On this episode of BackStory, the hosts will consider how and why Americans throughout the centuries have crossed the lines of racial identity, and find out what the history of passing has to say about race, identity, and privilege in America. We’ll look at stories of African-Americans who passed as white to escape slavery or Jim Crow and find out how the “one-drop rule” enabled one blonde-haired, blue-eyed American to live a double life without ever arousing suspicion. We’ll also explore the story of an African-American musician who pioneered a genre of exotic music with a bejeweled turban and an invented biography, and examine the hidden costs of crossing over.
CORRECTION: This show includes a story about Sylvester Long, a man of mixed descent who styled himself as a pure-blooded Native American named Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance. We refer to him as a movie star who published a famous autobiography. In fact, Long Lance published his autobiography first—the popularity of the book catapulted him into movie stardom.
View Full Episode Transcript
PETER ONUF: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
MATT LAUER: Are you an African American woman?
RACHEL DOLEZAL: I identify as black.
PETER ONUF: That’s white civil rights activist Rachel Dolezal, speaking with NBC’S Matt Lauer last June. Dolezal set off a media firestorm for passing as black, but she was hardly the first white American to do so. Take the 19th century explorer, Clarence King, a famous white man in public.
MARTHA SANDWEISS: And then he would go home to his African American wife and five children in Brooklyn, who believed him to be a black Pullman porter named James Todd.
PETER ONUF: Today on BackStory, Color Lines. We’ll explore the people who have bent or just not fit into America’s rigid racial rules.
EVA GARROUTTE:: So whereas one drop of white blood does not make you white, one drop of Indian blood does not make you Indian. But, by golly, one drop of African blood will make you black.
PETER ONUF: Coming up on BackStory, a history of racial passing. Don’t go away.
Major funding for BackStory is provided by the Shere Khan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation.
MALE SPEAKER: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.
BRIAN BALOGH: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Peter Onuf.
PETER ONUF: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN BALOGH: And Ed Ayers is with us.
ED AYERS: Hey, guys. We’re going to start today’s show in 1843 and a chance encounter in a New Orleans cafe. A German woman known as Madame Carl sat down for a refreshment when an enslaved woman named Sally Miller came over to serve her. Madame Carl was shocked.
CAROL WILSON: She recognizes Sally as a fellow German with whom she had emigrated to this country 25 years earlier.
ED AYERS: This is historian Carol Wilson. She says that Madame Carl set out to prove that Miller was a long lost German girl named Salome Muller whose family had vanished after arriving in the States.
CAROL WILSON: And they go to the homes of several other Germans in the city. And all of them identify Sally, they recognize her, as either a little girl who they had traveled here with named Salome Muller, or they recognize her more generally as one of the Muller family.
ED AYERS: This chance encounter produce a high profile court case with Sally Miller seizing her new German identity.
CAROL WILSON: Sally decides to sue for her freedom on the grounds that she is, in fact, not an African American slave but is, in fact, a free white woman of German descent and was held illegally in slavery.
ED AYERS: Today it might seem remarkable that the case even went to trial. How could there be any confusion over whether someone was an African American slave or a European immigrant? But Wilson reminds us that New Orleans had a large racially mixed population, with enslaved and free people tracing their ancestry to Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and often some combination of the three. As a result, it was sometimes hard to tell who was black or white, slave or free. And that was apparently true of the dark-haired, hazel-eyed Sally Miller.
CAROL WILSON: She’s not African looking, but neither are many, many slaves in New Orleans, or for that matter, in other parts of the United States. So it becomes apparent during the course of the trial that seeing someone enslaved who looks light scanned or looks white is not shocking to people.
ED AYERS: After years in court, Sally eventually won her freedom and was legally recognized as Salome Muller. The presiding judge declared that, quote, “If the plaintiff is not the real lost child, it is certainly one of the most extraordinary things in history.”
PETER ONUF: But Wilson says this extraordinary coincidence is probably the truth. Sally Miller wasn’t the long lost German girl. In all likelihood, Miller took advantage of the confusion over her identity to pass as German and win her freedom. One of the clues is her first encounter with Madame Carl in the cafe in which–
CAROL WILSON: Sally says that she has no knowledge of this whatsoever. She says she’s been a slave all of her life.
PETER ONUF: Miller only adopted the Muller identity after so many immigrants claimed to recognize her. On top of that, her former owner even tracked down the real Salome Muller as a witness in the ongoing legal battle. But in the end, what mattered was not who Sally was, but how people saw her.
CAROL WILSON: After she wins her appeal, her lawyer makes a speech at this party that they have. One of the things that he says is that part of the reason that we know she’s white is because she’s won over so many white people to her cause. That wouldn’t have happened if she was really an African.
Southern whites want desperately to believe that they can tell the difference between white people and black people. And so the fact that white people accept her as a white person, they consider that factual evidence. Well, she must be white, because we think she’s white.
PETER ONUF: Wilson says that tension between who Miller was and who people thought she was is what makes her story more than just a curious case of mistaken identity.
CAROL WILSON: It’s also a window on American struggle to make sense of the complex issue of race. Americans, typically white Americans, have tried to put people into one of two categories– white and black. And yet, since the earliest days of our history, there are people who don’t fit those binary categories.
BRIAN BALOGH: Sally Miller’s story is not unique. Throughout American history, many have tested the limits of those binary racial categories. It’s a strategy known as “racial passing,” and today on the show we’ll unpack its history.
We’ll hear about America’s infatuation with a dreamy Blackfoot Indian in the 1920s, until his true background was uncovered. We’ll explore the story of a black musician who pioneered a genre of exotic music with a bejeweled turban and an invented biography. And we’ll consider the emotional toll of passing.
