Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

When black becomes white: The problem of racial passing in American life
by Hobbs, Allyson Vanessa, Ph.D., The University of Chicago, 2009, 279; 3350906
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation explores racial passing—the anxious decision to break with a sense of communion and to turn one's back on what was most precious about African American life—in an attempt to recover and concretize the most elusive and intimate meanings of African American group identity. This study confronts and reworks notions of passing as an individualistic and opportunistic enterprise with the intention of bringing into focus the communal politics of passing, from the moment when passing became a problem in the late eighteenth century to the moment when it reportedly "passed out" in the 1950s.

This study opens with racially ambiguous men and women who first passed as free in the fluid and multiracial world of the eighteenth century mid-Atlantic, where opportunities for self-fashioning abounded and where not all blacks were enslaved and not all whites were free. The uneasy and uneven consolidation of a racialized slave society eventually made passing as white more fitting with the particular concerns of the antebellum period. The national upheaval of the Civil War followed by the fleeting but hopeful moment of Reconstruction created unparalleled openings for blacks and offered political, economic and social logic to the decision not to pass. The broken promises of Reconstruction gave way to the tragedy of Jim Crow, but also to unprecedented migrations out of the South. The physical mobility of the Jim Crow era, coupled paradoxically with its cramped, segregated living and working arrangements, created the necessary conditions for passing to flourish, but also for this practice to test and undermine black familial integrity. Optimistic announcements that passing had "passed out" by World War II's end signaled yet another turning point in the history of this phenomenon. The "passing of passing," social critics observed, was the logical outcome of the collapse of legalized segregation, the sense of racial affinity engendered by civil rights struggles and postwar promises to deliver "the good life" to whites and blacks alike. But such cheerfulness met hard limits: the racial tumult experienced by blacks refuted reports of the ostensible irrelevance of passing that circulated in the postwar period.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Holt, Thomas
School: The University of Chicago
School Location: United States -- Illinois
Source: DAI-A 70/03, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: American studies, Black studies, Black history, American history, African American Studies
Keywords: African-American, Group identity, Racial identity, Racial passing, Social life and customs
Publication Number: 3350906
ISBN: 978-1-109-06372-1
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