Tag Archives: racial passing

When It’s Safer to be Someone Else: BAME characters and “dressing-up”

The “revelations” this past week over Harvey Weinstein’s repeated assaults on women brought up some very troubling conversations about women.  Many of the news reports showed Weinstein with various actresses who have accused him of sexual assault; the actresses were often smiling and near enough to Weinstein for him to have his arm around them.  But as anyone who has ever been sexually assaulted by someone more powerful than them knows, smiling doesn’t mean you’re happy.  It means you are being someone else, trying to survive.  An article in the Independent this week (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/harvey-weinstein-sexual-harassment-mental-health-women-suffering-anxiety-a7996511.html) suggests that most women, once they hit puberty, have to learn psychological coping skills to deal with the gaze of powerful men—and even then may be labelled as anxious or depressed.  The reaction to the hashtag #MeToo (tweeted over half a million times as of Monday, according to CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/15/entertainment/me-too-twitter-alyssa-milano/index.html) shows that sexual assault—for men as well as for women—is all too prevalent in our society, and yet those assaulted feel so alone and so threatened that it is hard to speak up about it.  For many of us (yes, #MeToo), it is safer to smile if we want to survive.  It is safer to be someone else.


In Errol Lloyd’s Nini at Carnival, Nini gains power through the act of dressing up as an African queen.

This coping mechanism of being someone else has various translations in literature; in children’s books, it is often through the trope of dressing up.  Dressing up can simply allow a character to try out a different persona and see if it fits; but it is interesting to look at how BAME characters in books “dress up,” especially female characters.  Prior to puberty, dressing up is about becoming powerful.  Two very different notions of power can be seen in comparing Errol Lloyd’s Nini at Carnival (Bodley Head, 1978) with Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace (Frances Lincoln, 1991).  In Lloyd’s book, the titular character is part of a carnival parade, but she doesn’t have a costume.  Her “fairy godmother” (really her friend dressed up in a fairy costume) comes along and gives her a piece of cloth in a pattern that could be intended as a Kente cloth (the royal cloth of the Akan people in Africa), wrapping it around her like an African ceremonial dress  and saying that Nini is now “pretty enough to be Queen of the Carnival” (n.p.) which Nini, in fact, then becomes.  In Hoffman’s story, on the other hand, Grace likes to dress up as story characters; “she always gave herself the most exciting part” (n.p.) according to Hoffman—which in most cases, happens to be the male part.  Lloyd invests power for his Black female character in the historical traditions of African civilizations; Hoffman invests it in male characters, and often those male characters as written by white male “classic” authors such as Kipling, Longfellow, and of course J. M. Barrie.  Guess which one of these two books has never been out of print since publication?  No wonder World Book Day costumes are fraught for BAME Britons.


Grace in Mary Hoffman’s book feels powerful when she acts out stories of white and/or male heroes. Illustrations by Caroline Binch.

In YA books, dressing up changes from a focus on power to a focus on survival, particularly for BAME young women.  Two different approaches to dressing up can be seen in Tanya Landman’s Passing for White (Barrington Stoke, 2017) and Catherine Johnson’s The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo (Corgi, 2015).  In both books, the main female protagonist must escape those who have the power to destroy her happiness and security by becoming someone else.  Rosa, in Landman’s book, is light enough to “pass for white” because she is the daughter of her slave master.  Her master wants to keep Rosa enslaved, and destroy her family life and chances for happiness.  And as Rosa and Benjamin, another slave with whom she falls in love, knows, “White folks can do whatever the hell they pleased . . . And then they’d say it was your own damned fault” (3).  So Rosa dresses up in the most powerful costume she can think of: that of a rich, elderly, white man, with Benjamin as her slave, in order to escape to freedom.  A colleague who teaches slave narratives said that students often argue that passing for white is being a “traitor to your race”—but such attitudes are similar to those who say that women who accept contracts in Hollywood after being assaulted were “trading on sex”.  Survival in the face of overwhelmingly powerful enemies sometimes depends on pretending to be like the powerful.


For BAME characters in YA novels, “dressing up” was not just fun and games.