ED AYERS: But first, let’s turn to one famous American family that has been caught in the middle for over 200 years– the children of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Hemings, who had three white grandparents, was a slave at Jefferson’s Monticello plantation. She had seven children with Jefferson, four of whom who lived to adulthood.
PETER ONUF: We know the most about their two youngest sons, Madison and Eston, both freed in Jefferson’s will. Harvard University Scholar Annette Gordon-Reed says the theme of passing shaped these siblings’ adulthoods. The two oldest passed so seamlessly into white American that we know very little about them. But Madison and Eston’s life show how fluid the racial line could be for Americans of mixed race ancestry. Our story starts with the death of their mother, Sally Hemings, in 1835.
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: And when she dies, they move out to Ohio as colored people, or black people. At some point, Eston decides that things are getting too rough for black people in Ohio. It was not a welcoming environment, even though a number of former slaves went there.
Eston wasn’t satisfied with that, and then moves to Madison, Wisconsin, changes his name to Jefferson. And the family changes its name, and they’re all white. So that’s what happens to that generation of people. Madison remains in the black community, but the other ones go off into whiteness.
PETER ONUF: It’s a fascinating story about the choices the brothers faced. One chooses to remain black and the other chooses to pass into whiteness, but to do so he’s got to move.
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Yes, he’s go to move.
PETER ONUF: He has to wipe the slate clear. Nobody can know him if he wants to be white. So that’s one of the things that happens if you pass, is you pass with your past erased.
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Yes, exactly. They moved to Madison and they all change their name. In the one sense, it’s the Virginia instance, your son is John Wayles Hemings, then he becomes John Wayles Jefferson. And they don’t want to totally lose their identity, because if you were the grandson of Thomas Jefferson, that would be kind hard not to say ever.
PETER ONUF: Right. So that erasure is not complete.
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: It’s not complete.
PETER ONUF: There is a family memory, but it’s in many cases suppressed, and it’s not widely discussed, but it’s something the family knows.
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Yeah. Except in that family, once they start to have children, they begin to tell a different story about their descendant from Jefferson. Because they know that most people knew Jefferson did not have legitimate sons with his white wife.
So why is your last name Jefferson? Oh, we are the descendants of an uncle, or another male relative, to keep the connection to Jefferson there but not clear. Because if they told the truth, then they couldn’t be white and they couldn’t be the prominent citizens of Madison that they became if people had known they had any black blood.
PETER ONUF: And that Madison story seems to me extraordinarily interesting, because given the character of racial hierarchy in America and the advantages of being white, in a way, if you wanted to pursue happiness, wouldn’t you want to be white? So how do you explain Madison’s decision not to disown his family and his race.
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Well, it’s a matter of personality. He must’ve been a pretty strong personality, we can imagine. And in my first book, I speculated that perhaps it might have been difficult for him. Perhaps he was darker than his siblings. But that turns out not to be the case. He’s described as exactly like his brother Eston who passes for white.
So I think it must’ve been, what his children, descendants say, is that they just had this very, very strong sense of racial pride. It might be better to be white, but how do you reject your mother? So blackness is not color, it’s a culture and you identify with the people who you love.
PETER ONUF: Yeah, and for Madison that’s a choice.
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: That’s a choice.
PETER ONUF: Now, I want to ask you about how Madison Hemings would feel about members of his family who passed into whiteness. Is there some sense? Is it fair to say that he would have resented what they did?
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: It’s difficult to channel. But if I’m looking at the recollections, the way he describes his sister, thought it in her interest to live as a white woman, that’s kind of a short description of things. And he had children who went both ways. Some remained in the black community, others chose to identify themselves as white people.
So I think the career of his grandson Frederick Madison Robinson who went to California was the first black legislator, who was very, very much race conscious person, suggests that the notion of racial pride was something that was handed down in that family, even though in meeting later generations of the family who you would not know they were black. I actually had that experience talking to people out in Ohio. And they were saying, well, you know when white people did this and white people did that. I’m sort of looking at them like, OK, OK, OK, but it was a point of pride for them.
PETER ONUF: I think a strong implication for the history of passing is that you can’t generalize, and it’s precisely because of the dissonant pulls. And that family pulls against what we would think would be the logical move toward whiteness and freedom. And that dissonance, that pull in two different directions, then is enormously significant for the kind of choices African American people are going to make, and their very sense of themselves as a people.
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: And one thing I want to add, too, is that there’s the pull to whiteness because of privilege, but there’s also some repulsion. There was a twin, a repulsion of not wanting to be white because of what whites had done.
PETER ONUF: Annette Gordon-Reed is the author of “The Hemingses of Monticello– an American Family.” Annette and I also recently collaborated on a biography of Jefferson. That book, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs– Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination,” will be out in April.
ED AYERS: While putting this episode together we asked our listeners to share their own experiences of racial passing, including one from listener Johanna Lenner-Cusin in Berkeley, California.
JOHANNA LENNER-CUSIN: When people ask me about my race I generally identify as black, and that has been a growing process for me. In terms of code switching and the power of passing, I can’t dismiss that at all. The truth is, for me, being able to pass has been troubling at times. But it definitely is like with great power comes great responsibility. Like, I could always be white– almost.
My mother is white. My father is black. He is actually only half-black, though no one would notice that from looking at him.
One of the things I have struggled with is identifying as black, because I am aware that I do not share many experiences that darker skinned American black people experience. The reality is that if 80% to 90% of white people who see you do not perceive you as being black, you do have an advantage, potentially, obviously. I think there’s probably a lot of people, some of them potentially listening to this story, who will say that that’s wrong– that I should not, that I should always identify as a quarter black.
