Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative

by Juda Bennett

Passing for white, a phenomenon that once captivated writers as diverse as Charles Chesnutt, Sinclair Lewis, Nella Larsen, and Mark Twain, no longer seems to engage contemporary novelists. The long list of authors from the first half of the twentieth century, which includes canonical writers like William Faulkner and forgotten stars like Edna Ferber, is hardly balanced by the short list of contemporary writers who have addressed this figure of racial ambiguity. In considering the relative disappearance of the passing figure from contemporary literature, this essay begins with neither a clear and substantial presence nor a complete absence of passing in the work of one of our most important novelists, Toni Morrison. [1]

In each of her seven novels and in her sole short story, Toni Morrison invokes the passing myth, sometimes in only one or two paragraphs and often with indirection. The Bluest Eye, for example, features a dark-skinned child who cannot possibly pass for white, yet Pecola ignores biology and becomes (if only to herself) a blue-eyed Shirley Temple. Although some might consider Pecola's delusion a weak or perhaps specious representation of passing for white, The Bluest Eye artfully reinforces its interest in racial passing by alluding to Peola, the passing figure in Imitation of Life. This intertextual play effectively evokes the myth without actually representing the phenomenon of passing, and in this way Morrison decenters and deforms the traditional passing figure. Why?

It is my hope that this overview, although focused on Morrison, will be suggestive of larger shifts in culture, politics, and aesthetics. Why, for example, has the passing figure, after holding a central place in the imaginations of early-twentieth-century writers, been consigned to the margins of late-twentieth-century novels concerned with race? Why did Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes address the subject directly, even entitling works Passing and "Who's Passing for Who?" while Morrison approaches the subject indirectly and often in a subplot or through an allusion? Are there certain stories that are considered embarrassing, passe, or even dangerous? Are there stories, furthermore, that simply cannot be told or, rather, cannot be told simply?

Perhaps we are too far from what F. James Davis has called the "peak years for passing ... probably from 1880 to 1925." Or perhaps these passing narratives, which frequently move from the desire for white privilege to the tortures of racial denial, seem treasonous or even unimaginable in a post-1960s, post-Black Power world. If there are social forces steering creative writers away from this topic, it becomes especially important to look at the survival, albeit in altered form, of the theme.

In the last twenty years, for example, there has been an explosion of literary theory and criticism, biography and autobiography, history and sociology, all devoted to the theme and phenomenon of passing for white. In 1986, Deborah McDowell's provocative introduction to Nella Larsen's Passing was instrumental in securing Larsen new readers as well as sparking critical interest in the rich complexity of passing. Since McDowell's introduction, scholars as diverse as Judith Butler, Werner Sollors, and Henry Louis Gates have addressed this subject from their various points of view, adding to our understanding of passing as a literary device, a philosophical conundrum, and a historical phenomenon. [2] Gayle Wald and a host of other young scholars have first books devoted to theoretical and critical studies of passing. [3] Passing, it should be noted, represents a quickly evolving field of study with a complex history that has only begun to be written. [4] In addition to the scholarly books on passing, there have been many life-stories written for popular audiences. Life on the Color Line, for example, is one of several memoirs about passing that can claim bestseller status, and Shirlee Haizlipp's The Sweeter the Juice captured the attention of Oprah Winfrey and her audiences in 1995, perhaps inspiring other biographies and essay collections. [5]

This enormously rich production of nonfiction, when positioned against the few and limited representations of passing in contemporary fiction, is startling. How do we account for this contemporaneous fascination and disinterest in the passing figure? In pursuing the diminished attention to the passing figure in contemporary fiction, I am faced with either analyzing an absence (never an easy thing to do, despite the rewards) or examining the brief infiltrations and masked appearances of this discomfiting, controversial, or unwanted figure. Toni Morrison, with her many brief representations of passing, allows me to pursue the latter strategy. [6]