Johnson’s book addresses sexual assault head-on, also in a historical novel, by opening her book with the main character’s rape. Mary Wilcox, alone and friendless, is raped by two farm boys even though she is dirty, weak, and “looked like a savage” (2).  Mary knew that rape happened to women “acting the coquette and suffering the consequences” (1) but when she is raped that night, she understands that it is not about women “asking for it” but about men exerting power.  And while she rejects that kind of power, she still knows that to survive, she would have to be somebody else: “an Amazon warrior woman who could turn on her attackers.  Better still, a fighting princess, a beautiful girl with a dagger at her waist and a quiver of magical arrows.  They would not dare touch her then” (4).  Mary does not become a warrior, but she does become a princess from an exotic land, the Lady Caraboo, who speaks no English but reflects back “only what your people wanted me to be” (193)—the beautiful, the strange—to a white family who takes her in.  In becoming someone else, she survives; but her disguise also allows her “to be something other than who I was; something fresh, something good, something capable of love and being loved” (194).  This heartbreaking statement—that Mary thinks she has to be someone else to be loved—rings true for many women who think that their broken self will never be good enough to be worthy of love.


Becoming “what they want you to be” is another way to survive, as in Catherine Johnson’s novel. Cover photo by Bella Kotak.

Historical fiction is perhaps the easiest genre in which YA literature can represent the concept of becoming someone else for survival, but I want to end with one last example from fantastic fiction.  Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (Doubleday, 2001) concerns a world where the power positions between Black people and White people are reversed from contemporary society.  But Blackman’s novel is less about race and more about power; both Crosses (Black people who hold most of the society’s power positions) and Noughts (White people who generally have to serve the Crosses) suffer from unequal power relations, but Noughts suffer far more.  Callum, the Nought protagonist, has a sister named Lynette, who was “beaten and left for dead because she was dating a Cross” (124).  Her way of coping with her powerlessness is through disguise: she tries to convince those around her that she is a Cross.  As a blonde, White girl, her disguise is only self-deception.  When forced to confront her despised whiteness, Lynette commits suicide, knowing she will never be able to cope with “a return to reality” (170).


From Ian Edginton and John Aggs’s graphic novel version of Noughts and Crosses–Lynette’s “madness” is her only chance at survival.

Everyone, at every age, practices “dressing up” to be a little bit different from our ordinary selves sometimes.  But we need to be aware that dressing up can also be a way of hiding—or of surviving.  Literature for children can remind us that sometimes it is safer to be someone else in societies where powerful people get away with crimes against the powerless.


The Mathematics of Slavery and the Classroom; or, an Open Letter to Rochester Grammar School

It’s 2017.  That’s 210 years since England abolished the slave trade, and 152 years since the abolition of slavery in the United States—I did the math. Other people are also doing mathematical problems involving slavery, as evidenced on Twitter this week when the following assignment surfaced from Rochester Grammar School in Kent asking students to calculate the best business deal they could get spending £100 on slaves.


I would love for someone to tell me that this is not a real assignment . . .

The idea that trading in humans could be seen as a reasonable school assignment is part of a wider problem.  Recently, I took MA students to Speke Hall outside of Liverpool, where they were told that the money to pay for the hall came from “farming” in the West Indies—despite the fact that one of the coats of arms in the Oak Parlor of the house has three Black people’s heads on it.  This happened less than ten miles from the International Slavery Museum, where they have a painting of a slave ship named the “Watt”—which also happened to be the name of one of the Speke Hall families.


The coat of arms of “Watt of Speke” with three African heads on the top. But their sugar plantations were maintained by “farmers”.

As a former teacher of mathematics (yes, this was how I started my adult working life), I am sympathetic to the notion that children should be given “real” mathematics problems to solve.  I spent enough time as a child figuring out how old someone was if they were a quarter of their grandmother’s age now and twenty years from now they would be half their mother’s age (why couldn’t you just ask them how old they were?) to grow up despising mathematics.  In fact, this is why I got the job teaching third and fifth graders the subject; the experimental school valued philosophical understanding of concepts and real-world problems.  I agree, too, that an integrated curriculum is one of the best ways to accomplish this kind of deep understanding of mathematical concepts.  So I’d like to offer Rochester Grammar School some alternatives to their assignment.  My suggestions incorporate not only mathematical and historical concepts, but integrate the literature curriculum as well.


The cost of escaping was more than a mathematics problem.

Students might, for example, look at Tanya Landman’s Passing for White (Barrington Stoke 2017).  This story is a fictionalized account of married slaves, the wife being light-skinned enough to “pass” for white.  She dressed up as a white slave-owner who “owned” her husband in order to escape north to freedom. Despite Rosa’s light skin, they could not have made the journey without money.  Landman writes,

Over the years Benjamin had been allowed to take on extra carpentry work and he got to keep a little of the money people paid for that.  As for me, well, there were times that Mr Cornwell’s conscience bothered him some.  He’d slip me a few coins, tell me to get myself ‘something pretty’.  But I had no need of ribbons or frills.  I put every last cent in a jar . . . It was against the law to sell anything to a slave without his master’s permission, but there were places that turned a blind eye to that.  They’d charge twice the price for goods that were half the quality, but they’d do it” (25).

