A Chosen Exile
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A Chosen Exile

Allyson Hobbs

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A Chosen Exile

Allyson Hobbs

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Between the eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, countless African Americans passed as white, leaving behind families and friends, roots and community. It was, as Allyson Hobbs writes, a chosen exile, a separation from one racial identity and the leap into another. This revelatory history of passing explores the possibilities and challenges that racial indeterminacy presented to men and women living in a country obsessed with racial distinctions. It also tells a tale of loss.As racial relations in America have evolved so has the significance of passing. To pass as white in the antebellum South was to escape the shackles of slavery. After emancipation, many African Americans came to regard passing as a form of betrayal, a selling of one's birthright. When the initially hopeful period of Reconstruction proved short-lived, passing became an opportunity to defy Jim Crow and strike out on one's own.Although black Americans who adopted white identities reaped benefits of expanded opportunity and mobility, Hobbs helps us to recognize and understand the grief, loneliness, and isolation that accompanied—and often outweighed—these rewards. By the dawning of the civil rights era, more and more racially mixed Americans felt the loss of kin and community was too much to bear, that it was time to "pass out" and embrace a black identity. Although recent decades have witnessed an increasingly multiracial society and a growing acceptance of hybridity, the problem of race and identity remains at the center of public debate and emotionally fraught personal decisions.

