The Fiction of the Color Line

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Somewhere on Long Island around 1980, a blondish preteen is onstage at summer camp channeling Hodel from Fiddler on the Roof, her confident voice and star power self-evident. Her tawny-skinned father beams from the audience, and as she takes her bow, soaking in the applause, he approaches the stage bearing a hefty bouquet of daisies. He hands her the flowers, their eyes and hearts locking for a beat in shared pride. Then the girl realizes that every other parent, instructor, and child in the auditorium is staring at them. “Not in a way that felt good, not because I had given the outstanding performance of the night,” she would recall decades later. “They were staring because my father was the only Black man in sight, and I belonged to him.” The others had assumed until that moment that Mariah Carey — the girl with the frizzy honey-blonde hair — was white like them.

The Meaning of Mariah Carey, the singer’s delectable memoir co-written with Michaela Angela Davis, a former editor at Essence and Vibe, recalls many such stories. In doing so, it’s in direct conversation with the American literary tradition of novels about passing and passing-capable Black women — stories about the concealment, or the possibility of concealment, of one’s Black parentage and all of the attendant personal and social complexity. Since the late-19th century, writers have used passing as a narrative tool to do everything from encouraging white readers to sympathize with the struggles of Black characters to scrutinizing the hypocrisy of America’s racial hierarchy.

The phenomenon has been winding its way back into the discourse through Carey’s 2020 memoir, Brit Bennett’s dazzling novel The Vanishing Half (soon to become an HBO limited series written by Aziza Barnes and Jeremy O. Harris), and finally, this fall, the first film adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, directed by Rebecca Hall and starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. When the film’s trailer dropped in September, Twitter was ablaze with capital-D Discourse. Some users shared articles detailing Hall’s personal connection to the material — the director has said that members of her mother’s family passed for white — and the casting of Negga and Thompson in the lead roles. Some felt the actresses weren’t “passable” enough to carry off such a ruse, while others argued that their Blackness being detectable to other Black folks, though maybe not to white people, was perfectly in line with Larsen’s intentions.

Until this Passing discourse, though, recent mainstream discussions around Black-white passing had often centered on some form of “blackfishing,” writer Wanna Thompson’s term for the Rachel Dolezal antics of white women seeking to “pass” as Black online and — for the especially bold — in person. In Thompson’s view, blackfishers seek to profit from the much-envied aesthetics of Blackness while evading the consequences of living as an actual Black person. In contrast, the enduring influence of Larsen’s novel and the anticipation around Hall’s adaptation bring into relief the much older conversation around the lived experience of Black women who have passed — or who were believed to be passing — as white.

In the years between Passing the book and the release of Passing the movie, ideas around race, heredity, and multiracial identity have transformed countless times — within families, within institutions, and within pop culture. This, of course, includes Mariah Carey, a biracial pop superstar who rose to fame as public conversations about multiracial identity were expanding in the early ’90s. She became something of an avatar for biracial identity, a validating presence for some and a source of both curiosity and discomfort for others.

Despite the fact that Carey has never herself passed for white, ambiguity around her identity caused more than a few listeners to dismiss her as something of a “tragic mulatto,” a stereotype Carey and co-writer Davis were aware of from the jump. “What comes off as that … ‘tragic mulatto’ is when you just touch the surface of ‘nobody understood me,’ or ‘they treated me like this,’” Davis said last year. “If you don’t go all the way in, that’s how it feels.” So all the way in they went, penning an instant-classic celebrity memoir that serves as an inadvertent interpolation of a genre beginning with Larsen’s Passing and continuing through Danzy Senna’s 1998 novel Caucasia: the modern passing saga.

One of the first American novels published by a Black woman was a passing story. In 1892,the abolitionist Frances E.W. Harper published Iola Leroy, the story of a fair-skinned daughter of an enslaved woman and a slave owner who was raised to believe she was white. Iola later learns of her Black identity after her father’s death; the novel ends with Iola rejecting marriage to a white man, fully accepting her Blackness, and vowing to devote her life to racial uplift. But in later passing novels by white women, like Edna Ferber’s Showboat (1926), Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life (1933), and Cid Ricketts Sumner’s Quality (1946), passing is employed as a melodramatic device and treated as the perilous but necessary manner of confused, tragic mulatto women, forever caught between two worlds that would never understand them.