There are multiple opportunities for mathematical story problems in this passage alone—not to mention the potential for powerful discussions about the difference between the law and justice.


Are rich people just rich because they manage their “purchases” better? Illustration by Frank T. Merrill from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

If Rochester Grammar School preferred a “classic” literary text, they could look at Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a novel set during the American Civil War that does not in fact mention slavery at all.  Teachers might read my article, “Anything to Suit Customers: Antislavery and Little Women” in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 26.1, to get some background into why slavery disappeared in the novel, and then lead a discussion about the economics of publishing in an ideologically-divided nation (a not untimely lesson to have in this era).  The absence of slavery in the novel could then be compared with the 1994 film version, in which Meg’s anti-slavery wardrobe is compared to that of her rich friends who are not bothered by such scruples as social justice.


This page from Plant Hill Arts College students’ “To Be Free is Very Sweet”: The Life of Mary Prince shows that school-age people can understand the realities that come with the mathematics of slavery.

Alternatively, they could do what I often did as a teacher, and ask the students to come up with their own mathematics problems.  They might use as a model the book produced by students from Plant Hill Arts College in Manchester, “To be free is very sweet”: The Life of Mary Prince (Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust, 2010). The students, who wrote and illustrated the text, were keenly aware of the mathematics of slavery, in which people could be bought and sold to enrich plantation owners, and families could be torn in half—or, in Mary Prince’s case, in quarters.  And unlike the Rochester Grammar School assignment, the students at Plant Hill Arts College recognized that the mathematical facts had emotional and physical consequences for real people.

Children need to be taught about slavery, and they need to understand it in a deep, rather than surface-level, way if they are ever to grapple with the continuing racial inequalities that exist in former slave-owning nations.  But treating slavery as a mathematical problem replicates the arguments made by slave-owners in the West Indies and the southern states of the US, who claimed—rightly, as it happens—that the economies of these regions would tank if slavery was abolished.  But you would not teach children mathematics by having them calculate how to purchase drugs, or illegal guns, or children for trafficking, at an economical price.  We have to see slavery for what it is: robbery.  And one of the best ways to open children up to the true mathematics of slavery is through reading.  As Frederick Douglass pointed out in his Narrative, “The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery.”  The mathematics of slavery has never been more clearly expressed.

Checking All the Boxes

When I enrolled my daughter for kindergarten some years ago, I had to fill out the typical enrollment form, name, date of birth, address, and so on. About halfway down the page, it asked me to identify her ‘race’ using the standard US categories: White, African-American, White Hispanic, Hispanic non-white, Native American, Asian. I hesitated, because these categories did not describe my daughter. Finally, I checked White and African-American (a more accurate, though still not quite, category would have been Afro-Caribbean). I took my form up to the registrar and she looked it over.

“Which race is she?” the woman asked me.

“She’s more than one,” I said, adding helpfully, “you see, I’ve checked the boxes.

The registrar looked up at me wearily. “You can’t check more than one box. So which race is she?”

“She’s both,” I insisted.

Rolling her eyes, the woman circled “African-American” with her pen and crossed out “white”.

“We get more money for them if they are African-American,” she said, “so that’s what I’m going to put.”

Thus in one pen stroke, both my daughter’s white and Afro-Caribbean heritage were erased, and she was given a new (semi-legal) identity. It is an identity that (at least according to the registrar that day) earns the school district advantages, so I have to say that this part of my and my daughter’s history came to mind when the Rachel Dolezal story began circulating late last week. Dolezal “identifies as black” (see her tell Matt Lauer this on NBC’s Today show here: http://www.today.com/news/rachel-dolezal-speaks-today-show-matt-lauer-after-naacp-resignation-t26371). In the Today Show interview, Dolezal says that one of her sons told her, “racially you’re human and culturally you’re black.” Other people call what Dolezal has done “political blackface,” especially since she once sued Howard University for discriminating against her whiteness. Dolezal does seem to use our hesitation to talk about the idea of racial categorization to her benefit. Her actions are the cynical outcome of a society which has institutionally and legally categorized people by race for hundreds of years, giving some economic and social advantages over others based on that categorization.

