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An Exploration of the Double-Conscious African- Americans on their Journey for an Identity along the Colour Line in -Passing, Quicksand, The Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man

Bachelorarbeit 2007 49 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Setting Passing in Context- Double Consciousness and the Harlem Renaissance

3. Passing- The Instability of the African-American Identity

4. Passing- The Journey for an African-American Identity

5. Critical Reflection & Conclusion: Passing and the Instability of Race

6. List of Plates

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

My old man died in a fine big house.

My ma died in a shack.

I wonder where I’m gonna die,

Being neither white nor black?[1]

These are the first words with which Nella Larsen commences her novel Quicksand in 1928. The quatrain belongs to the poem ‘Cross’ (1925) by Larsen’s contemporary Langston Hughes and addresses the issue of duality, where mixed racial heritage leads to self-doubt and struggle in the definition of identity.

Larsen and other African-American writers, including James Weldon Johnson, explored the intricacies and contradictions of the concept of race at the beginning of the 20th century, in particular by addressing the phenomenon of ‘passing’. Passing has many definitions, most often it is associated with the term ‘passing for white’, which implies the crossing of the colour line from black to white in order to transcend racial barriers. Ratna Roy refers to it as “assimilating into white society by concealing one’s antecedents”[2] and according to Sollors, passing can be understood in a more general sense as the “crossing of any line that divides social groups.”[3] Perhaps most importantly is to understand passing as the ability of a person to be completely accepted as a member of a sociological group other than their own.

Until the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, writers hardly had addressed the passing figure in literature because racial passing only “thrived in modern social systems in which as a primary condition, social and geographic mobility prevailed.”[4] Passing has always been a much camouflaged topic because the successful passer does not want their identity to be uncloaked. This constitutes probably also the main reason why only little, and rather pioneering, research has been conducted up to today and why it still remains difficult to investigate the issue. The sole witnesses of the concepts of passing in the time period are passing narratives. James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man (initially published anonymously in 1912 but reissued under Johnson’s authorship in 1927), Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) and her novella Passing (1929) are perhaps the most exemplary and promising examples of an analysis of the passing figure and classic epitomes of the racial situations during the Harlem Renaissance. The novels challenge stereotypes of race and disclose concepts of doubleness and visibility. In order to disentangle the complexities of the theme, these novels, will serve to examine in depth in the nature and the motifs of the phenomenon of passing.

In this dissertation, I will be exploring the motifs of passing in these novels of the Harlem Renaissance in the context of DuBois’ concept of double consciousness and the discourse of race. Chapter One will set the critical historical and cultural context for the passing narratives, as this is indispensable and crucial for the understanding of the motifs of the theme. Since DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and his theory of the double consciousness of the African-American prove to be fundamental and very constructive in investigating the issue of passing, his concept, but also the era and movement when it was most acknowledged and employed, will be explored in detail.

With this in mind, the second Chapter will account for what destabilizes the African-American identity and thus identify the motives of passing. It will explore how external factors like legislation as well as extremely influential social taboos affect the mulatto protagonists and what influencing variable double consciousness, as an internal factor, plays.

In quest for a stable and fulfilling identity, African Americans travel along the colour line and pass into different roles for a life outside the veil without restrictions. In Chapter Three, I will therefore analyse passing as an attempt to escape the confines of race and double consciousness and will also pay special attention to the motif of travel. At this point, I will in particular explore the question whether the journey of Larsen’s and Johnson’s passing figures fulfils its promise of a stable or even new form of identity.

The concluding Chapter will critically reflect on the subject of passing and its potential to challenge racial categorization and boundaries. I will analyse whether passing proves a successful strategy to refrain from social restrictions and double consciousness and whether concepts like that of DuBois’ third self are promising for a stable identity. This final Chapter will incorporate a conclusion in which I will look behind the veil of the phenomenon and explore the ways in which passing defies the essentialism of the discussions of race.

2. Setting Passing in Context - Du Bois, Double Consciousness & Harlem Renaissance

A critical fundament in which to understand and analyze the phenomenon of passing in the Harlem narratives by Larsen and Johnson proves to be DuBois’ influential concept of double consciousness. In order to comprehend the core of DuBois’ theory, it is necessary to explore first the movement from which he emerged and which he enormously influenced. An analysis of the movement as well as the era in which it took place is also important so as to identify the writer’s intention with their novels about passing. Furthermore, the phenomenon of passing will be culturally and historically contextualized since the issue of racial passing can only be understood if one acknowledges the one-drop rule as explained below.

