Hierdie is die LitNet-argief (2006–2012)
Besoek die aktiewe LitNet-platform by www.litnet.co.za

This is the LitNet archive (2006–2012)
Visit the active LitNet platform at www.litnet.co.za

Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

Authenticity denied: the tale of a non-melanistic black youth – a reading of Langston Hughes's 'Passing'

Phil Ndlela - 2009-06-18


Freedom is tragic because it is conscious both of its necessity and of its boundaries. "I do not hope for victory", writes Kafka. "Struggle in itself is not blissful, except in the measure that it is the only thing that I can do … Perhaps I will finally surrender, not to the struggle, but to the joy of the struggle.

– Carlos Fuentes

In this paper I want to argue that the strategy adopted by the narrator in Hughes's epistolary piece "Passing" is fundamentally flawed, self-defeating, and indeed myopic as a ready means of subverting racism and achieving racial equality in race-conscious North America.

Some of the reasons behind "Passing" are biographical in orientation. They comment on the history giving rise to conditions commented upon in this story in as much as they provide background information on the author under discussion.

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born on February 01, 1902, immediately after the Reconstruction Period (1865–1900), a historical environment revealing in itself. He came into life at a period of political transition in the North American landscape, several decades after the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln "freeing" slaves in 1865. To be sure, the realities of the times were heavily punctuated by Jim Crow legislation, formation of the Niagara Movement and later the NAACP movement. An enduring spectre of racism, struggle, and "deferred dreams" of African Americans loomed large across society. Hughes was born before WEB Du Bois prophetically pronounced that race would be a key issue of concern in the twentieth century, in the magisterial The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Still, besides living through dialectical conditions of racialised capitalism, the future poet inherited in his loins a rich cross-pollinated black oral tradition of storytelling, fecund culture and personal pride. It is the very same social pride upon which the jeremiad prophet James Baldwin commented. A clear summon for “profound articulation of the black tradition defined as that field of manners and rituals of intercourse that can sustain a man once he's left his fathers house” (TheParisReview, 8).

His career is now a matter of public record. Hughes is widely credited as the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920-30s. His achievements rival and surpass those of his contemporaries, including the folk anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (of TheirEyes Were Watching God fame), fellow verse scribe Claude McKay (“If We Must Die”), and the painter Aaron Douglas. As is equally acknowledged, the "midwives" of this Renaissance were Ivy League-educated father of pan-Africanism WEB Du Bois and first African Rhodes scholar Alain Locke. A quest for artistic expression, portrayal of black joy, suffering and laughter motivated the activism of Hughes's Harlem Renaissance in a backdrop of discrimination in terms of jobs, housing and education. To counter this, objectives of this movement were interdisciplinary in nature, representing such fields as art, literature (a "problematic practice", as Jorge Louis Borges famously called it), politics, economics, and music in stabs at redefining the "New Negro", who would possess indelible racial pride in his history, people and future. The Renaissance produced many works of lasting value, works that commented on class, race, and gender through lenses of high aesthetics and political engagement by, for example, the NAACP and the Urban League. This rebirth took an important step from slavery to freedom – a struggle to be continued by writers of the protest era, the black aesthetics and the neo-realism movements.

Therefore, the immediate milieu in which Hughes wrote "Passing" was one symbolised by de facto racism. It was a period where de jure discrimination existed in politics, economics and social spheres, long before the historic legal decision of Brown vs Board of Education in the 1950s. The plight of the African American male is also poignantly illustrated in the works of eminent novelists like Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Robert Hayden. These writers presented stories that gave readers insight into what it was like to be African Americans facing seemingly insurmountable race barriers, a "veil of race", to paraphrase Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk. Hughes's biographer, Arnold Rampersad, in The Collected Works of Langston Hughes (1995), provides the following explanation:

Langston Hughes is one of the more controversial names in the history of American poetry. To many readers of African descent, he is their poet laureate, the beloved author of poems steeped in the richness of African-American culture, poems that exude Hughes's affection for Black Americans across all divisions of religion, class and gender. To many readers who love verse and are also committed to the ideal of social and political justice, he is amongst the most eloquent American poets to have sung about the wounds caused by injustice. Hughes never sought to be all things to all people but rather aimed to create a body of work that epitomized the beauty and variety of the African-American and the American experiences, as well as the diversity of the emotions, thoughts and dreams that he saw common to all human beings. He wanted no definition of the poet that divorced his art from the immediacy of life (3).

Still, Hughes was anything but pedantic. Even though his work centred on giving voice to the working class experience, he was forever on the move for new challenges. In the 1930s, especially in response to the Great Depression, certain features of his verse were altered as he began to emphasise the need for radical political action. This calculated radicalism can be seen in poems such as "Goodbye Christ" and "Let America be America Again". Mistakenly, as a black artist he was often called a "folk poet" by dint of his melanin, which should have meant, moreover, he was stereotyped as having rhythm. Such an appellation, by necessity and indirect implication, served as a precursor to the debate around Negritude. The latter gave due emphasis to so-called normative characteristics of being "black" which would later be derided as artless and beneath criticism. The truth is that Hughes published many poems that are doggerel. His audience demographic profile necessitated his choice of tone and style. To reach his primary audience – the black masses – he was prepared to "write down" to them.

Subsequently, the letter in question is written in a voice and tenor of a politically naïve, inward-looking and opportunistic youth who consciously dispenses with his authenticity in order to suit convention and obtain white privilege.

He writes:

But I don't mind being "white" Ma, and it was mighty generous of you to urge me to go ahead and make use of my light skin and good hair. It got me this job Ma where I still get a $65 a week in spite of the depression and I am in line for promotion to the Chief Office Secretary, if Mr. Weeks goes to Washington (52).