One of the reasons that I started identifying as black more frequently was because I also had a black friend and mentor of mine who basically yelled at me one day that I needed to stop qualifying my blackness because she was offended by that. So I thought, OK, that make sense to me, too.
I think by and large the big thing that categories do is that they limit the things that you can do, and they limit the ways that you can think. And they shape your actions in various kinds of ways. And so for me, for example, they shape what I tell people about my family and how I introduce that to them. And so I try to be as sensitive and aware of that as I can.
ED AYERS: Johanna Lenner-Cusin is a high school history teacher in Berkeley, California.
Untold numbers of Americans labeled as black have passed into white society to gain opportunities and even freedom. We’re going to take a moment now to consider the story of a famous New Yorker who passed in the opposite direction– white to black. His name was Clarence King.
MARTHA SANDWEISS: Clarence King was truly a celebrity in 19th century America. If “People” magazine had existed, he might have been on the cover.
ED AYERS: This is Historian Martha Sandweiss who wrote a book about King. She says that he hailed from an upper crust Rhode Island family. King studied at Yale and made a name for himself as a mountaineer and pioneering geologist who mapped the mineral resources of the American West. In 1879, Clarence King became the first director of the United States Geological Survey. He had lots of famous friends and even dined at the White House.
MARTHA SANDWEISS: But he had a secret no one knew about. He lived in the public world as the famous “white man” Clarence King. And then he would go home to his African American wife and five children in Brooklyn who believed him to be a black Pullman porter named James Todd.
ED AYERS: Now, just to be clear, King was–
MARTHA SANDWEISS: –as white as they come. He had sandy, blondish brown hair. He had blue eyes.
ED AYERS: Yet he somehow lived this double life. Details about his masquerade are hard to find. He was careful not to get caught by his white or black social circles, so he didn’t leave a lot of records behind.
Here’s what we do know. King’s wife, Ada Copeland, was born into slavery in rural Georgia. She moved to New York City in the 1880s, where she found work as a nurse maid. Sometime in 1887 or 1888, Clarence King began to court her.
MARTHA SANDWEISS: He has to have his lie all ready. It must’ve just comes spilling out of his mouth the moment he started speaking to her. And he tells her that his name is James Todd and that he’s a Pullman porter.
ED AYERS: Pullman was a luxury rail car company.
MARTHA SANDWEISS: Now, all Pullman porters were black. You could not be a Pullman porter unless you were black. So as he invents this fake identity for himself, he smartly chooses a profession that reaffirms his false racial identity.
ED AYERS: Now King, as a white man, could’ve married Ada. Interracial marriage was legal in New York, unlike other states at the time. But instead, they were wedded as a black couple. From that point on, the famous geologist passed back and forth between his white and black worlds on a daily basis.
MARTHA SANDWEISS: It’s not like he has one comfortable life where he can really be himself. He has to lie and conceal things in his white life, and he has to lie and conceal things in his black life.
ED AYERS: But how, exactly, did King pull this off?
PETER ONUF: The social geography of New York City played a big role. Public spaces were integrated, but communities were not. So James Todd could be confident that his African American neighbors in Brooklyn were unlikely to cross paths with Clarence King in Manhattan. Then there’s King and Todd’s contrasting lifestyles. King, a New York City bachelor, belonged to a number of private men’s clubs.
MARTHA SANDWEISS: And these are the places that he took his meals. This is where he received his mail. And this is where he visited with friends. So nobody really had to go into his private home, or really know where it was.
He’s also living in New York at a moment when residential hotels are very popular for upper middle class people. It allowed you to live comfortably without the burden of employing your own servants. That meant if he was away from the hotel, nobody really noticed. That allows King to kind of slip away, and slip away he did.
PETER ONUF: James Todd could explain his frequent absences to his wife by saying he was at work.
MARTHA SANDWEISS: What do Pullman porters do? They travel all the time. And his absence from Ada’s home would simply reiterate the idea that he, in fact, was on a train. When, in fact, he’s just in midtown Manhattan being Clarence King.
PETER ONUF: King kept up these secret lives for 13 years, until his death in 1901. There’s no indication that Ada ever discovered her husband’s secret. But Sandweiss says there are indications that the stress of a double identity occasionally caught up with King. He was often depressed. And then, there’s a curious incident in the early 1890s that even made the papers.
MARTHA SANDWEISS: He’s at the Central Park Zoo. And the way the newspapers tell it, he got into an altercation with a black butler and became intemperate, and was taken off and was put in a mental hospital for some weeks.
Now what happened there, I really don’t know. But I think it’s possible that a black man who saw Clarence King and knew him as James Todd began speaking to him and King just lost it. These two carefully separated worlds had just collided and he really didn’t know how to respond. And it was just as easy to go off to the Bloomingdale asylum, the mental hospital, for a few weeks, as to explain what had really happened.
PETER ONUF: When King died, he revealed his true name to Ada in a letter, but not his actual race. We don’t know how Ada Todd, who later called herself Ada King, reacted to this news. Two of their sons later served as African American soldiers in World War I. Clarence and Ada’s two light-skinned daughters passed into white society by marrying white men.
ED AYERS: But one question remains. Sandweiss says that Clarence King was as white as they come. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, he had no known African American ancestry. So how did he pass as black?
MARTHA SANDWEISS: I think to understand how someone who looked like Clarence King could persuade anybody that he was of African descent, we have to look to the racial laws of the post reconstruction era. It’s the moment when southern state legislatures, eager to keep freed men in their place, want to make blackness a near permanent state of being.
ED AYERS: Many southern states passed laws that established the “One-Drop Rule.” This law stated that if you had a single ancestor who was black, you too were black.
