Reviews — From the December 2014 issue

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Most Americans are familiar with the 1787 compromise that sought to bring North-South equality to Congressional representation by counting slaves as three fifths of a person, or three fifths of a white person — but then, as genetic testing has demonstrated, most Americans are familial to that compromise as well. America’s genetic material is a melting pot of the African, European, and Asian — to say nothing of the Navajo, Cherokee, and Sioux, the country’s original Other.

The three-fifths calculation wasn’t precise, of course, but at least it was simpler than the calculations for deriving the status of an “octoroon” or “quadroon.” In a March 1815 letter, Thomas “All Men Are Created Equal” Jefferson pondered, “What constituted a mulatto by our law?” (That verb — “constituted” — was being used without any irony, presumably.) Jefferson’s answer was to define by exclusion, to solve for the amount of “white” blood one would have to have before passing out of the “mulatto” estate, which he found to be e (one-eighth “Negro” blood) — the result of “q (quarteroon) being ¼ negro blood” crossed with a C, which is expressed as “q/2 + C/2 = or a/8 + A/8 + B/4 + C/2.” (Of the four children Jefferson is suspected of having fathered with his three-quarters-white slave Sally Hemings — children who were seven-eighths white but born slaves — our third president allowed two to escape and freed the other two in his will.)

Two Creole women standing in the doorway to their Uptown home, in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1929 © NGS Image Collection/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York City

Two Creole women standing in the doorway to their Uptown home, in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1929 © NGS Image Collection/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York City

Allyson Hobbs’s A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life (Harvard University Press, $29.95) can read like a textbook thanks to the evil equations of the Founding Fathers, the antistyle of its academic prose, and the countless annotations. But in history this vital, the colorless surface of the writing is beside the point. “Passing is difficult to recover in conventional sources given that its purpose was to leave no trace,” Hobbs tells us, and so A Chosen Exile examines judgments of supposed genotype by phenotype — by eye, ear, and economic condition — by writers such as Charles Chesnutt and Jean Toomer, and by the uneducated and even nameless. The book is an admirable effort to catalogue the myriad classifications of race in America, to develop a taxonomy of biases that endure even as the country’s complexion changes. (Self-identifying non-whites now make up nearly 30 percent of the American population; at the turn of the twentieth century — though the identification was not always self-reported — that number was closer to 15 percent.)

The term “passing” seems to come from the passes that slaves had to carry, which allowed them to visit their relations on other plantations, as well as from the passes that identified their owners when duties took the slaves off their plantations or when they were rented out for day labor. A literate slave, then, was a dangerous slave, not least because he — if literate, he was usually a he — could forge papers permitting a broader range of motion, and could also forge papers that identified their bearers as free. Hobbs’s history is addressed to the implied tautology: If ancestral descent isn’t immediately apparent and requires a piece of paper — a census, a constitution’s fractions — for its establishment, then what does race even mean?

Another piece of paper that features prominently in Hobbs’s text is the train ticket, and prominent among her many fascinating characters is Homer Plessy, the Creole (seven-eighths white) New Orleanian cobbler who challenged Louisiana’s segregated railroad system in 1892. By 1896, Plessy’s case had been shunted to the Supreme Court, and his lawyer, Albion (a perfect appellation for an official Caucasian) Tourgée, was arguing that being denied a seat in a white car was a de facto denial of his client’s “inheritance.” Whiteness, in Tourgée’s terms, had “an actual pecuniary value”; to be compelled into a separate car was to be owed damages. The court disagreed, though, and upheld segregation — specifically the semantic chicanery of “separate but equal.” Hobbs notes that the one dissenting voice on the Court belonged to Justice John Marshall Harlan, the son of a Kentucky slave-owning family, whose fair-skinned half-brother, Robert, had been freed by their father at thirty-two.

Neither Plessy nor Robert Harlan — who went on to work for the Treasury Department — tried to pass as white, but a number of Hobbs’s other subjects did. If whiteness, in Hobbs’s reading, initially meant liberation from oppression, it later meant a severance from community and folkways. The most poignant parts of A Chosen Exile are its biographies of the unknown or underknown: Elsie Roxborough, who moved from Ann Arbor (where she was a star student at the University of Michigan) and Detroit (where she was a nightlife doyenne who enchanted, and briefly dated, Joe Louis and Langston Hughes) to New York to live as white (until her apparent suicide); P.B.S. Pinchback, a newspaper publisher and professional gambler whose racial ambiguity enabled him to win the governorship of Louisiana, which position he held for all of thirty-five days; and, furthest back in time, Ellen Craft, a light-complexioned former slave from Georgia, who, because it would have been unconventional for a white woman to travel alone with a male slave, and because her husband’s complexion was dark, disguised herself as a white man and pretended to own her husband, ferrying him a thousand miles north to Quaker Pennsylvania and so to freedom.

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