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Those books read more as attempts to engender middle-class white sympathy for Black people, with characters like the upstanding Pinkey from Quality, who passes to get a nursing education up North and decides to use it to serve her Black hometown down South. But when Black women have written modern passing novels, they have made pointed observations about colorism, class, whiteness, the farcity of race, and the constraints of gender — all without their white peers’ heavy-handed earnestness. In the hands of Black women, modern passing narratives accurately capture the ugly singularity of crossing over, though they’re imbued with the kind of arch humor that allows knowing readers to let out a smirking chuckle every few pages.

Unlike Iola Leroy, which is about a woman who didn’t know she was passing, Passing examines a character who chooses to pass out of some combination of convenience, boredom, and thrill. Nella Larsen was born in 1891 to a man of Afro-Caribbean ancestry and a white woman, but after her father died, she was raised in a family in which she was the only person of color among her mother, stepfather, and younger sister. Her family life gave her a sensitivity to the fluidity of race and identity, and her novel focuses on the treacherous reunion of two fair-skinned childhood friends: Irene Redfield, who lives a comfortable life among the Black elite in Harlem with her Black physician husband and their two sons, and Clare Kendry, who chose to pass and marry a wealthy, bigoted white man.

Passing employs all the hallmarks of the classic passing narrative —concealment, secrecy, and segregation —but explores them through characters like Clare, who is more ambivalent about passing than anguished, and Irene, whose bourgeois lifestyle and repressed sexuality are prisons of their own. Clare’s husband’s pet name for her is “Nig” because, he says, “she’s gettin’ darker and darker” ever since they married; at one point, in front of both women, Clare’s husband tells Irene that he hates Black people, “and so does Nig, for all she’s trying to turn into one.” Although Irene ascribes to herself a certain “racial consciousness” she finds lacking in Clare, she prides herself on mixing socially with Manhattan’s white upper crust and discourages her husband from discussing the realities of lynching with their sons.

The act of passing is not the point of Larsen’s book but an entryway to critiquing other aspects of 1920s Black womanhood, like domesticity, isolation, and upper-middle-class ennui. Irene is given to frequent bouts of intense worry over her son’s schooling or her unsatisfying marriage and feels, as Larsen writes, “weary and depressed. And for all her trying, she couldn’t be free of that dull, indefinite mystery which with increasing tenaciousness had laid hold of her.” (Meanwhile, Irene’s Black housekeeper, Zulena, answers Irene’s calls, receives Irene’s guests, and prepares Irene’s meals just a hair outside of the reader’s view.) Clare, acting as Irene’s foil, is messy and gives her basest of impulses top billing in her life. She slips in and out of both her racial stations and Irene’s life as she pleases — to dark ends.

In the period immediately following World War II through the civil-rights movement, Black Americans won political and social battles that drained passing of some of its utility. Major strides in Black representation in the public sphere, paired with countless pronouncements that Black was beautiful, made passing seem both useless and shameful. Some African Americans who had previously chosen to pass opted to cross back over — like the Johnstons, a New Hampshire family who caused a national sensation when they revealed their Black lineage in a 1947 issue of Reader’s Digest. By the ’70s, younger writers thought passing was passé: In the Black writer Fran Ross’s 1974 satirical novel Oreo, the brown-skinned, biracial (Black and Jewish) heroine is prone to inventive bouts of what we might now call code-switching, using her voice and carriage to gain entry to different spaces and communities at will. Ross seems more interested in cultural intermingling than in strictly passing, and her heroine, Oreo, is just as dextrous with the intricacies of Yiddish as she is with Black American slang. When she nearly starts a forest fire on a camping trip, she chastises the flames, “Oi vei, you mothers.”

