Passing: Simple Term, Complex Phenomenon

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Should William Ellis’s practice of portraying himself to outsiders as Mexican be described as passing? The answer to this question is far more complex than it may appear at first glance.

The term passing was first used in the African American community, eventually emerging into public prominence as the title of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing (although earlier works, such as James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man [1912], explored similar themes). The word was used initially to describe a Black person who was pretending to be white. By employing a synonym for death to describe the practice, however, African Americans were also suggesting that passing involved a social death of sorts. After all, to be successful, a passer often had to cut themselves off from family and friends in the Black community, for it was precisely such intimate acquaintances who were the most capable of revealing the passer’s secret. Langston Hughes touched upon these painful features in his 1934 short story, “Passing,” which begins, “Dear Ma: I felt like a dog, passing you downtown last night and not speaking to you. You were great, though. Didn't give me a sign that you even knew me, let alone I was your son.”

Whites regarded passing with horror, for it called into question fundamental tenants of white supremacy. The foundational belief of any system of racial dominance, after all, is that race is real—and that since race is real, there can be no doubt as to how people should be classified. The fact that there existed those who possessed an ambiguous appearance, however, showed how arbitrary American racial thinking could be—not to mention the disquieting reality there had been considerable mixing between the “races” taking place for centuries in the U.S., much of it in the form of white males sexually exploiting Black females. Equally troubling, passing suggested that the system of white supremacy was far more porous than most whites liked to think possible. Anyone who considered themselves white suddenly had to wonder if their new acquaintance was in fact as white as they claimed to be—or even if they themselves were as white as they imagined themselves. As W.E.B. Du Bois trenchantly observed, “The reason of all this [white anxiety about passing] is of course that so many white people in America either know or fear that they have Negro blood.”

Since passing was a secret, clandestine behavior, the exact number of those who passed from Black to white at the turn of the last century is difficult to determine. Sociologists in the early twentieth century, comparing the actual count of African Americans in the census with the expected count, computed that some 25,000 blacks were passing every year. Walter White of the NAACP, who often passed (temporarily) to investigate lynchings in the South, estimated in the 1940s that the total was closer to 12,000. Other, more honest commentators admitted that “[n]o one, of course, can estimate the number of men and women with Negro blood who have thus ‘gone over to white,’” although they hastened to add that “the number must be large.”

Some people passed temporarily to gain short-term access to all-white restaurants, hotels, theaters, and the like. Others passed during the day to work at whites-only jobs but returned back across the color line to their family and friends at night. And some vanished completely into their new identities. Many in the African American community dubbed this latter behavior going “on the other side” to distinguish it from other, more temporary forms of passing.

William Ellis’s story introduces new challenges to conventional narratives of passing. Present-day family members point to the fact that Ellis stayed in contact with his relatives throughout his life as showing that he never undertook the complete separation from the African American community practiced by passers. (Indeed, it was Ellis’s engagement with his family and with African American politics that made it possible to recover his life story; had he been more secretive and not run such risks, he would have left almost no traces for contemporary historians to follow.) There is also the fact that William Henry Ellis’s alter-ego, Guillermo Enrique Eliseo, was Mexican (or Cuban or Hawaiian). Given the liminal status of these ethnicities, one could argue that Ellis never engaged in the complete erasure of his background that assuming a white identity might have required.

Given these circumstances, does it make sense to term William Ellis’s behavior passing, code-shifting, masquerade, or something else altogether?William Ellis himself offers only the briefest hint as to how he might respond to this question.Usually, of course, he avoided speaking about his efforts at ethnic impersonation at all.In an interview he did with a Chicago newspaper in 1891, however, he stated, “In passing through Texas from Mexico, I am forced to pass as a Mexican in order to obtain the ordinary comforts of a white traveler.”