MARTHA SANDWEISS: What these laws do is this, they separate what you would look like from your official racial designation. But these laws create an unintentional opportunity for a white man like Clarence King to claim African ancestry when he had none at all. So it’s ironic, but by making race dependent on something other than visible appearances, the Jim Crow laws demonstrated that race was such an unsteady category and allowed King to engage in what I would probably call reverse passing.
ED AYERS: In the late century, many white people worried about black Americans passing as white. But no one seemed to notice when a white man crossed the color line.
PETER ONUF: Martha Sandweiss helped us tell that story. She’s a historian at Princeton University and the author of “Passing Strange– A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line.”
BRIAN BALOGH: Earlier we heard from Carol Wilson, a historian at Washington College and author of “The Two Lives of Sally Miller– A Case of Mistaken Racial Identity in Antebellum New Orleans.”
ED AYERS: Hi, podcast listeners. Ed here. We’re hard at work here at BackStory on a new show for the 2016 Oscars, and we have a listener challenge. If you give us an historical event or person and a film genre, we’ll combine the two into a movie trailer. Maybe you’d like to pitch a romantic comedy about that adorable duo of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.
MALE SPEAKER: This fall, life is about the journey and the family you make–
MALE SPEAKER: He treated me as his chief advisor.
MALE SPEAKER: –along the way.
MALE SPEAKER: The main thing was that I battled.
ED AYERS: Or maybe a mystery set in the 1920s about all the alcohol in America just disappearing. Have fun so we can have some fun. You can pitch your ideas on our website, backstoryradio.org, or send us an email to email@example.com. Or feel free to send suggestions on our Facebook page or Twitter. Our handle is at backstoryradio. We’ll produce a few of the trailers for our upcoming show about history in this year’s Oscar nominated movies.
BRIAN BALOGH: Earlier we heard about Clarence King, who lived as both a white and a black man in the late 19th century. That double identity was never uncovered in King’s lifetime, but what if it had been? What would have happened to his reputation, his career?
Now, we’re historians, so we don’t dabble in what ifs. But we can bring you this next story, which shows the dangers of getting caught.
ED AYERS: In 1928, a silent film actor named Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance published his autobiography to great fanfare. Americans clamored to read about this man who had been described in the movie magazines as–
EVA GARROUTTE: One of the last 100% real Americans.
ED AYERS: This is Eva Garroutte, a sociologist at Boston College. She says Long Lance’s autobiography included dramatic scenes from his Native American childhood.
EVA GARROUTTE: Where he had danced around the fire with his body bedobbed with red paint, and he remembered the men coming back from great Buffalo hunts with their gory trophies.
ED AYERS: Long Lance’s popularity was no doubt enhanced by his striking looks.
EVA GARROUTTE: He was a hottie, let me tell you.
But in his head shot he’s got short, well-styled, straight black hair, and this beautiful bronze complexion, dark eyes. And oh, he is Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome.
ED AYERS: But soon after he published his book, people in Hollywood started to question Long Lance’s a story and his racial identity.
EVA GARROUTTE: Is maybe his lower lip a little too full for an Indian? Is he a little too dusky for an Indian?
ED AYERS: Movie studios dispatched private investigators to his hometown in Winston, North Carolina. There they discovered the truth about Long Lance.
EVA GARROUTTE: In fact, his family name was not Long Lance, but it was the more pedestrian Long. And his given name was not Buffalo Child. His given name was Sylvester.
ED AYERS: Also, Long wasn’t the son of an Indian chief. His father was a school janitor. And the Longs, well, they were African American.
Now, Sylvester Long’s family did include some Native American ancestry, but that didn’t count in 1920s America. The one-drop rule trumped any Indian heritage. So rather than live as a black man in the Jim Crow South, Sylvester Long chose another path.
EVA GARROUTTE: He had to leave and reinvent himself, which he began to do when he was a young teenager. He ran away. He joined the Wild West show.
He was not alone in doing that among American Indian peoples. A lot of people like Sitting Bull traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, too. So he was in company with a lot of other Indian people there. And while he was there, he learned to speak a few words of Cherokee and that gave him then a stepping stone to Carlisle Indian School.
ED AYERS: Oh.
EVA GARROUTTE: And, of course, the boarding school experience for American Indian peoples is one of the really egregious aspects of genocide that was perpetrated on American Indian peoples across the country. It was very much intended to wipe out aspects of native culture, including language, religion, everything, and replace them with alternatives that were more acceptable to the dominant society at that time. But–
ED AYERS: But he runs in reverse though, doesn’t he?
EVA GARROUTTE: Yes. For Long Lance, it’s an opportunity to be seized.
ED AYERS: Right.
EVA GARROUTTE: It’s the only chance that he’s going to have for a reasonable education. So he shares these experiences with other Indian people even though he really had to leave where he came from in order to have that for himself.
ED AYERS: Right. So how does he translate that educational experience into an entire adult identity, however, as an American Indian?
EVA GARROUTTE: Well, he goes on to travel around to American Indian reserves and writes journalistic stories that expose abuses of American Indian people there and argue for greater rights for American Indian people. And in recognition of those efforts, the Blood Reserve, which is in the Blackfoot Nation in Canada, goes on to honor him. And they invest him with a ceremonial name, which is Buffalo Child. And so that’s the name that he then goes on to use in his career. Gets himself into the movies and really becomes an important, significant celebrity on both coasts.
ED AYERS: So he plays offense on this. It’s not that he’s just trying to sneak in, he’s actually seizing identity in every way that was available to him, it seems.
EVA GARROUTTE: Yeah. He really is this tragic figure, because you can read his biography in both ways. You can read it as that he’s an imposter and a liar, or you can read him as somebody who really has some genuine feelings. When he dies, he leaves his estate to the Blood Reserve in Canada. So it seems like he comes to develop some personal commitment to this.