In examining Morrison's work, I have found it useful to divide the various representations of passing into three categories. In The Bluest Eye and Tar Baby, Morrison presents characters who are not capable of physically passing for white, and so the dynamics of crossing the color line are moved from the body to the psyche. In these novels, passing has been radically reconfigured to exclude the traditional light-skinned figure of ambiguity and replace this figure with allusion to and parody of racial passing. In Song of Solomon and Jazz, the traditional figure reappears, fully capable of passing for white and associated with the familiar themes of the fractured family and the conflicted identity; however, these novels present the passing figure indirectly through memories that are partially lost, distorted, or made ambiguous in the telling. Sing and Golden Gray, therefore, represent the traditional passing figure as a problematic and partially lost essence. Finally, in "Recitatif" and Paradise, two narratives that highlight the importance of racial identity even as they refuse to reveal which character is black and which is white, Morrison recasts the drama of passing between text and reader. Because the racial identities of some of the major characters are made obscure only to the reader and not to the characters within the narrative, the dynamics of passing moves with a metafictional playfulness between text and reader. The passing theme survives despite the removal of an essential passing figure because it highlights a passing dynamic. [7]

Characters Incapable of Passing for White in The Bluest Eye and Tar Baby

I n his afterward to M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang describes the importance of addressing cliched plots and perdurable stereotypes, stating that in order to "set pen to paper" he had to "break the back of the story" (95). Just as M Butterfly exists as a corrective, comment, and challenge to Puccini's Madame Butterfly, so too does Morrison's work address past stories. [8] In The Bluest Eye, Morrison provides perhaps the most dramatic refashioning of the passing figure through its main character, Pecola Breedlove, who is dark and "ugly," incapable of becoming a blue-eyed Shirley Temple. Pecola, without understanding her fantasies, longs for the good life she believes blue eyes will bring her; if desire could determine race, Pecola would be white.

Through the dark-skinned Pecola, Morrison reconstructs the passing figure as its visual opposite. Yet although Pecola hardly meets the physical qualifications of light skin and "good" hair, she does possess the key emotional characteristics: a desire for white privilege and an increasing disassociation from the black community. Ensuring that we do not miss her point--that Pecola is a passing figure despite her inability to pass for white--Morrison introduces "a high-yellow dream child" named Maureen Peal (52). It is the light-skinned Maureen who reveals Pecola's connection with the traditional passing figure, Peola, a character from a Fannie Hurst novel: "'Pecola? Wasn't that the name of the girl in Imitation of Life?'"(57). Maureen does not provide any more information than this, and so the ironic allusion to passing remains somewhat buried. [9] Readers familiar with the 1933 novel wrn recognize, however, that Morrison's Pecola is the visual opposite of Hurst's Peola. Yet Morrison does more than simply crea te an inversion of an older text or character. In repositioning the desire to cross the color line in the dark-skinned Pecola, Morrison creates a radically different drama while still referencing the past narrative.

Maureen Peal, who visually resembles Hurst's Peola, would have been the more logical offspring of the passing figure, but she instead functions as a foil for Pecola. Light-skinned and privileged, Maureen is the one, ironically, that voices the link to Hurst's Peola, though she does not recognize the significance of this link for Pecola or herself. While Pecola's name provides the actual allusion, Maureen Peal's vague awareness and naming of Imitation of Life lead the reader to the source, and while Pecola's quest for the bluest eye is reminiscent of the passing figure's desire for whiteness, Maureen Peal's light-skinned body provides the more corporeal link to the traditional passing character. These two characters, in this way, provide fragments of the past; nevertheless, it is Pecola who represents the greatest fragmentation. The most extended debate over the desire for whiteness, for example, takes place not between Pecola and her foil but between Pecola and herself:

I'd just like to do something else besides watch you stare in that minor.

You're just jealous.

I am not.

You are. You wish you had them.

Ha. What would I look like with blue eyes?

Nothing much. (150)

This conflict, which continues for several pages, takes place within Pecola's mind, and only she is convinced of her own transformation into nothing more than blue eyes, the rest of her becoming invisible.

