White Lies

James Campbell

  • In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Colour Line by George Hutchinson
    Harvard, 611 pp, £25.95, June 2006, ISBN 0 674 02180 0

Writing in the New Yorker in April 1986, Calvin Trillin told the story of Susie Guillory, a native of Louisiana who, when applying for a passport, discovered that she was African American. According to the state’s ‘one-drop rule’, Americans with even a 1 in 32 part of Negro blood – or a nameless, faceless great-great-great-grandfather – were classified as ‘Col’, or coloured, on birth certificates. When he learned of the discovery, Guillory’s husband said: ‘Hell, she ain’t a nigger.’ The one-drop rule was phased out soon afterwards, partly as a result of the legal suit brought by Guillory, but it persists in common parlance, in both the US and Britain: your part-Scottish, part-Native American, part-Spanish friend is often ‘black’ if there is a hint of Africa in his or her make-up.

John Bellew, the husband of Clare Kendry in Nella Larsen’s exquisite novel Passing (1929), responds violently when he finds out that Clare, who has cheeks of ‘ivory’ and hair the colour of ‘pale gold’, is ‘black’. All those years, John had been deceived into thinking Clare was something else, an equally fictitious formula, ‘white’. They have no family because she feared children might show a touch of the tar brush. Before the fateful blow, John is asked casually by Irene Redfield, through whose eyes we see the action and who is also light enough to ‘pass’ when it suits her to do so: ‘So you dislike Negroes, Mr Bellew?’ He replies: ‘You got me wrong there, Mrs Redfield. Nothing like that at all. I don’t dislike them, I hate them.’

‘Passing’ is less often seen as a characteristic aspect of the African American experience than music or religion or social oppression, but it has been the subject of numerous novels. One of the greatest is by William Faulkner, who created the sin-bearing pariah Joe Christmas in Light in August (1932). Among other malign habits, Joe uses his ambiguous skin colour to sleep with prostitutes without paying. ‘One night it did not work. He rose from the bed and told the woman that he was a Negro. “You are?” she said. “I thought maybe you were just another wop or something.”’ Twenty years earlier, James Weldon Johnson, a black man who served as American consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua during the Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft administrations, opened his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) with the sentence: ‘I know that in writing the following pages I am divulging the great secret of my life, the secret which for some years I have guarded far more carefully than any of my earthly possessions’ – the secret being that the narrator was officially black (Johnson published the novel anonymously).

More recently, the New York Times critic Anatole Broyard, who died in 1990, was unmasked in the New Yorker by Henry Louis Gates. In the early 1950s, Broyard had threatened to sue the publishers of a novel by Chandler Brossard, Who Walk in Darkness, which contained a character evidently based on him. It began: ‘People said Henry Porter was a Negro.’ In the version that was finally published, this was altered to read ‘was an illegitimate’ – making nonsense of many passages that follow. (The original distinction survives in the French translation, Ciel de nuit: ‘avait du sang nègre’.) In his posthumous memoir, Kafka Was the Rage (1993), Broyard avoids referring to his black family, who lived outside Manhattan. A facile view is that he was ashamed of being black; an alternative one is that he simply wished to evade the daily ordeal of trial by racial identification, in a society in which the pressure of segregation is still being felt.

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