In my serial Ann & Anna, Parts 17, reprinted below, and in part 16 (Power), as well as the foreshadowing in earlier parts, which post on Sundays, the theme of Passing, as in Black folks passing for White, comes to the forefront of the story. A reader asked me about this topic, and I thought it might be interesting for other readers, as well:
” Can Willow pass?
Well, she certainly does not believe so, but Anna, and little Tilly, clearly think that she can.
Remember, passing is more than about just how light your skin is (and how ‘kinky’ your hair is, which is always how Mexicans can tell I’m Black…)
Passing is an interesting and delicate thing: it really depends on the eye of the beholder.
I, personally, cannot pass at all in most of DC, MD, NY/NJ, and certainly not in any of VA.
But, here in California, people (especially Jewish people and the occasional Mexican) are constantly shocked to find out that I am Black. Not so for Puerto Ricans, however.
Likewise, on the census records for my 5xs gr. grandfather Miles Manzilla, Sr: he goes from MU to W, over the course of about 4 or 5 censuses in OH.
And Sally Hemings, interestingly enough, is actually listed as W on the last census I saw for her!! I was shocked, and still wonder if I saw that wrong, but since Madison, her son, described her as “an Octoroon” (which Annette Gordon Reed points out was technically incorrect, but visually the way people described one so light skinned, back then, before the term “High Yellow” became impolite, I suppose), it makes sense.
Also, in the Federal City, constables were empowered to decide whether a person was considered to be Colored for the curfew and other Black Code related issues.
So, what I meant to say was that yes, given the right conditions and the right persons around her, Willow *can* pass, if she has enough audacity to make it work.
This reminds me of the celebrated court case in (SC??) which a man was accused of passing, and it dragged on until a prominent (White) man simply marched himself up to the docket, shook the defendant’s hand, and walked back out of the court room. The case was dismissed at that point, since no self-respecting White man would ever shake hands in public with a Negro. That settled the man’s status as being White.
Likewise, there is a story of two enslaved women escaping up the river from New Orleans, with one posing as the other’s Body Servant (aka Lady’s maid).
Which brings me to Body Servants: they were the personal valet or maid of a usually rather wealthy slave owner, who could afford to have a slave for no other purpose than to attend to his/her own needs constantly. Their status was well above that of field hands, house slaves, or even cooks.
Having a personal maid on attendance at all times, rather than shared from other duties, would mark Willow as a wealthy lady, and make it much more difficult to question her status, as would having that maid be dark-skinned enough to contrast with Willow’s light skin. Besides the skin color issue, there is Tilly’s acting ability: she knows how to make Willow look like a stern lady accustomed to command, and that is what it takes to pull off this charade, upon which three or more lives will now depend. “Joe,” of course is the final feather in Willow’s cap, at this point, as a driver completes the picture of a Southern Belle at whom no one will even cast a questioning glance.
If our Willow can play her part, that is…
Just as I cleared my throat of that last word, Mrs. H. tilted her head, as if waiting to speak. She’d not had a moment since entering the room to make known the reason for her presence. We had just dined, and she normally busied herself downstairs at this time. She wore an expression of worry upon her face that augured nothing good.
“That is an excellent reading, Willow, in so short a time of study.”
Her words were kind, but her voice was uncertain. She looked at Anna with expectancy.
Anna merely smiled, and nodded again toward Tilly. The child inched closer to me, looked up with a wicked grin, and proclaimed:
“I am to be your Body Servant, Miss Willow.”
Mrs. H. finally understood.
“It is the best, indeed the only, way for us to proceed, Mrs. H.” Anna lifted her head, her eyes level with those of the doctor’s wife.
My mouth must surely have fallen open, for never had I seen a Negro, slave or free, openly contradict a white person! As the two women looked sternly at one another, the doctor strode into the room.
“I fear Anna is correct. It must be so, for they must leave us. Tonight.”
I look forward to your thoughts.