The economic and social advantages linked to racial categorization have played a role in children’s literature as well. I could spend the whole blog discussing the inherent status afforded to white characters in children’s books, status that is so ingrained in American society that it goes unnoticed by most readers. But instead, I’d like to highlight two particular cases that I think have similarities to the Dolezal case because they led to the question of who is allowed to gain advantage from racial identification.

Note the award sticker on the book . . .

The first is a book that first appeared in 1976, The Education of Little Tree. The original publishers, Delacorte, said that the author, Forrest Carter, was “Storyteller in Council” to the Cherokee Nation. The book was promoted as the memoirs of a young boy growing up during the Depression with his Cherokee grandparents, and was highly praised by environmentalists and multicultural literature proponents. But in 1991, it was revealed that Carter was not only white, he had been a white supremacist and Ku Klux Klan member. He was even a speechwriter for infamous Alabama governor George Wallace. Although Carter-the-author denied he was Carter-the-white-supremacist in 1976, he died before the controversy really took hold in the 1990s, leaving people uncertain about how to approach the book. Oprah reluctantly pulled it from her “shelf,” the publishers relabeled the book as fiction—but the book remains in print and available as an account of Cherokee life for child readers. Native American writer Sherman Alexie sums up the unease the book causes when he said, in 2007, “‘Little Tree’ is a lovely little book, and I sometimes wonder if it is an act of romantic atonement by a guilt-ridden white supremacist, but ultimately I think it is the racial hypocrisy of a white supremacist” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/06/AR2007110601431.html). Whether or not Carter was cynically playing on white liberal ideas of the Noble Savage or acting out a sort of atonement for his white supremacist past, it is certainly true that he would have made far less money on the book (if it had been published at all) if he admitted his past involvement in white supremacy.

Who is allowed to talk about your hair?

The other book I want to highlight that has faced controversy over race and privilege is Carolivia Herron’s Nappy Hair (1998). Unlike The Education of Little Tree’s author, Herron’s “right” to author a book about a girl with “willful, intentional naps on her head” is not in question. Herron, who has a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Pennsylvania, wrote the book about her own hair and her own childhood. But the book itself has been controversial. In December of 1998, a newly-minted white teacher who wanted to “make a difference” in the lives of children, requested a transfer after being criticized for reading the book to her African-American first graders. She received public threats of bodily harm after sending photocopies of the book home at the children’s request. Some African-American parents at the school (not all of whom, it must be said, had children in Ruth Sherman’s class) objected to a white teacher using the word “nappy” which they felt was a racial slur. Following the controversy, Herron herself was asked not to come and speak at schools in Queens and Brooklyn because it would be disruptive (http://articles.latimes.com/1999/mar/25/news/mn-20855). Sherman felt bitter about her experience because she felt sure she had been doing the right thing, connecting children with “their” heritage. She certainly did not read the book to gain economic advantage over others. But the controversy over Nappy Hair highlighted her own inherent position of advantage due to her ‘race,’ and suggests again the unease that Americans (of any community) feel about the racial boxes into which other people put them.

It is difficult (as Shakespeare once said) “to thine own self be true”; but the challenge set before us as humans is to do just that—without using that true self to take advantages away from other people. We won’t be able to meet that challenge until we stop relying on boxes and start listening to people’s stories.

Dr. Seuss and Racial Passing

Dr. Seuss is one of the most beloved children’s authors in America. He also has a rather mixed record on issues of race and diversity. As a young man, Dr. Seuss wrote and drew for various magazines and college publications. In these, Seuss portrayed Africans and Asians in stereotypical fashion. During World War II, Seuss drew some political cartoons which sympathized with African-Americans and Jewish people and others that accused Japanese-Americans of perpetrating acts of sabotage.

Dr. Seuss's less stellar diversity moments.  Taken from Richard Minear's Dr. Seuss Goes to War (NY: Norton, 1999).

One of Dr. Seuss’s less stellar diversity moments. Taken from Richard Minear’s Dr. Seuss Goes to War (NY: Norton, 1999).

After the war, Seuss’s attitudes changed. These changes in attitude came about, in part, because of his writing commissions. He visited Japan on assignment for Life magazine, and saw the devastation caused by the atomic bombs his country dropped. His writing for children also began to take off. Both of these things resulted in a measurable difference in his public attitudes toward racism. Phil Nel points out that Seuss wrote Horton Hears a Who directly after he returned from Japan in1953. The book argues that all people matter “no matter how small”. Many people have also pointed to Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle (1958) as an allegory of Fascism. Writing for children gave Seuss a sense of responsibility about his publications (even to the extent of causing him to revise earlier books for children to be more culturally sensitive).