Some of those who opted to pass were what we might describe as biracial, and they chose to do so not only because they wanted the benefits of whiteness but also because they didn’t feel they had a widely understood choice to claim both sides of their parentage. As Allyson Hobbs notes in A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing, racial hybridity has “always existed, but claiming a mixed-race identity only became an option when opportunities to reimagine racial identity arose.” One such window occurred in the decades following the Supreme Court’s 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, which struck down all bans on interracial marriage in the United States. That watershed moment ultimately led to a generation of mixed-race writers who would navigate racial boundaries in new ways, and in 1998, Danzy Senna published her debut novel, Caucasia, turning the passing narrative on its head and tearing the tragic-mulatto archetype in half.

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Senna grew up in Boston as the daughter of a white mother and an Afro-Mexican father, both of whom impressed upon her a pride in her Black identity, even if she was more frequently mistaken for Jewish or Italian. Senna gives her Caucasia protagonist, the pale, straight-haired Birdie Lee, a racial background similar to her own: The character’s mother, Sandy, is a white woman from a Waspy lineage of Mayflower descendants, and her father, Deck, is a Black man with skin described as the color of milk chocolate. The story begins in 1970s Boston against the backdrop of the city’s disastrous attempts at school desegregation, which, when met with white resistance, only deepened racial tensions among residents. It’s an environment with rigid ideas about ethnic categorization.

Sandy and Deck, activists who believe the Feds are tracking their underground political organizing, agree to separate and go off the grid, each taking with them the child they most resemble. Birdie’s sister, the brown-skinned, coily-haired Cole, goes with their father. Birdie, whose dark hair and mix of features don’t exactly match those of their Waspy mother, is forced to pass as a Jewish girl. In Passing, Clare makes breezy work of her choice to pass and seems to cross back over in Harlem for her own entertainment. Caucasia’s world curdles both the desire to pass and the strict borders of racial identity.

The bounds of whiteness had grown considerably between Passing’s interwar years and the 1970s and ’80s of Caucasia, when Italians, Jewish Americans, and Irish Americans had been more thoroughlyintegrated into the fold, though not completely — in one scene, white bullies in Birdie’s small New Hampshire town spot her Star of David necklace and start throwing pennies at her. She is rudderless and depressed when made to pass for white, and she’s self-conscious at her Afrocentric Boston elementary school or when she’s with her father. Birdie oftenregards her passability as an albatross, the thing that keeps her from connecting with the world around her, and notes her time on the run with her mother as being especially harsh: “In those years, I felt myself to be incomplete — a gray blur, a body in motion, forever galloping toward completion — half a girl, half-caste, half-mast, and half-baked, not quite ready for consumption.”

In Caucasia, Birdie envies the bond between her sister and father, feeling as if she disappears in their presence yet deeply desiring her sister Cole’s kinship and approval. That same longing to be seen and understood echoes throughout the early chapters of The Meaning of Mariah Carey. After her parents divorced when she was 3, Carey,like Birdie, spent her youth itinerantly with a white mother who, consciously or not, benefited from her daughter’s ability to pass. Carey had siblings who presented as more unambiguously Black. She writes about how her relationship with her sister, Alison, grew toxic beyond repair; their original tension seemed to stem from the fact that Carey’s siblings felt little Mariah received softer treatment from their parents. Carey is aware, even understanding, of her siblings’ early hatred of her, acknowledging the role her appearance played in making some aspects of her childhood easier. Of their scorn, Carey writes, “I was what they considered a golden child: lighter hair, lighter skin, and a lighter spirit … I believed they believed I was passing.”

Passing explores what it means to be a passable woman within a larger community. Caucasia focuses on the effects of passing within a family. The Meaning of Mariah Carey explores both but also describes the mechanics and utility of maintaining a passable image — or, as Carey puts it, “inconspicuous Blackness” — for global consumption. Although the kind of money, status, and fame Carey has attained should perhaps exempt her from feeling as if she needs to explain herself, in her memoir she seems to feel a responsibility to share the intimacies of her identity with an audience.

