In South Africa during the apartheid era, authorities used a “pencil test” to determine a person’s race.
If a person’s hair was kinky enough to keep the pencil, the person was deemed to be black.
American observers may scoff at such a seemingly ridiculous measure, and we have had more than our share of race strangeness as we try to make sense of this social reality and biological fiction.
One area that illustrates the arbitrariness of racial designations is the phenomenon of “passing” in which people from one race say they belong to another.
In many cases, the person passing was a black person claiming to be white. Danzy Senna’s debut and breakout novel Caucasia treated this theme extensively, as did Eddie Murphy in a Saturday Night Live skit. Family Name, Macky Alston’s film about his family’s black and white roots, explored this, too.
In Passing Strange, historian Martha Sandweiss has written a compelling account of Clarence King, a white man who lived a double life for 13 years as James Todd, a black man who was married and raised a family with his black wife.
Sandweiss does a masterful job of describing King and his wife’s backgrounds. They could hardly have been more different. King was a rugged outdoors adventurer raised in relative privilege who contributed mightily to the mapping of the West in the post-Civil War era, while Ada Copeland was born into slavery in Georgia.
One of the book’s many strengths lies in Sandweiss’ forthrightness about the limitations of knowledge about Ada Copeland’s origins, the relationship between the two, and King’s reasons for entering from the white into the black world. This frankness enhances the reader’s willingness to consider the ideas she does offer for everything from the name King chooses for his children-Leroy is French for le roi, or the king-to his wife’s choice of saying to a Census taker that her husband came from the West Indies.
King traveled in quite elevated circles; one of his most important friendships was with Secretary of State John Hay, who supplied the Todd family with money for decades after King’s death. Sandweiss shows how King struggled with the needs of tending to an often sick mother, a constant quest to earn enough money, and fulfill his considerable promise. She also writes convincingly about Ada Todd’s desires for respectability that were met by her husband, who said he was a Pullman porter and thus on the road a lot of the time.
This is far more than a story of two individuals, though. Sandweiss roots this fascinating tale in the history of America during the Gilded Age, and, within that, the rural South of Georgia and major metropolises like New York City.
The story does not conclude with King’s death in 1901, but continues through until the Civil Rights era.
Sandweiss asserts that King found with Todd an emotional fulfillment that he did not in the white world in which he was raised, while Todd later had her day in public when an oft-delayed lawsuit seeking a trust fund King had told her existed finally went forward. Sandweiss also says that the choices King made were not only personal, but a function of the social constraints during the time in which he lived.
Some maintain that the era of race being a meaningful factor in American life has drawn to a close with the 2008 election of President Obama. I do not agree. Still, whatever position one takes on that question, readers will be engaged and informed by this outstanding work. It’s very early in the year, and this one has a strong chance of being in my Top 10 list for 2010.