The Harlem Renaissance

One of the most controversial and complex movements in African-American cultural and literary history is the Harlem Renaissance. Equally known as the New Negro Movement, it describes a moment of creative cultural and artistic activity, which not only extended beyond the borders of Harlem but also beyond its time span. In view of earlier articulations of ideas that were to persist or events that were influential in the rise of the movement, the Harlem Renaissance spans from its start in the early 1910s until its decline in the late 1920s and early 1930s. W.E.B. Du Bois, an American civil rights activist as well as author, constituted with his book The Souls of Black Folk, for instance, a very influential and foundation laying work for the New Negro Movement in 1903. It had such a great impact on thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance that it was even recalled as “the bible”[5]. Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man, firstly published in 1912, also anticipates many issues that were central to intellectuals of the New Negro Movement, like concepts of identity and race, and thus justifying its presence in the Harlem Renaissance.

In this movement of hope and declaration of independence, a new African-American consciousness emerged in the United States. This new consciousness and confidence was the result of the awareness of changing times. Not only did many people of African descent travel, as part of the Great Migration, from the South to the North, also the leadership changed from the political conservative regime of Booker T. Washington to a radical, black culturally nationalistic and Pan-African regime of W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. According to Alain Locke in The New Negro (1925), African-Americans “shook off the psychology of the ‘Old Negro,’ of the implied inferiority of the post-reconstruction era, to become the ‘New Negro,’ self-assertive and racially conscious as though for the first time.”[6] The newly obtained confidence of the New Negro encouraged many African-Americans to travel through America and to other continents like Europe. Accordingly, also the writer’s minds and eyes wandered in all directions and addressed topics like passing, which had been silenced before and in which the motif of travel plays an essential role.

On reflection, the era in which the Harlem Renaissance took place appears to be a time when, paradoxically, boundaries were persistently erected and dismantled as well as acknowledged and disregarded. This contradiction becomes most visible when looking at race and racial definitions. At no other place in time have the borders been so fixed and in no other moment in time has such a revival of racial theory, which gives an explanation for prevailing practises and the furthering of discrimination, separation, and violent behaviour to reprimand contravention, taken place. W.E.B. Du Bois declares conclusively “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”[7]

Even though slavery had been abolished in the 13th Amendment of the American Constitution in 1865, the ‘colour-line’ was still a very obvious and physically visible boundary of separation. Brian in Passing explains illustratively, “coloured people [were not] allowed in [places] at all, or [would] have to sit in Jim Crowed sections.”[8] Brian here describes the normality of the African-American life during the zenith of the era of the Jim Crow laws, from 1910 to 1919, in which America was separated into black and white zones. This form of discrimination lead to a very crucial question, which influenced life significantly during this time: who can be considered black? A very common view was “that a black is any person with any known African black ancestry.”[9] This definition, which exposes the long experience of African-Americans with slavery and Jim Crow segregation, became widely known as the “one-drop rule”. It implies that one single drop of black blood transforms a person into a black person. Anthropologists also referred to it as the “hypo-descent rule”[10], which implies that racially mixed people are assigned the status of the subordinate group and thus, experience disadvantages and hindrances in society. The one-drop rule was first adopted as written law in Tennessee in 1910. Louisiana followed Tennessee in the same year and by 1925, almost every state had enacted a one-drop law or something equivalent. These laws empowered bureaucrats like Walter Plecker of Virginia and others to chase families of mixed ancestry and to push them to the black side of the colour line. In 1967 the Supreme Court of the United Stated invalidated Plecker’s Virginia Racial Integrity Act (1924), along with its pivotal component the one-drop rule, as illegal.

