Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Amazing Race/Passing As Black!

What a profound sense of wonderment in the realization that we may soon have our first mixed-race president in America. Of course, we know that Obama is mixed-race because we know his history. But how many ex-presidents were actually mixed-blood, and didn't proclaim it? Rumors have abound for decades about Warren Harding having Negro blood. Ditto, folks like Jimmy Carter (just look at them lips!) and even Bill, the Ill, Clinton (dope-smoking, sax-playing, womanizer--puhleeze, as if those traits are attributable only to blacks).

It wasn't so long ago when folks would whisper about those who "passed". Passing, the act of denying your birth race and pretending you're of another ethnicity--especially when it means being black but living as white--gained in popularity, ironically, with the progression of freed blacks. As opportunities opened up for regular black folks released from the bondage of slavery, some of those with mixed-blood who could, indeed, would pass for white. Why not? Life was easier for them living as a white person in a white world. And, they could appreciate the advantage of being treated as an equal; that is, if no one ever discovered their dark (ha-ha) secret.

Most black people seemed to be of two minds about the passing phenomena. For one, the black community felt that if one of their own could make it out of the oppressiveness that automatically came with having darker skin, perhaps it was a good thing that one less of their people was suffering.

On the other hand, some blacks saw the rejection of their race as a traitorous act. How could someone choose to be white and leave all their sisters and brothers behind to suffer?

It's an interesting concept, passing, and I've even written a feature film script about such a character in modern times. Email me at if you'd like to know more.

One true life story that comes to mind is the tale of Johnny Spain, a follower of the George Jackson Brigade and one of the San Quentin Six who was convicted of murder. A friend once gave me a copy of Spain's bio, Black Power, White Blood, and I was absolutely riveted. Incredibly, Spain was born in 1949 to a white woman in Mississippi who was married to a white man. For some unfathomable reason, she kept her baby following an affair with a black man. In her defense, she may have thought the child was her husband's, but as the baby got older it became clear to everyone that he had darker skin and tighter hair than anyone in their Anglo family. By the time he was six and ready for school, his parents couldn't take it anymore. His mother feared that her husband would harm him, and Spain's white "father" refused to be further humiliated. So, Spain was put up for adoption and sent to live with a black family in Los Angeles. In Mississippi, he'd been too black; in L.A., he was too white. Because he never felt as if he belonged, he acted out by getting into trouble. When he killed a man in a botched robbery, Spain was sent to prison. There, he found George Jackson and, in many ways, himself. Today, Spain is a community worker in the Bay Area.

Of course, it's just speculation, but had Spain been born a little later, he might have been an Obama (the murder rap and bad behavior aside). Certainly his political activism shows he has concern for the community. In some ways, his white mother was as progressive as Obama's. She didn't see color, she said in the book. To her, the black man she had a relationship with was just another man. The Loving v. Virginia case that went to the Supreme Court challenging anti-miscegenation laws didn't occur until 1967. That means, Spain's mother could've been arrested for her act of rebellion. Talk about idealism. Perhaps, that's where Spain inherited his sense of resistance.

In any case, Spain only passed as white because he was a child who had no control over his environment. If anything, Obama is passing as black. Although he's never denied his white mother, Obama refers to himself as a black man. Nothing wrong with that. Passing has now come full circle!

Your Hip Hapa,

Here's the link to a really great article on Johnny Spain.

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