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In the spring of 1859, a Philadelphia newspaper published a humorous account of a slave trader’s sudden reversal of fortune. The trader had earned the nickname “Black Matt” because of his dark complexion and reputed skill in breaking recalcitrant slaves. He had recently purchased Sam, a “bright mulatto” who could “scarcely be distinguished from a white man” in that he was “so far removed from pure African,” at a reduced price because of his “bad qualities, such as thieving, lying and drunkenness.” Despite these flaws, Sam was described as intelligent, literate, and particularly adept at “ape[ing] the airs of a most polished gentleman.” Expecting to sell Sam as a body servant at a handsome price, Black Matt dressed him in “fine clothes, calf-skin boots, a silk hat, and kid gloves,” and he encouraged Sam to “show himself off” upon his arrival in New Orleans.
While “strut[ting] along with the best of them,” Sam overheard a man discussing his interest in purchasing a body servant. Approaching the prospective buyer “with an independent swagger,” Sam sold Black Matt to the planter with a glowing review: “[He has] every quality, [he] can shave, dress hair, brush boots, and is besides polished in his manners.” But, this body servant came with one troublesome, “ridiculous” fault, Sam confessed to the planter: “He imagines himself a white man.” Such a delusion was nothing more than “a funny conceit” to the planter; he boasted of his ability to “cure him of that,” given his “considerable experience in training and managing gentleman of color.” The planter then “seized the refractory slave,” and Black Matt’s entreaties that he was indeed a white man fell on deaf ears until he was able to produce evidence that identified him as a free citizen of the United States. As for Sam, he swiftly boarded a ship headed for a European port and was never heard of again.1
White skin functioned as a cloak in antebellum America. Accompanied by appropriate dress, measured cadences of speech, and proper comportment, racial ambiguity could mask one’s slave status and provide an effectual strategy for escape. Many runaway slaves neither imagined nor desired to begin new lives as white; they simply wanted to be free. As literary critics P. Gabrielle Foreman and Cherene Sherrard-Johnson have written, fugitive slaves “passed through whiteness”; and once through, they would “reject rather than embrace the power and superiority whites claimed as their singular possession.”2 Tactical or strategic passing—passing temporarily with a particular purpose in mind—was born at this moment out of a dogged desire for freedom. In later historical periods, this type of passing would allow racially ambiguous men and women to get jobs (“nine-to-five passing”), to travel without encumbrance, and to attend elite colleges. But in the antebellum period, passing was keyed to a larger struggle for freedom. Some scholars have argued that the earliest printed references to passing may have been published in advertisements for runaway slaves in which slave owners warned readers about slaves “of very light color,” with “complexion[s] so white,” that they might escape “under the pretence of being a white man.”3 At its very origins, then, passing was imbricated with strivings for freedom, but also with slave masters’ anxieties about the threat that racial ambiguity posed to the slave regime.
Passing is a flexible strategy that relies heavily on the category of class. The cunning and cleverness of Sam’s escape reflect the possibility—even within the constraints of a mature slave regime—of fashioning a new, free self by acting and dressing the part. Sam’s disguise (and that of countless others) worked because he presented himself as “a most polished gentleman”; the ruse would likely have failed had he dressed in overalls, been unable to read and write, and displayed coarse manners. Slaves drew on all available resources to construct the appearance of the free person that they resolved to become, and in all but very few incidences, the category of class shaped these disguises. Slaves bought, traded, and stole clothing; they feigned grief, illness, and injury; and they borrowed, reused, and forged passes and certificates of freedom. With one’s liberty hanging in the balance, all sorts of disguises were imaginable. As black abolitionist William Still wrote in the preface of his 1871 history of the Underground Railroad, “some, whose fair complexions have rendered them indistinguishable from their Anglo-Saxon brethren … with assumed airs of importance, such as they had been accustomed to see their masters show when traveling, have taken the usual modes of conveyance and have even braved the most scrutinizing inspection of slave-holders, slave-catchers and car conductors.”4 Racially ambiguous slaves on the run passed as white to ease the grueling journey to freedom. Their success flouted racial customs and undermined southern confidence in the certainty of racial identity.
Racial ambiguity could be leveraged to secure one’s physical liberty but also to articulate broader notions of freedom. Runaway slaves like Ellen Craft, Henry Bibb, and George Latimer relied on racial ambiguity and sophisticated understandings of southern social and gendered norms to escape to freedom; nearly white slaves went to court and pointed to their white skin to convince judges and juries that they had been wrongly enslaved and deserved to be free; abolitionists displayed racially ambiguous slaves to stoke fears about white children falling into slavery; and free black elites passed occasionally to ridicule the wrongheaded assumptions of southern whites. More commonly, those elites, who inhabited an almost impossible position in the antebellum period, used racial ambiguity to remind whites that, but for the accident of color, no meaningful differences separated them. As northern and southern states passed laws to limit the economic and social mobility of free blacks, many black elites rejected passing and instead focused their energies on building independent and politically active communities that dismissed colonization proposals, demanded the right to enjoy public space, and championed social and moral reforms such as antislavery, temperance, and women’s rights. Passing in the antebellum period must be viewed in light of the rapidly changing material conditions within free black communities.
The countless men and women who passed successfully demonstrate that there is always some slack even in the most totalizing systems. Passing was an expedient means of securing one’s freedom, and in its broadest and most expansive formulation, passing became a crucial means through which African Americans called for the recognition of their own humanity. The desperate acts of enslaved men and women were not freighted with the same internal conflict, tension, or moral angst of other historical periods. Surrounded by loss, enslaved people were motivated by a desire to reunite with their families, not to leave them behind.
