How Black is Black

By Destiny Dobbins

In African American communities, skin color has played a significant role in defining one’s identity and access to opportunities and long term benefits. In many instances, color has determined beauty and worth, in which lighter skin is more beautiful than darker skin because lighter skin complexion insinuates that one is closer to being white[1]. The pureness and glorified treatment of white women in society brought on the phenomenon of passing. Passing is the act of temporarily or permanently giving up one’s African American identity to pass as white. For black women and girls that identify as white, this could both open many doors for opportunity as well as cause hindrance.

In this paper a photograph titled Photograph of an Unidentified African American woman, labeled by the Albert and Shirly Small Special Collections Library, will be analyzed. The knowledge of this woman’s name and age are unknown, leaving the interpretation of her identity to her audience. For this article, one will be speculating what life for this African American woman would be like if she were identifying as passing because of her fair skin complexion. In the photograph, she is poised in a chair, resting her left arm lightly on the back of the chair itself. Her style of clothing is a flattering dress with white ruffles leading up to her neck, with buttons down the front of it. Her hair is neatly pinned back and the expression on her face is calm with no sudden emotion.[2] Based on the fair complexion of this unidentified African American woman, it can be understood that if she were passing for white that she would have economic and educational opportunities that non-passing African American girls may not, and that she may have to cease familial and cultural ties with her African American community in order to pass as white.

For this African American woman, passing as white would mean for her to strip her identity of African American culture. This would include things such as food, heritage, and music that the African American community offered during this time. Not only would passing for white mean giving up one’s own identity but also surrendering one’s familial ties.[3] If she chose to pass for white for a temporary period and later decided to identify as an African American woman, she may be faced with pushback from her family no longer accepting her because she disowned her born identity. Another impediment to black girls and women passing into white society is the chance of having a child that is the complexion of a brown or dark skinned African American. If an African American passing woman were to marry a white man who was not aware that she was passing she could risk herself being exposed based on the complexion of her child. However, the ability for this woman to pass grants her access to several opportunities to advance herself.[4]

After the abolition of slavery in the United States, black women had difficulty integrating into society. Difficulties such as finding employment, housing, accessible opportunities created barriers for black women and girls to advance forward.[5] However, skin color changed the accessibility that some black women and girls had to the luxuries of white society. One benefit that passing black women would have is the ability to gain an education. If this unidentified African American woman were to pass for a white as a young girl, from girlhood she could potentially work her way into the education system and gain academic knowledge that her non-passing sisters could not gain. Another benefit of passing into white society would be the social and class status a woman may have. Identifying as an African American woman would make it difficult to advance socially and compete on a similar social level as white Americans, even if one were to have the credentials. However, if this woman were to pose as a white woman, she would have the agency to gain privilege to a higher class which could offer a better lifestyle.

In Allyson Hobbs’ recent book, A Chosen Exile: A History of racial Passing in American Life she explores the challenges and opportunities of passing in 20th century America. In her text, she describes white skin in antebellum America to function as a cloak.[6] This is an interesting concept because a cloak is an article of clothing that can be put on and removed as often as one choses it to be. This statement reinforces the title of her text, in which the ability to pass is a choice. However, this idea of choice is juxtaposed to her chapter title “White is the Color of Freedom”[7]. In revealing that white is the color of freedom this could imply to readers that the only way to be free is to pass as white, In Hobb’s argument, there are two ideas working against one another: white is a choice and white is the only option. In the beginning pages of her history she states “this book is about loss”.[8] This begins to develop her position on the idea of passing and the many repercussions that come with passing. These aspects of passing can be applied to black girlhood to help one understand the significance of identity to young black girls.

Identity. This word standing alone, made up of eight letters, represents a variety of emotions, morals, thoughts, and experiences. Identity is a social construct of experiences over a progressive period, that alter and maneuver to fit who we become as individuals. Black girlhood is represented across a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences. For some girls, this may look like kinky, coiling hair and voluptuous curves, and for some this looks like straightened hair and less curves. These attributes represent black girlhood in their own unique way, leaving black girlhood to be defined by the individual’s experience. To be a black girl passing as a white girl means to completely strip oneself of one’s identity and to put on a mask that may or may not provide a path to success.

[1] Allyson Hobbs, A Chosen Exile (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014),29.

[2] Johnson & Hemming, Photograph of an unidentified African American woman, 188[?], box 34, folder 1, Johnson & Hemming Photo. Artist, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

[3] Hobbs, A Chosen Exile,35.

[4] Ibid., 45.

[5] Ibid., 32.

[6] Ibid., 29.

[7] Ibid., 28.

[8] Ibid., 4.