The definition of the one-drop rule developed in the South and was generally accepted, even though not agreed, in both the white and black society. However, the problems it caused were complex. The application of the one-drop rule resulted in defining a population as black that was actually, according to James Davis “all colours”[11] and indeed very diverse in terms of racial heritage. By compelling individuals to identify as either black or white, it in actual fact erased mixed-race people from the social landscape. This induced ambiguities, divergences, and traumatic experiences, which were tremendously reinforced by the cultural associations that were made with what Franz Fanon has called the “epidermal schema”[12] of racial difference to ones identity. Rottenberg’s discovery that “racial identity and classification seems to be” only “constituted through skin color”[13] by the concept of race, appears however to be a false promise and evokes problems in the identity of African-Americans.

As a consequence a new (third form of) identity developed, which refuses to be assigned to either side of this rigidly into black and white categorized world and which surmounts the barriers that are imposed on her by society in order to build an independent identity which is not defined by attributes of others. This identity became visible in the mulatto figure and active in the passing figure.

The Passing Figure

Estimated figures show that tens of thousands crossed the colour line in the U.S. and passed from black to white, in particular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As a result, literary documents employed the passing figure in the beginning and during the Harlem Renaissance.

Since passing is tremendously ambiguous, it appears to be very difficult to investigate the act as well as its figure. As announced in the introduction the act of passing can be described as the ability of a person to be regarded and successfully accepted as a member of a specific group other than their own, such as race and class.

However, the passing figure, who lives a secret and elusive life, has more designations than the event. She can be referred to as mulatto, quadroon or ‘white Negro’[14] ; but these names do not automatically describe the passing figure and can even less be blindly employed to identify the passer with her character. The term mulatto, for instance, appears to be more a subcategory than an explanation and can be found in the English language since the sixteenth century. According to Samira Kawash, the term mulatto “as an appellation for an individual of mixed race is […] revealed to be deeply implicated in the theoretical efforts to prove scientifically a permanent and absolute racial division.”[15] The word mulatto can, on the one hand, be retraced to the Spanish word mulo, deriving from the Latin word mulus, and denote a hybrid animal, which is unable to reproduce. Kawash claims that “Just as the mule proved the horse and donkey were distinct species, so the mulatto proved that white and black were forever separate and distinct.”[16] This definition appears very offensive and does not seem appropriate in this context as the person is classified like a biological species. The second meaning, on the other hand, is implied by the dictionary of the Real Academia Española and refers to a person that is characterized by strength and vigour.[17] Even though the passer can be to a certain extent associated with these qualities, this rather linguistic explanation does also not offer a description of the character with its feelings who passes, as the following quotation of Irene in Nella Larsen’s Passing might offer:

She wished to find out about this hazardous business of ‘passing,’ this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chances in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but not entirely friendly. What, for example, one did about background, how one accounted oneself. And how one felt when one came into contact with other Negros.[18]

The difficulty that appears in the nomenclature and the consequential insufficiency of the terminology alludes that passing must be seen as a phenomenon of the individual, of the human being and therefore cannot be classified in linguistic or even biological terms. Ginsberg corroborates:

Passing is about identities: their creation or imposition, their adoption or rejection, their accompanying rewards or penalties. Passing is also about the boundaries established between identity categories and about the individual and cultural anxieties induced by boundary crossing. Finally, passing is about specularity: the visible and the invisible, the seen and the unseen.[19]

Predominantly situations of vast inequalities between groups in society cause the appearance of the phenomenon of passing. Passing, according to Stonequist quoted in Sollors, “signifies that a group conflict is so severe that the individual is compelled to resort to subterfuge.”[20] The individual crosses the colour line to adopt a new identity in order to break out of a circle of subordination and repression which accompanies the old (black) identity and to access the privileges and reputation of the new one. A physically white appearance enables the act of passing for white. However, the passing figure, in search for identity, is not only requested to pass in a metaphysical but also in a geographical way. By assuming a new identity, the passer has to abandon her environment, including family and legal status, and move to a place where her identity is unknown and where she can construct a new one. On this account, the issue of travel, whether mentally or physically, proves to be inextricable from the African-American landscape. Ginsberg even asserts that passing is also “applied discursively to disguises of other elements of an individual’s presumed ‘natural’ or ‘essential’ identity, including class, ethnicity, and sexuality.”[21] This implies that passing is not a phenomenon exclusive to race, which, however, will stay the focus in this work.