Passing illuminates the urgent struggle for freedom and reflects the changing character of the slave regime. Historian Ira Berlin has outlined the transformation from “societies with slaves,” where slavery functioned as just one of multiple forms of unfree labor and where the boundaries between slavery and freedom remained pliable, to “slave societies,” where slavery operated as the singular and defining system of labor as well as the organizational framework for all social relations in the society.5 Racialization was part and parcel of this uneven and nonlinear shift: white masters (and sometimes mistresses and children), white indentured servants, and enslaved Africans worked side-by-side in societies with slaves; in slave societies, people of African descent comprised the majority if not the entirety of the unfree laboring class. Although South Carolina judge William Harper’s contention in 1831 that “a slave cannot be a white man” would not have made sense in the seventeenth or most of the eighteenth century, it provided an apt description of the evolution and uneasy consolidation of a slave society where labor mapped neatly onto racial categories.6 But the story of Sam and Black Matt (though surely apocryphal) belies the appearance of a fixed racial system and reflects the sense of disquietude lingering in the air. If being a (white) gentleman meant nothing more than speaking properly and walking with an “independent swagger”—conduct easily “aped” by slaves—then the racial order was more flexible than white Southerners imagined.
Unprecedented demographic changes further upset traditional social relationships by drawing masses of young men out of rural areas, beyond parental oversight, and into burgeoning cities. As historian Karen Halttunen has written, in an increasingly fluid society, where “no one occupied a fixed social position, the question ‘Who am I?’ loomed large; and in an urban social world where many of the people who met face-to-face each day were strangers, the question ‘Who are you really?’ assumed even greater significance.”7 A stranger’s arrival had once been a rare and remarkable event, but by the early decades of the nineteenth century, small-town intimacy gave way to “worlds of strangers” where the residents knew nothing about the backgrounds or former lives of their neighbors.8 Anxieties about racial imperceptibility, and particularly the indeterminate status of free blacks, corresponded with larger concerns about one’s proper place in an increasingly mobile and inconstant society. Opportunities for self-fashioning and refashioning abounded in a society where both people and goods circulated widely. Clothing, perhaps the most essential commodity in the process of self-making for the poor and the genteel alike, became increasingly accessible, transportable, and resalable beginning in the mid-eighteenth century.9 Dressed in “fine clothes, calf-skin boots, a silk hat, and kid gloves,” Sam assumed the appearance of a refined white gentleman rather than that of an obedient body servant as Black Matt intended. By choosing to rent or to hire slaves out, slave owners authorized slaves’ mobility and unwittingly created the necessary conditions for slaves to run away or to pass as free. A reporter’s description of Alexandria, Virginia, in 1824 captures the increasingly multiracial character of heavily trafficked public spaces in southern cities: “The street and market-square presented groups of men, women and children, every shade of colour, from the fairest white, down to the deepest black.… Some of these were about half-white, some almost white, leaving it difficult to distinguish where the one ends, and the other begins.”10 The social transformations of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—most visible in the hustle and bustle of streets and market-squares—made possible multiple forms of disguises and dissemblance. Racially ambiguous men and women, both free and enslaved, rushed into the openings created by this fluid, anonymous, and rapidly urbanizing world.
Before “passing as white” became meaningful, racially ambiguous men and women frequently and successfully “passed as free.” This form of passing was possible in a world where, as historian W. Jeffrey Bolster explains, racially indeterminate people “faced fewer liabilities because of color than would their black descendants in the New World slave societies that developed later, and in which race became even more cramping.”11 In 1763, a master would have less cause to fear that “a mulatto fellow named Jason” would attempt to pass as white; instead, he might fret that Jason would “endeavor to pass for a Sailor, as he has been for some Time by Water,” where, as Bolster explains, “the distinction between enslaved boatmen and quasi-free seaman could easily blur.”12 Similarly, it was assumed that a slave who “took a boat and went to Philadelphia” would soon “endeavour to get Aboard of some Vessel to go to Sea and pass for a free Negro.”13 Maritime life was particularly conducive to passing as free as it offered long stretches of time removed from a master’s surveillance, freedom to travel at one’s will, and a bustling multiracial environment where few, if any, questions were asked about one’s background. Passing as free was also possible by identifying oneself as a tradesman or an artisan or by affiliating with a profession comprising men who were known to be free. By passing as a “Housecarpenter by Trade,” “Malato John” assumed both the appearance and the occupation of a free man.14 To mark the origins of racial passing, it is necessary to locate the shift from “passing as free” to “passing as white” within the context of the massive transformations occurring within the slave system.
Readers perusing the pages of eighteenth-century newspapers would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to overlook advertisements for runaway slaves, such as the following:
RUN AWAY, on Tuesday the 9th from Turtle-Bay, a Mulatto Wench named Lens, 17 Years old, can speak good Dutch and English, and sings a good Song; is a handsome Wench, and may pass for a free person, as she is very well featured all but her nose, and lips, which are thick and flat, has long black curld hair and a mould on her face: Had on when she went away a homespun Josey and Pettycoat, but no shoes nor stockings. Whoever takes up and secures said wench on the Island of New-York, so that she may be had again, shall have Forty Shillings Reward. All Persons are forbid to harbour or entertain said Wench at their peril. Likewise, all Masters of Vessels are forbid to carry her off.15
Papers contained exhaustive descriptions of slaves’ complexions, personalities, facial features, clothing, language skills, and even musical talents. Deft manipulation of these attributes could obscure one’s slave status and allow a slave to present him- or herself as a free person. Runaway slave advertisements offered two competing narratives: they provided slave owners’ best attempts at explaining and papering over the fissures in the slave regime, and they announced the success of slaves in besting the system and securing their freedom.16
During the eighteenth century, racial identity was fluid, and race was disaggregated from slave status. These two categories would not become fully intertwined until the early nineteenth century.17 Describing the racial dynamics in the eighteenth-century mid-Atlantic colonies, historian David Waldstreicher explains, “to be white was not necessarily to be free; to be black was not nece...