This cultural sensitivity continued when Dr. Seuss published The Sneetches in 1961. Many critics take Seuss at his word when he says that he wrote The Sneetches about anti-Semitism. Although Philip Nel adds, almost as an afterthought, that “the book also works as an anti-racism fable” (Dr. Seuss: American Icon New York: Continuum, 59), it is surprising that the critics have not taken this possibility more seriously. Seuss may have been influenced in his anti-racism by his World War II experiences, but he could not have been ignorant of events occurring in his own country in the late 1950s. The Civil Rights movement was well underway, and the nation as a whole was gripped with the implications of laws that would enforce equality between whites and African-Americans. Lines in The Sneetches such as, “When the Star-Belly children went out to play ball,/ Could a Plain Belly get in the game . . . ? Not at all” echo the official and unofficial rules of a still very segregated United States.

Starless Sneetches need not apply.

More than that, The Sneetches taps into one of the fears that segregationists held, and which was represented as an ever-present danger in the Northern as well as the Southern states: the fear of “passing.” In a country where “one drop of African blood” made a person black and not white, worries about being able to place people in the racial hierarchy if they could “pass” for white emerged through various forms of cultural production. Mark Twain, Charles Chestnutt, and Nella Larsen all wrote novels about African-Americans passing for white. The 1930s musical “Showboat,” twice made into a film (in the 1930s and the 1950s), has a tragic plot involving passing. Another film, based on a Fannie Hurst novel, was made twice by Hollywood (again in the 1930s and the 1950s). “Imitation of Life,” in its second incarnation became the fourth-most successful movie of 1959—just two years before The Sneetches was published.

Wait–are there African-Americans in this movie? Oh, yes, they’re way down in the corner . . .

“Imitation of Life” (in its 1959 version, which was less faithful to the book than the 1934 version starring Claudette Colbert) concerned two women, one white (played by Lana Turner in increasingly glamorous costumes) and one African-American (played by Juanita Moore, wearing either maid’s garb or middle-aged mom clothes throughout) and their daughters, the insufferably perky Sandra Dee as Turner’s daughter and Susan Kohner as Moore’s. Kohner’s character is light-skinned enough to pass for white (Kohner herself was of Mexican and Jewish descent, not African-American; so she was passing for African-American passing for white), and she does so with a vengeance, denying her color and even her mother (she tells people that Moore is her maid, or her “mammy”). The white characters in the film are somewhat befuddled by this, claiming that Kohner’s color “doesn’t matter” and that they “love her anyway”—only reinforcing the notion that color does matter, if they have to love her in spite of it. The film ends tragically, of course, with the death of Moore’s character and the remorse of Kohner’s.

I have no evidence whether or not Dr. Seuss ever saw “Imitation of Life” but certainly The Sneetches has remarkably similar themes. Before Kohner’s character leaves to become a dancer in Hollywood, she says of her mother, “She can’t help her color—but I can. And I will!” The Sneetches without stars are told that they can have stars “for three dollars each” and they do not hesitate to take Sylvester McMonkey McBean up on his offer. Newly be-starred, these “improved” Sneetches tell the other Sneetches, “We’re exactly like you! You can’t tell us apart./ We’re all just the same, now, you snooty old smarties!/ And now we can go to your frankfurter parties.” These Sneetches were not born star-bellied—but now they can pass for such.

A Star-Belly Sneetch's worst fear: that we might not be able to tell "them" from "us".

A Star-Belly Sneetch’s worst fear: that we might not be able to tell “them” from “us”.

The picture that accompanies this text has very happy Sneetches. When Moore, in “Imitation of Life” asks her daughter if she is happy, Kohner responds, “I’m somebody else. I’m white—white—white! Does that answer your question?” Seuss takes the idea of passing and puts it on a grand scale, amplifying both the joy of those passing and the fear of those deemed racially superior. Kohner’s character must lose her mother before she can gain self-love. The Sneetches lose all their money before deciding that “no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beach.”  Seuss’s book, unlike “Imitation of Life,” can have a happy(ish) ending because the Sneetches have only a single, surface-level difference; “race” is removable.  Hollywood no longer makes movies about “passing,” and it would be nice to think the idea of “racial purity” may be passing out of the American vocabulary as it did out of the Sneetch vocabulary.  Unfortunately, racism is not so easily erased–even by Sylvester McMonkey McBean.