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Being someone you are not

Passing When People Can't Be Who They Are Brooke Kroeger PublicAffairs: 280 pp., $25

September 14, 2003|Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz | Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is the author of several books, including "Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie" and, most recently, "Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years 1960-1975."

Readers of "Passing" may, as I did, think of a number of personal instances of short- or long-term passing. I immediately recalled trying to pass for a non-Okie when, at age 20, I moved with my husband to San Francisco from Oklahoma. A general national disdain for Southerners -- and in California, where Dust Bowl memories were still fresh, for "Okies" -- was not something I understood until I encountered derision and even insults. My remedy? A tape recorder and practice in losing my accent, as well as identifying myself as being from "the Midwest" or even "back East," neither of which was strictly a lie and apparently satisfied the questioner. Within a year or so, I fit in and no longer received negative reactions from colleagues and shopkeepers.

Brooke Kroeger, the author of "Passing," is a professor of journalism and former foreign correspondent who has written two well-received biographies: "Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist" and "Fannie: The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst." Her biographical and narrative skills give nuance and depth to the touchy, often explosive topic of "passing" in this set of short biographies of lesser-known individuals. The subtitle, "When People Can't Be Who They Are," is key to understanding the text. Kroeger is not dealing with impostors, frauds or men with multiple families unknown to one another. Her definition of passing includes several elements: First, it refers to individuals who "effectively present themselves as other than who they understand themselves to be"; second, other people must accept the identity that the passer projects; third, "Passing involves erasing details or certain aspects of a given life ... "; fourth, and important, the passers do not have to change anything in their outward appearance. Passing involves, more than anything else, the control of information. Some of the attributes required for successful passing, Kroeger writes, are stealth, gumption, cunning, agility, social conceit and guile. She probes ethical questions about passing, such as the significance of authenticity, the responsibility of individuals to tell all about themselves, the thin line between disclosure and lying and the possible effects on the passer's character.

The heart of "Passing" consists of six case studies. Each is vividly specific but also representative of a larger aspect of identity in the United States, historically and currently. The individuals who shared their stories with the author -- ordinary people, not public figures or celebrities -- are young, smart, well-educated and engaging.

The first two studies are the most compelling and both concern racial passing, in different directions. David Matthews, a light-skinned African American whose mother was Jewish and died when he was a child, was raised by his proud, activist African American father. Unbeknownst to his father and other relatives, Matthews led a double life from early childhood, presenting himself to the world outside his family as white and Jewish. Kroeger weaves into the telling of this fascinating story the history of factual and fictional instances of African Americans passing as white. She also discusses Matthews' case with Princeton University professor Anthony Appiah, whose work on the question of identity is well known and who expresses reservations about such behavior -- but also compassion for the individual who makes the choice. Invoking New York Times literary critic Anatole Broyard, who died in 1990 at the age of 70 without ever having made known publicly or even to his children that he was black, Kroeger poses the question: How does what we think we know or are told about another person's identity affect our response to that person's work? In Broyard's case, she argues that passing allowed him to transcend the inevitability that he would be viewed racially in a career in which race is irrelevant. I would put it another way: Literary criticism was and is a field dominated by white men, and when it does allow females or people of color inside, their work is hardly ever viewed as objective.

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