ED AYERS: So for him to be so successful, there has to be a hunger among the white majority for such a person. Why would people be so eager to find a full-blooded Indian chief who embodied a people who had been so much the victims of white American history?
EVA GARROUTTE: America has this very peculiar relationship, I think, to American Indian identity. Once you get to a time where Indian people are actually no longer a real threat to the colonial society, then they start to get cool. Then they start to get romantic. Then they start to get exotic. And America at this time is greedy for Indians, but only the right kind.
Well, Sylvester Long is really clear on what constitutes the right kind. He makes himself over into exactly what is asked for, which is a full-blood, the son of a great chief. He assembled pieces of ceremonial attire from various tribes where he had visited. And he has this fabulous photo of him– he’s got his feathers and he’s got his beadwork and everything, and he’s got the pants on backwards. He doesn’t even know how to dress himself, poor man, but neither did anybody else who was seeing those pictures.
ED AYERS: So what’s the response when the expose of his autobiography comes out?
EVA GARROUTTE: Yeah, his entire life implodes, basically. His career was over as of that moment, as were all of his social relationships. And then, eventually, he commits suicide.
ED AYERS: Oh, gosh.
EVA GARROUTTE: Because America did not care that he did have some native ancestry. If he had any black ancestry at all, it forced him into this category of being black. So whereas one drop of white blood does not make you white, one drop of Indian blood does not make you Indian. But by golly, one drop of African blood will make you black and it will force you into that category whether you want to be there or not. Whereas, for American Indians, the rule has often been that you need an awful lot of Indian ancestry to be able to claim that you are an Indian person.
ED AYERS: So what got you interested in this story?
EVA GARROUTTE: I’m a citizen of the Cherokee Nation myself. And I’m also a light-skinned person of mixed ancestry, and people are frequently asking me how much Indian are you, which makes me feel like a dog or a horse.
ED AYERS: Right.
EVA GARROUTTE: So I guess my own personal experience led me to really write this book in which I invite people to talk about all the different ways that people think about who’s Indian enough to be Indian.
ED AYERS: Eva Garroutte is a sociologist at Boston College. Her book is called “Real Indians– Identity and the Survival of Native America.”
BRIAN BALOGH: Both Sylvester Long and Clarence King reveal a common thread in many passing stories– a personal toll. In King’s case, it was from keeping his secret. In Long’s story, that toll came from being exposed. Historian Allyson Hobbs says this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Passing can be a high stakes gamble built on secrecy and subterfuge.
ALLYSON HOBBS: One could certainly understand that it would cause an enormous amount of emotional and psychological trauma.
BRIAN BALOGH: Hobbs has written a history of racial passing in American life. She discovered many stories of people who had achieved professional and social success passing as white. But for African Americans during the Jim Crow era, passing as white meant also walking away from family, friends, and community.
ALLYSON HOBBS: They talk about missing their family. They talk about things like not being able to celebrate holidays with their families. They talk about living in a world that feels alienating and isolating to them. They talk about the difficulties of fitting into that world, which often mean that they have to listen as white coworkers speak disparagingly about African Americans.
BRIAN BALOGH: Right.
ALLYSON HOBBS: They have to laugh at racist jokes. They might have to tell a racist joke themselves. So I think there’s a lot of sacrifice that happens for people who pass themselves, but also for the people that they leave behind.
BRIAN BALOGH: Right, the other side of the equation. And that’s even more complicated, because they didn’t decide to initiate this action. But all of a sudden they are implicated, in a way, in a lie.
ALLYSON HOBBS: They’re deeply affected by it. In many cases, they are the ones that have to keep the secret. In many cases, they are the ones who have to look the other way when they see a family member or a friend in public. Because during the years of segregation, 1890s to 1955 or 1960, to even know someone or to be associating with a black person, particularly on a level of equality, could raise some eyebrows about one’s racial identity or one’s politics. So there were a lot of things that those people who were left behind had to do in order to make sure that the people who were passing were protected.
BRIAN BALOGH: I asked Hobbs how she went about documenting something that, by its very nature, is so hidden.
ALLYSON HOBBS: Many authors, in their papers and in their correspondence– people like Nella Larsen or Jessie Fauset, Langston Hughes– would talk quite a bit about passing. So particularly during the 1920s, during the Harlem Renaissance, passing becomes this topic that it seems that authors are really obsessed with. So throughout Nella Larsen’s papers and throughout her correspondence, she often makes mention to somebody that she’s bumped into, and it turns out that they’re actually passing so they had a very awkward moment. She’s wondering about what their family thinks about this, so it certainly comes up quite a bit in the literature.
I was also very lucky to find some family histories that were written by students in the 1930s and ’40s who were students at Howard. And I was really struck as I read through the family histories how many students said that they couldn’t write a family history because they did not know much about one side of their family because someone had passed and they don’t know what happened to him, or what happened to that side of the family.
BRIAN BALOGH: And that speaks to some of the loss that you were referring to earlier.
ALLYSON HOBBS: Exactly.
BRIAN BALOGH: To being cut-off from, really, a part of your own history.
ALLYSON HOBBS: Absolutely. And that’s actually how I came to this project, because my aunt told me a story about a relative of ours. Growing up in the ’30s, she grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a historically African American neighborhood. She went to the African American high school. But once she graduated from high school, her mother decided that it was in her best interest for her to move to Los Angeles and assume the life of a white woman.
She pleads with her mother. She doesn’t want to leave the only family and friends and community that she’s ever known. But her mother’s determined, and she moves to Los Angeles. She marries a white man. She has children who identify and believe themselves to be white and know nothing about their mother’s past.
