selections)
F. James Davis
— Who is Black? One Nation's Definition
Michael Rogin
— Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot
Karen Brodkin
— How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America
Sander Gilman
— "The Jewish Nose: Are Jews White? Or, the History of the Nose Job"