Near Black by Baz Dreisinger
White-to-Black Passing in American Culture

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Synopsis

In the United States, the notion of racial passing is usually associated with blacks and other minorities who seek to present themselves as part of the white majority. Yet as Baz Dreisinger demonstrates in this fascinating study, another form of this phenomenon also occurs, if less frequently, in American culture: cases in which legally white individuals are imagined, by themselves or by others, as passing for black. In Near Black, Dreisinger explores the oft-ignored history of what she calls reverse racial passing by looking at a broad spectrum of short stories, novels, films, autobiographies, and pop-culture discourse that depict whites passing for black. The protagonists of these narratives, she shows, span centuries and cross contexts, from slavery to civil rights, jazz to rock to hip-hop. Tracing their role from the 1830s to the present day, Dreisinger argues that central to the enterprise of reverse passing are ideas about proximity. Because blackness, so to speak, is imagined as transmittable, proximity to blackness is invested with the power to turn
whites black: those who are literally near black become metaphorically near black. While this concept first arose during Reconstruction in the context of white anxieties about miscegenation, it was revised by later white passers for whom proximity to blackness became an authenticating badge. As Dreisinger shows, some white-to-black passers pass via self-identification. Jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow, for example, claimed that living among blacks and playing jazz had literally darkened his skin. Others are taken for black by a given community for a period of time. This was the experience of Jewish critic Waldo Frank during his travels with Jean Toomer, as well as that of disc jockey Hoss Allen, master of R&B slang at Nashville s famed WLAC radio. For journalists John Howard Griffin and Grace Halsell, passing was a deliberate and fleeting experiment, while for Mark Twain s fictional white slave in Pudd nhead Wilson, it is a near-permanent and accidental occurrence. Whether understood as a function of proximity or behavior, skin color or cultural heritage, self-definition or the perception of others, what all these variants of reverse passing demonstrate, according to Dreisinger, is that the lines defining racial identity in American culture are not only blurred but subject to change.
 

About Baz Dreisinger

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Baz Dreisinger is assistant professor of English at John JayBaz Dreisinger is assistant professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. H College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Ver essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Vibe, Los Angeles Times, and other publicationillage Voice, Vibe, Los Angeles Times, and other publications. s.
 
Published October 1, 2008 by University of Massachusetts Press. 196 pages
Genres: Political & Social Sciences, Literature & Fiction. Non-fiction

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The New York Times

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An account of white people who wanted to be perceived as black.

Jan 25 2009 | Read Full Review of Near Black: White-to-Black Pa...

http://www.seattletimes.com

Lonnae O’Neal talks of blacks, including a cousin, “passing” for white, and whites “who have so much heart for black culture they get honorary status.” But, O’Neal adds, they don’t “check black on applications, or, you know, lie to people.”.

Jun 17 2015 | Read Full Review of Near Black: White-to-Black Pa...

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