And then a few years later she receives this very inconvenient phone call, and it’s her mother. And she’s calling to tell her that her father is dying and that she must come home immediately. And our relative says, I can’t come home. I’m a white woman now and there’s just no turning back.
BRIAN BALOGH: And what year would this have been, Allyson?
ALLYSON HOBBS: This would have been the ’40s and early ’50s. And what I found so tragic about that story was that her mother really believes that she’s doing the very best thing that she can do for her daughter and probably has not thought through what those consequences might be. And that years later when she needs her daughter, when she wants to see her daughter, she can’t.
BRIAN BALOGH: Right. I personally do not believe that we’re living in a post-racialist world. But I do wonder if we might be nearing a post-passing, or a post-racial passing world.
ALLYSON HOBBS: I think we are. I think that we are now living in a much more multicultural world, a much more multiracial world, a world where mixed race identities are much more accepted and recognized. But at the same time, there are still many ways that people pass.
And I think that we’ll begin to see new ways that people pass. I mean, it’s very possible that we could see passing happening when we think about undocumented immigrants. I think passing is a very flexible phenomenon, and it sort of adapts to whatever the particular restrictions are in a given society.
BRIAN BALOGH: Allyson, thank you so much for joining us on BackStory today.
ALLYSON HOBBS: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been such a pleasure to talk to you.
BRIAN BALOGH: Allyson Hobbes is a historian at Stanford University and author of “A Chosen Exile– The History of Racial Passing in American Life.”
PETER ONUF: Earlier we heard from a listener who wrote to us about her own experience of passing. We wanted to share the perspective of another BackStory listener, one whose American identity has been shaped by passing and immigration.
MALE SPEAKER: Hi, my name is [INAUDIBLE]. And as you can probably tell, I’m not super fond of the “guess your ethnicity” game, but I say my dad is from India. And that inevitably prompts a question, oh, OK, well, you only told me about half your family. Where is the other half from? And then I explain that my mom is white and from the Midwest, and that typically raises some eyebrows.
I wish that we were in a society where we could choose our own racial identity, or to be more accurate, where other people didn’t project categories onto us, onto people like me. I think it’s important that mixed people fully explain their experience and really discuss how it is that we came to be, because we’re not visible. If you saw me walking down the street, you could just think that’s another Indian person. That’s another brown person.
Immigrants and people of immigrant descent in the Asian community are still seen as foreigners, of not being fully American, of potentially having other loyalties. I think there’s the idea that you could just go back to your home country. You’re only one generation removed.
And I think that, as a mixed person, I choose to emphasize that I’m mixed, because that means that I am American in a way that defies that categorization. I’m not part of that group. I don’t speak Tamil. I don’t speak another Indian language. I can’t just go back to India.
There was a time when my parents were wondering if it would be easier if I had a white name. Where I myself thought life might be easier if I had a white-sounding name, despite the fact that I look sufficiently nonwhite enough that I could never credibly pass to actually be nonwhite. Certainly from a white standpoint I could pass as Indian, and that would be the end of the conversation.
I choose not to pass. Growing up as someone who is mixed it means that we can take the best of both cultures, not that necessarily that’s going to be understood by everyone. But we have that unique opportunity to be culturally bilingual, if not literally bilingual.
PETER ONUF: [INAUDIBLE] is a business consultant based in New York City who’s currently working in Brussels, Belgium.
BRIAN BALOGH: Peter, Ed, when we look back across American history, in many ways there’s nothing more common than people passing for something they’re not. We look at lots of poor people who’ve passed for wealthier people. We look at Jewish people who have tried to pass for Christians. Yet, racial passing seems to carry with it a taboo that is unparalleled by these other examples. I’d love for you to explain to me why that is.
PETER ONUF: Well, Brian, I’d start off by suggesting that people are always sorting themselves and each other out. And in hierarchical societies, external markers are the way they do that sorting. And skin color is the way in which races, as they’ve been socially constructed through the ages, has been defined.
BRIAN BALOGH: Not really that many ages, just in the last couple hundred years.
PETER ONUF: Yeah, it’s become a very powerful marker. And interestingly, it’s become a powerful marker as other markers have lost their salience.
BRIAN BALOGH: Did it happen as soon as the slave ships showed up in 1619?
PETER ONUF: I think it quickly does become associated with enslaved condition of African enforced immigrants to America. It’s a way of sorting out. And, of course, in all early colonial societies, there is a lot of mixing and that makes it all the more compelling.
It’s really important to emphasize, I think, the role, the laws, that the state plays in enforcing distinctions that don’t really come out of nature. And one of the reasons for this is because you’re looking at a spectrum. Because of the mixture of the races, there is no purity, but you need to legislate it. You need to define it.
ED AYERS: Well, let me present you guys with a problem though, given all that. The most hierarchical situation in all of American history, of course, is chattel slavery. And it flourishes, of course, in the first half of the 19th century. And I would imagine that the period of greatest racial mixing, Brian, is actually under slavery, and it’s under conditions of sexual violation of enslaved women by white men. And so, Peter, how would that fit into your model of hierarchy and race?
PETER ONUF: Well, it’s interesting. Because just as individuals want to sort themselves out on the right side of any divide that is pass, so too Americans, when they declared their independence, wanted to overcome the characterization from Britain and European countries that colonizers were always exploiting their slaves and slave women, indigenous peoples, and that it was a mongrel population. What Americans needed to do to refute that was to assert that they were racially pure. They were truly European, you might say.
ED AYERS: Well, it helps explain some of the great schizophrenia at the heart of American history, in some ways. At the same time that people are insisting evermore on whiteness, and measuring it, and coming up with sciences to prove it, the racial intermixing that’s going on is of a very high amount.
PETER ONUF: But you could deny that, Ed, if it was clear what status was according to the law.
