By Allyson Hobbs

About Allyson Hobbs

Allyson Hobbs is Associate Professor of American History and Director of African and African American Studies at Stanford University. She is the author of A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life (2014), which won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award and the Lawrence W. Levine Award presented by the Organization of American Historians.

Passing

“Passing” is a word that has historically denoted a clandestine and hidden process, designed to leave no trace. Conventional wisdom is that few sources exist because those who passed carefully covered their tracks and left no record of their transgression. The term “passing” suggests a type of instability, a “moving through,” or the lack of a stable home or place. Passing was equated both with opportunity (access to white-­collar employment, better neighborhoods, a host of social courtesies) and with death (a forever severing from one’s family, friends, and communities).

It is likely that the word “passing” first appeared in print in advertisements for runaway slaves. Slave masters panicked about the possibility that some enslaved people might be able to “pass themselves off” as white and escape to freedom. Advertisements described enslaved people in exhaustive detail, sometimes noting that a particular slave could “sing a good song” or could speak a …

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