DuBois concept of the veiled double consciousness

On their journey along the colour line, the passing figure has to face all kinds of issues that are connected with it, in particular the dilemma of a black and white identity within a single body. Therefore, W.E.B. DuBois’ study of “the problem of the color line”[22] appears to be appropriate and instructive for the examination of the passing theme in Larsen’s and Johnson’s novels. The book The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, establishes the idea of an African-American double consciousness to characterize veiled issues of race. Even though DuBois does not mention the passing figure directly, he stresses a “twoness” of being and feeling as “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”[23] This quote epitomises the strength and vigour of the mulatto, I identified earlier. Moreover, the concept of double consciousness operates as trope within the African-American passing figure.

The theory of DuBois provides the reader with two definitions of the term double consciousness; on the one hand, it encompasses the concept of the “third self” and on the other hand, it employs the implication of “a life behind the veil.” The concept of the “third self” originated from the transcendalism, employed by R. W. Emerson and the findings of William James. Emerson used the term double consciousness to refer to the transcendental perspective of the division between the world and the spirit, the “understanding” and the “soul”, “the downward pull of life in society” and “the upward pull of communion with the divine”[24]. If this concept is applied in DuBois’s term then the African-American double consciousness consists of the positive notion of the “soul”, the African spirituality, and the negative conception of “understanding”, the American materialism, whereas, the former is privileged to the latter.[25] The more scientific and psychological approach, in comparison to the above-mentioned sociological approach, sees the reason for the “third self” in the “split personality”. The psychologist William James, DuBois’ Harvard lecturer, refers to double consciousness as an opposition between two autonomous consciousnesses which are incorporated in one single body. This proved, for Du Bois, that “double consciousness allowed for a sense of distinctiveness that really did entail equality, a sense of distinctiveness that did not imply inferiority.”[26] As a consequence, Du Bois concluded that the combination of two autonomous selves in a single entity gives the African-American the opportunity to create a better and truer self, a third self.


[1] Larsen, Nella. Quicksand & Passing. (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2001), 0.

[2] Sollors, Werner. Neither Black Nor White Yet Both- Thematic Exploration of Interracial Literature. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 247.

[3] Sollors, 247.

[4] Sollors, 247.

[5] “William Edward Burghardt Du Bois .” Drop Me Off in Harlem- Exploring the Intersections. March 2003. (02/03/2007)

[6] Hill, Patricia Liggins (ed). “ ‘Bound No’th Blues.’ African American History and Culture 1915-1945. ‘What happens to a Dream Deferred?’” Call and Response: The

Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), 768.

[7] DuBois, W.E.B.. The Souls of Black Folk. (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2004), LIII.

[8] Larsen, Passing, 198.

[9] Davis, James. Who is black?- One nation’s definition. (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991), 5.

[10] Davis, 5.

[11] Davis, 1.

[12] Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks. (London: Pluto Press, 1993), 112.

[13] Rottenberg, Catherine. “Passing: Race, Identification, and Desire.” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 45.4 (2003, 439.

[14] While the name white Negro suggests the description of a person with white skin and black blood, the word quadroon refers to a historically racial category, which denotes a person with one quarter of black ancestry.

[15] Kawash, Samira. Dislocating the Color Line: Identity, Hybridity, and Singularity in African-American Narrative. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 5.

[16] Kawash, 5.

[17] “Mulo.” Real Academia Española. 24/06/2004. (11/12/2006).

[18] Larsen. Passing, 157.

[19] Ginsberg, Elaine. “Introduction: The Politics of Passing.” Passing and the Fictions of Identity. ed. Ginsberg, Elaine. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 2.

[20] Sollors, 248.

[21] Ginsberg, 3.

[22] DuBois, LIII.

[23] DuBois, 2.

[24] Bruce, Dickson. “W.E.B. Du Bois and the Idea of Double Consciousness”. The Souls of Black Folk – W.E.B Du Bois. – A Norton Critical Edition. Gates, Henry Louis and Terri Hume Oliver (eds). (New York: Norton & Company.1999), 238.

[25] Bruce, 237-238.

[26] Bruce, 243.


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Titel: An Exploration of the Double-Conscious African- Americans on their Journey for an Identity along the Colour Line in -Passing, Quicksand, The Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man