ED AYERS: Yeah. So the racial mixing would be evident to people, but it would not be with consequence.
PETER ONUF: Right. Because they would be exceptions. They’d be anomalies. They wouldn’t see them, in effect.
ED AYERS: They would even be personal failures of white men who would allow themselves to do that.
PETER ONUF: Exactly right. And as you know, there are many, many white slaves, slaves who could have passed for white, many who did pass for white because of all this mixture of the races. But legally, that fact was denied culturally and socially as well.
ED AYERS: Well, here’s the amazing thing, guys. I believe that racial mixing underwent a sudden reversal with emancipation, which was exactly the opposite of what the critics of emancipation had in order. As soon as slavery’s over, Peter, without having slavery hold things in control, then you had black people and white people marrying each other. The old phrase, “would you want one to marry your sister,” and all this sort of stuff.
Well, it turns out that was a lot more likely to happen under slavery than it was under freedom because black people could get away from white men. They could actually retreat into their own farms and homes.
BRIAN BALOGH: They had a bit of autonomy.
ED AYERS: Yeah, exactly.
BRIAN BALOGH: Well, along with emancipation, Ed, comes a remarkable effort to recover black history, to recover a positive identity associated with being African American and not being enslaved. So just for starters, the vast majority of African Americans who don’t want to pass– because you’re not talking about passing from slavery to freedom, you’re talking about two sets of racial groups.
ED AYERS: That’s very interesting. And at the same time, there’s another process that’s going on, which is what whiteness might be is changing. The same decades, a huge influx of people that today we unproblematically identify as white, but that people at the time weren’t sure were– Italians, Poles, Jews.
BRIAN BALOGH: Right.
PETER ONUF: Right.
ED AYERS: So guys, I don’t really hear a straight line through American history.
BRIAN BALOGH: Nope.
ED AYERS: We started out simple and ended up complex. We didn’t start out bifurcated now with the United Colors of Benetton.
So Peter, how do you reconcile this natural sorting that you talked about and this history that we just talked about.
PETER ONUF: Well, Ed, we haven’t stopped sorting. I think that’s the important thing to keep in mind. We’d like to think that we don’t live in a world that’s defined by race, by external markers. We’d like to think that it’s all up to us and our character and our ambition.
But that impulse to sorting that goes back that we can see how unnatural and artificial it was in the 17th and 18th and even the 19th century. Well, that impulse has not gone away and it’s taken new forms that are hard for us to recognize. Is it really a non-hierarchical world, or are we in the midst of the emergence of new forms of hierarchy?
BRIAN BALOGH: We’re going to end today’s show with a story that blurs the line between passing and performance.
PETER ONUF: It’s the story of a California celebrity known as the “Godfather of Exotica,” an organist named Korla Pandit He was famous in the 1940s and ’50s for dreamy, jazzy tones that drew on melodies from an imagined South Asia and a make-believe Africa. Part of his appeal was that Pandit, who always wore a turban, was himself foreign and fascinating. But BackStory producer Nina Earnest reports that the truth beneath the turban was a little more complicated.
NINA EARNEST: Back in the early 1990s, journalist R.J. Smith and his music nerd friends– his words, not mine– would travel around Los Angeles visiting it’s old tiki bars and cocktail lounges. Korla Pandit, wearing his trademark bejeweled turban, was often one of the performers.
R.J. SMITH: We would pull into a nightclub or an old spot, and if they had a piano, or best of all, like a Hammond organ, there was Korla. And he would just play these amazing exotic sounding songs that evoked Asia, ancient Africa, Persian music. Not as it really exists or existed, but as those of us who’d grown up on Hollywood movies thought it existed.
NINA EARNEST: This is how the two men met. Smith says that the Godfather of Exotica was soft-spoken and philosophical.
R.J. SMITH: He also had this whole long, ever-changing back story about how he was from India, born to a Brahman family, an elite well-off family in India. And they sent him off, his family did, to the West to go to music school. Everybody knew that.
NINA EARNEST: Not long after Pandit died in 1998, Smith was interviewing black bebop legend Sir Charles Thompson. Thompson was originally from the Midwest.
R.J. SMITH: Out of the blue, he started talking about when he was a young man he’d heard a guy play that was the best piano player in the region he’s heard of, a real boogie woogie player, and he never knew what happened to that guy. His name was John Red.
So Sir Charles Thompson had moved to Los Angeles and established his career. He was watching TV one day and he saw this man with a faraway look in his eye and a turban on his head playing exotic sounds, allegedly of the Far East, and he knew who that guy was. It was John Red who he had heard play as a young man.
And that just blew my mind. I knew he was talking about Korla Pandit. John Red was Korla Pandit.
NINA EARNEST: Pandit wasn’t from India. He was actually African American and from Missouri. John Rowland Red was born there in 1921. But in the 1930s, he and other family members began to move to Los Angeles.
In LA, Red started looking for work as a musician. He was talented– an excellent piano player and organist. But southern California wasn’t all that welcoming. Opportunities for African American musicians were still hard to come by. So Red, who was light-skinned, began passing in his performances.
R.J. SMITH: On one level, it’s simply an equation. There were two different musician’s unions in southern California– a white one and a black one. Now, if you were in the black one, there were only certain places you were going to ever get gigs. Now, if you could pass yourself off somewhere in between white and black, your opportunities multiplied.
NINA EARNEST: Red first tried out a Latin American alter ego named Juan Rolando. But by the late 1940s, he had adopted the Indian born persona, Korla Pandit, the identity he would maintain for the rest of his life.
The centerpiece of his costume was his turban. Red was hardly the first African American to take this approach. Some black men were known to wear turbans to get around mistreatment and segregation laws in the Jim Crow South.