The black youth in this epistolary narrative is capitalising on an accidental feature (his colour), a boon conferred by providence. He is also trying to achieve upward socio-economic mobility in a country that still embraces, as its central locifoci, racial supremacy. He displays a somewhat rugged individualism and rapacious hedonism, responsive to an élan consumer society, in quest of a “perennial high in body and mind” (West 1993:31).

However, what is the significance of his strategy for upward mobility?

The youth attempts to subvert the seemingly impregnable racial divide in North America through betrayal of self and abrogation of communal identification. This strategy in the final analysis proves myopic because it further entrenches political convention by going along with it. Feelings of guilt, even contrition, besiege him, but he does not yield to them, because to do so would mean jeopardising a life of singular convenience.

We do well to quote our protagonist: "I felt like a dog passing you downtown last night and not speaking to you. You were great, though. Didn't give a sign that you even knew me, let alone I was your son … " (51).

Such action represents a desperate survival plan within a very hostile socio-political scene. The reader senses a conflict contained in the psyche of this boy, noting the complexity of the situation, and actually sympathises with the protagonist for his apparent self-misrepresentation. The boy goes so far as to withhold essential information from his employers and his Caucasian girlfriend. Such fraudulent self-misrepresentation in which he engages carries potential dangers in the event of its likely exposure to his boss and girlfriend.

Moreover, the individualistic young man also comes across as a master of evasion. He displays a persistent refusal to confront what a race issue signifies to his brethren. Instead, he ends up being self-serving, uninterested in the general welfare, history and political circumstances of fellow African Americans. The communal way of life is shunned even though a more informed route would be one based on collective action to undermine and dismantle the framework of racial raison d'être. This young man further demonstrates a reluctance to admit to collusion involved in his status-making. Even more disconcerting, his stratagem to reverse his fortunes has the blessing of his forgiving and accommodating mother, even though it remains, ultimately, politically flawed. Not realising that the effect does not alter the cause, his passing for white has not altered perceptions among whites of African Americans as “a problem race”. Let us hear what Hughes states on this race matter:

… they go out of their way sometimes to say bad things about colored folks, putting it out that all of us are thieves and liars or else diseased - consumption and syphilis and the like. No wonder it's hard for a black man to get a good job with that kind of false propaganda going around. I never knew they made a practice of saying such terrible things about us until I started passing and heard their conversations and lived their life. (52)

The point that the young man is trying to make implicitly here is that passing for white has in a sense made him an "insider" and offered him invaluable insights about white people in North America. Yet being aware of white people's attitudes towards black people is one thing, and doing something about is another thing. It can be argued that the central character in "Passing" shrouds his misrepresentation in screw. To him, passing for white is an act of (personal) economic endurance and expediency, and a calculated goal for subverting racial prejudice in his favour. However, duplicity is of its essence.

Primarily, though, we have to ask what it is that would compel a person to act in this fashion and "abandon" his race consciousness.

Upon one reading, this would probably be the natural behaviour of any young man in his economic predicament undercut by the chance of having a "wrong" physiological make-up. If this be an accurate propositional interpretation, then only a person of outstanding virtue would conduct himself otherwise in similar circumstances, in the sense that the circumstances can be seen as abetting such duplicity. As we have learned to appreciate from Franz Fanon in his elaboration of a psychopathology of colonisation, pathology without translates into pathology within. One might argue in this vein that the young man is not designedly destabilising his racial identity. As an alternative, he is attempting to make his way in life, even if it involves a degree of deception and disavowal of identity.

What is at stake? Let us listen to him: "I am going to marry white and live white, and if any of my kids are born dark, I'll swear they aren't mine. I won't get caught in the mire of race again. Not me. I'm free, Ma, free!" (54).

In his illuminating essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" Hughes discourses cogently about his race's ostensible obsession with colour, and its own normalisation of self-denigration: "This urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible" (91).

It necessitates asking: Is this the best method by which to chip away at racism? Is it the most appropriate means to come by "forbidden fruit"? One thinks not. Not only is it disempowering in the final analysis, it also entrenches and deepens a racist agenda.

It is known that people who are averse to the "other", whose difference is measured on the basis of melanin constitution or even nasal morphology, are capable of engendering a primitive urge in humankind to exalt the "self" and malign an "other". This is in very large part a product of fear. Aversion to the unfamiliar seems to be endemic to beasts as a whole, and not confined to the human species. Supposed difference, be it ever so trifling, by extension, of antagonism. Our young man in "Passing" would not have played out his charade if it were not for that feature of humanness we designate as "antagonism". Such a feature, without a doubt, serves as the catalyst for the young man's extended duplicity. Lest we be taken to task, we should remember always to go back to the seminal basis of things. Where does the "antagonism" arise? In a word, it is fear. If humankind could but put itself to "unlearning" a primal urge of its fears – and here we are speaking specifically with reference to fears based on purported "difference" – then perchance we might avoid antagonism. In addition, had we averted it in the past, the narrator in "Passing" would not have been anywhere near as ambivalent in his beliefs and actions.



Hughes, L. The Ways of White Folks. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

—. The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader

Lewis, DL (ed). New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

King, ML. Letter from Birmingham Jail, in I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World, Washington, JM (ed). New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

West, C. Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

Wilson , A. The Art of Theatre, in The Paris Review, no 14, 2005.

© Phil Ndlela by copyright. All rights reserved.


Dr Phil Ndlela teaches African and African American literature in the Department of Language and Literature at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. His interests include orature and prison writing.