Racial Passing

Racial Passing

The idea of passing is fairly common in the United States. A common American refrain is fake it till you make it, an idea that you can pretend to be something until you become that thing in reality. For white people in the United States this is a common strategy, especially among young or entrepreneurially ambitious individuals. In my own life, I have been guilty of passing to try to fit in with the cool kids in high school, as passing for someone who knows more than they do to try to get a job, and of passing to try to impress elders with deep knowledge when I only have surface deep knowledge. However, this kind of passing is different than racial passing, a type of passing that many people in the United States have turned to in order to get by. I was using passing to try to hide weaknesses and to try to impress others in an effort to improve my social status. I was not passing to try to avoid discrimination and prejudice.
Racial passing includes elements of trying to improve ones social, economic, and political status as I was trying to do, but not in the same fake it till you make it way. I was trying to work my way into social groups and jobs that I was mostly qualified for, but for which I might have some weaknesses. Racial passing is not about hiding weaknesses or being unskilled, it is about hiding ones racial background to prevent others from discriminating against you for no reason other than your skin color. Throughout American history, racial passing has also been a way to avoid violence against oneself and to preserve ones life, very different from any passing experiences I have had.
The book Krazy by Michael Tisserand is a biography of cartoonist George Herriman who spent most of his life in a state of racial passing, hiding his family heritage from everyone he knew. In the book he writes about Herriman’s passing in the following paragraph:
“Racial passing was – and remains – a controversial practice. Only a select number of blacks had the opportunity to pass. Although there are no existing photographs of George and Clara Herriman [George Herriman the cartoonist’s parents], photos of George Joseph Herriman reveal a shade of skin and general physical characteristics that might, to some eyes, render him racially ambiguous. Members of the Herriman family, it appears, were what some Creoles called nations able to present themselves in many different lights.” 
Herriman’s family tree included Creole, black, and white people from New Orleans in the decades before the Civil War. This unique racial background created the ambiguous racial appearance of George Herriman, allowing him to engage in racial passing.
Without being able to pass as white, Herriman would not have been able to get a job at a nation-wide newspaper and would not have had a nation-wide circulation for his comics. His art and skills were fantastic, but never would have been possible if he had not been able to hide his family background and pass as white. He found a lot of success as a cartoon artist and newspaper illustrator, allowing him to buy a home in a good neighborhood in Los Angeles. If he appeared more black or Creole he would not have been able to attain the same level of career success, would not have been able to buy a home and begin building wealth to pass along to his children, and might have been at risk of violence in an unlucky police encounter. This has been the cost of not being able to pass for many people throughout American history. On one hand for those who do pass, they risk alienation from their family and friends who cannot pass, having to hide their association with anyone who was not white out of fear of discovery. On the other hand, passing opened up a world free from discrimination and full of career, wealth, and general life possibilities. Passing has been much more than just trying to impress people to get ahead or be popular, it has been about living a life that would not be possible if one was identified differently based on their skin color.
The Confederacy in New Orleans

The Confederacy in New Orleans

George Herriman was a cartoon artist famous for his Krazy Kat comic that ran from 1913 to 1944. Herriman wrote his comics at a time when black people did not have access to news rooms and careers in media. He was born to mixed race Creole parents in New Orleans, but throughout his life passed as white, hiding his parent’s ancestry and often hiding his hair and other features which may have made people question his racial heritage.
In the book Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White author Michael Tisserand explores the known history of Herriman’s family living in New Orleans before and during the Civil War. Herriman’s grandfather, George Herriman Sr., was a free black man living in New Orleans at the time of the Civil War. George Herriman (the grandson) was born in 1880 in New Orleans and his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 10, but the impact of the Civil War on his family and his family’s history in New Orleans left a lasting imprint on him that Tisserand traces throughout his career and work.
New Orleans was a place of incredible diversity in the Antebellum South and it was common for white men to have a wife and family and to also have a black mistress (or several) and a separate mixed-race but free family. There were legal marriage-like arrangements between many wealthy white men and their black mistresses. This is the history that George Herriman’s heritage traces back to. Tisserand  writes about the racial history of New Orleans and about the complex forces that drove Herriman Sr. to join the Confederate Army in New Orleans as the Civil War broke out. Herriman Sr. enlisted despite, as Tisserand writes, “the aims of the Confederacy were no secrete. Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition – stated Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens in his Cornerstone Speech.”
Herriman Sr., as a free black, man enlisted because it was clear that free black men in the city would be in danger at the outset of the war if they did not find a way to demonstrate that they were not going to violently rebel against the government in New Orleans and across the South. Tisserand continues, “the free designation in free people of color was quickly losing all meaning.”
He adds, “yet, it didn’t take long to realize that even volunteering for the army didn’t ensure respect. Free people of color were treated poorly in the Confederate States Army, with many receiving neither uniforms nor weapons.”
Tisserand includes these details and more about Herriman’s family to help explain why he pursued a strategy of passing and to inform the audience of certain characteristics of his psychology which translated into his art and comics. Herriman lived as a white man, afraid that society would discover his black and Creole family history. Thanks to the color of his skin he was able to escape the world of deliberate hate and discrimination that his father and grandfather had lived in, but the trauma they experienced never truly left his life. The complex and diverse mixture of New Orleans stuck with him, but was something he hid, similarly to the way the South attempted to hide the ideas expressed in Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech through the Lost Cause Narrative after the Civil War. Nevertheless, the lived experience of his father and grandfather during the Confederacy in New Orleans and the response that can be read through Herriman’s life and work demonstrates the complexity and racial challenges that influenced the development of life in New Orleans and across the south.