In 1944, Pandit had married a white woman named Beryl DeBeeson. Some speculate that she helped him craft this character, and it worked. Pandit got his big break in what was then a new medium.
R.J. SMITH: In southern California in the late ’40s and early ’50s, Korla Pandit was a TV star.
MALE SPEAKER: A program based on the universal language of music, it is our pleasure to present to you Korla Pandit.
R.J. SMITH: He would say nothing. He would just look into the camera, play the organ or the piano. It was sort of Liberace before Liberace even, in a way.
NINA EARNEST: “Korla Pandit’s Adventures in Music” first aired on LA’s KTLA in February 1949. The show, performed live, came on every weekday afternoon.
R.J. SMITH: And he would just look out into the living rooms of Southern California, and his eyes were intense and mesmerizing. And the music was intense and mesmerizing. And housewives all over southern California swooned.
NINA EARNEST: Pandit’s silent appearance on the show wrapped him in mystery. What his viewers didn’t know was that they were watching one of the first African Americans to have his own television show.
Pandit’s legend grew in the following decades as he told stories about his Indian upbringing. Take this appearance on a local talk show.
KORLA PANDIT: I was born in New Delhi, India. And started performing music in a sense at the early age two years and four months old.
NINA EARNEST: He went on to have a long career, performing well into the 1990s. That’s when Smith met him around Los Angeles. Smith says that once he learned that the enigmatic Pandit was actually African American, he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
R.J. SMITH: And that just told me if I’m fascinated by it and the people I’m talking to are, maybe this is something worth writing about.
NINA EARNEST: Not long after Pandit died in 1998, Smith published an article revealing Korla Pandit’s identity in “Los Angeles” magazine. Smith wrote that Pandit’s children didn’t know the truth. In fact, his son and even his wife Beryl denied the story. Pandit’s surviving son could not be reached for comment. By many accounts, the news shocked a lot of music fans. But it didn’t surprise the African American family of John Rolland Redd, many of whom lived in Los Angeles.
ADRIENNE HERNANDEZ: There was so much more to Korla than mainstream’s discovery of his cultural identity, because it wasn’t a secret within the community that he came out of.
NINA EARNEST: This is Korla Pandit’s great niece, Adrienne Hernandez. She’s the granddaughter of one of John Red’s sisters. Adrienne says she knew from an early age that her uncle was THE Korla Pandit, but also Uncle John. Since R.J. Smith’s article, Korla Pandit is now just as known for his racial passing as for his work as a music and television pioneer. But Adriane says she doesn’t really think of her uncle as someone who “passed.”
ADRIENNE HERNANDEZ: One of the things that is often covered when we discuss concepts of identity passing in this country is the sentiment that everyone who does that is in a place of forsaking the traditions and culture that they come from. I just don’t think that our family experienced it that way, because we had access to my uncle. There was never a feeling of, oh, we’ve lost him.
NINA EARNEST: Pandit was a big part of her life. He often visited the family and they attended his performances. Adrienne says many in their Los Angeles community knew he was the son of local pastor Earnest Red. She saw the persona of Korla Pandit as more of a performance costume.
ADRIENNE HERNANDEZ: If my uncle fits into that category of passing, it’s because American society needed him to have the look of Korla Pandit in order to fully receive the gift that he had to offer. The inside joke about Korla’s presentation was that the Hollywood story is that he was Hindu and Hindus don’t wear turbans. And yet, all of his audience was willing to receive him as a Hindu, because that’s what they wanted him to be. They liked the turban. They liked the jewel.
NINA EARNEST: Another of Pandit’s nieces, Maya Hernandez, also grew up knowing her uncle. She and Adrienne are first cousins. Maya says she’s proud of what John Red accomplished in the guise of Korla Pandit.
MAYA HERNANDEZ: Bravo for him, in some ways. I’d honestly feel comfortable with appropriating one culture for another, but I also think, too, he lived in a very oppressive time.
NINA EARNEST: There was secrecy in Pandit’s life. From what we know, he didn’t tell his children about his racial background. But he was a part of his African American family, who viewed Pandit and Red as one and the same.
MAYA HERNANDEZ: It was something, I think, in some ways was supported by the family. That any time any of his siblings could have outed him. There was opportunity there, but it was something that was supported because I think they saw the value in helping Korla be an individual and loving him for who he was.
NINA EARNEST: Some people have criticized R.J. Smith for being the one who outed Korla Pandit.
R.J. SMITH: What was I outing him as, an African American? Is that something to be ashamed of? I’m sure that Korla, son of an African American leader in the community in Los Angeles, I’m pretty confident he was not ashamed of that. I’m pretty confident that why he put the turban on was not out of shame, or guilt, or not liking who he was, it was for who the rest of us were.
PETER ONUF: That story was brought to us by BackStory producer Nina Earnest. Special thanks to John Turner and Eric Christensen, whose recent documentary on Pandit is called “Korla.”
ED AYERS: That’s going to do it for us today, but you can still share your comments and stories of passing on our website. You’ll find us at backstoryradio.org. While you’re there, contribute to our upcoming shows. We’ve got a special on states in the national spotlight, an episode on the 2016 Oscars, and one covering the history of unemployment in America.
You can leave a comment or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter at BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
PETER ONUF: BackStory is produced by Andrew Parsons, Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Kelly Jones, and Emily Gadek, Jamal Millner’s our engineer. Julianna Durdy and Diana Williams are our digital editors. And Melissa just mainly helps with research. Special thanks this week this Cinder Stanton and the Getting Word Oral History Project at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
BRIAN BALOGH: BackStory’s produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by the [INAUDIBLE] Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel– history, made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
ED AYERS: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.