One such facet is having to be hyperaware of the motives and racial insecurities of even the white people closest to her. There’s her first husband, Sony Music executive Tommy Mottola, who Carey says “tried to wash the ‘urban’ (translation: Black) off” her, scrubbing early recordings of her soulful ad-libs and forbidding her from wearing her hair straight because — ironically — it looked too much like the styles sported by popular Black R&B singers of the time. Mariah is also wary of her mother, Pat, and how Pat reacts when scared:“Her complete assurance in the historic evidence that whiteness will always be protected activates — and she often calls the cops.” Meaning details an instance from 2001 when, in the heat of a family argument, Pat called the police and Mariah ultimately left the Westchester home she had gifted to Pat in the back seat of a cop car. As Carey and Davis soberly note, “Even Mariah Carey couldn’t compete with a nameless white woman in distress.”

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But Carey had always been keenly aware of where she stood. Her sketches of life on Long Island in Meaning are painful. She describes her early experiences with racism as “a first kiss in reverse: each time, a piece of purity was ripped from my being.” Once, a group of white girls from school invited her out to the Hamptons under the false pretense of friendship, only to trap her in a back room and repeatedly yell, “You’re a n– – – –r!” into her face. It was traumatic, but she kept it a secret. “How do you tell your all-white mother that your all-white ‘friends’ just dragged you into their big all-white house in all-white Southampton, past an untouchable all-white room, just to corner you and call you the dirtiest thing in their all-white world?”

Carey’s assumed ambiguity, her attempts to protect her own privacy, and the music industry’s preference for little white girls with big voices led many casual fans to assume Carey didn’t even want to be seen as mixed until well into her career. (In a 1998 essay, Senna wrote that she had once jokingly placed Carey on an unpublished list of “Black Folks Who May Not Know They Are Black.”) In her interview with The Root, Meaning co-author Davis says that, at least until the mid-aughts, “there was this narrative … in the collective imagination that Mariah did not identify as Black.” In 2005, when Davis, then a fashion and beauty editor for Essence, convinced the magazine to give Carey her first cover, the headline read, “Mariah Carey: America’s Most Misunderstood Black Woman — The Story Only We Can Tell.” The tongue-in-cheek first line of the story, written by the hip-hop and culture scholar Dr. Joan Morgan: “This ‘mulatto’ is hardly tragic.”

Often in the white literary imagination, the Black-white mixed woman is placeless and without people. Carey and Davis make plain that the singer’s most sustaining and loving relationships have been with Black women — friends like the rapper Da Brat and the singer Maryann Tatum, a.k.a. “Tots,” as well as her great-aunt Nana Reese, her grandmother Addie, and her cousin LaVinia. Carey finds her clearest recognition in these women, who seem to reflect back to her a vital piece of herself.

Carey’s experience of fame could have happened only once; her stardom punched a hole in the sky. Her career matured as current conversations about mixed identity were still forming and while the passing narratives of the past, both brilliant and clumsy, had yet to fade from pop-cultural memory. There was a time when she might have been considered the most famous mixed person of Black and white parentage in America, but nowthe field’s far more crowded (Zendaya, Drake, Barack Obama, Meghan Markle). Carey sang the theme song to Kenya Barris’s now-canceled show Mixed-ish — a well-intentioned series that some critics felt relied too heavily on rigid ideas about Blackness and the outmoded, false idea that multiracial families are the solution to American racism, putting it out of step with the lived experiences of multiracial people.

Carey’s memoir is poignant for what it reveals about her life, but it also acts as a punctuation mark on a previous era. Although imperfect, public conversations about passing and multiracial identity have advanced, possibly further than Carey or even Larsen ever imagined they could. Still, our base fascination with passing is ever-present. Its possibility still defies the illogic of American racial caste. “We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it,” notes Irene in Passing of slipping from Blackness into whiteness. “It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.” Nearly a century later, every note still rings true.


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