In the final scene, as she descends into an irretrievable madness, Pecola seems an odd cross between Ellison's Invisible Man and Larsen's Clare Kendry: She becomes invisible to herself (except for the blue eyes) and invisible to others, while also becoming the center of attention. [10] Her unique delusion, disembodied blue eyes, seems a fitting metaphor for this paradox of being highly visible and invisible at the same time, about which the narrator reminds us when she tries "to see her without looking at her" (158). Although other writers have created passing figures who share this paradoxical quality, Morrison does not simply allude to past traditions through the metaphor of invisibility and the reference to Hurst's Peola. Morrison "breaks the back" of the traditional passing narrative by ignoring biology and phenotype for fantasy and the imagination. [11]

In her fourth novel, Morrison again returns to the theme of passing without supplying a single character who is capable of or willing to pass for white. Moreover, in reformulating the passing drama as a sham performance of racial confusion, Tar Baby refers to a narrative tradition without fully participating in it. The mock passing scene occurs when Son meets the dangerously beautiful Jadine and accuses her of being white. It is not the threat or possibility of literally passing that is at issue: Jadine, after all, does not and cannot pass for white. But passing operates as a threat even without the act, even without the possibility of passing taking place.

In place of the drama of dissimulation, Morrison asks her characters to reveal the cliches that threaten their humanity. Jadine and Son, the romantic leads, first attack and then forgive each other for approximating the stereotypes of tragic mulatto and black rapist:

"Rape? Why you little white girls always think somebody's trying to rape you?"

"White?" She was startled out of fury. "I'm not ... you know I'm not white!"

It doesn't matter that Son knows Jadine is not white; the accusation threatens more than rape.

"Oh, god," she moaned. "Oh, good god, I think you better throw me out of the window because as soon as you let me loose I am going to kill you. For that alone. Just for that. For pulling that black-woman-white-woman skit on me. Never mind the rest. What you said before, that was nasty and mean, but if you think you can get away with telling me what a black woman is or ought to be..." (121)

Here and throughout the novel, the contours of black identity are shaped by the stories that we tell, and passing for white is an accusation and a challenge--not an act. But why has the act of passing, in contemporary fiction, been replaced by allusions and mock recreations? To paraphrase Morrison, perhaps the traditional passing narrative is no longer a story we should pass on. Morrison ends Beloved with the refrain "It was not a story to pass on" (274-75). But as Rafael Perez-Torres explains, "'Pass on' signifies both rejection and acceptance" (181). Some stories, in other words, are too painful to repeat and so we must pass on them--as in 'pass them over.' But these same stories may be important to our history, and so we must pass on, or 'hand down,' these stories to future generations. Morrison highlights the tension between the desire to turn away and the need to face bravely those stories that threaten our sanity yet require our attention, stories that are full of pain and yet also hold the promise of w orking through the pain. [12]

Characters Capable of Passing for White in Song of Solomon and Jazz

Morrison's uses of passing in The Bluest Eye and Tar Baby, although somewhat indirect and insubstantial, become especially interesting when read alongside her more direct representations in Song of Solomon and Jazz. In place of allusion and inference, Morrison now names the act and enacts the drama. In Song of Salomon, for example, Milkman and two older women discuss the history of passing for white and speculate about Milkman's grandmother Sing. In Jazz,

Golden Gray begins his life as a white boy and susequently chooses to assert his black identity. Both novels make passing an explicit subject, resembling, in part, scenes in Nella Larsen's Passing and William Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom!; nevertheless, Morrison does not so much repeat the traditional narrative as provide metacommentary. Passing, in these novels, does not occur in the present but only in the past, a history that must be addressed. The passing story, Morrison seems to say, becomes interesting when we examine not the phenomenon of passing itself but the myth, stories, and debates that form around it. In reworking the traditional narrative, Morrison allows the passing figure to appear only to disappear under the weight of history and interpretation.

In Song of Solomon, for example, Milkman ventures south to find gold and instead discovers his family history. At first, he does not realize how important that history is to him. When a lost relative, Susan Byrd, suggests that family is "'important,'" he replies: "'No. Not really. I was just passing through, and it was just-just an idea. It's not important'" (292). But despite Milkman's dismissiveness, he returns the next day to ask Susan Byrd more questions, and when he finally discovers details about his grandmother Sing, "Milkman felt dizzy" (321).

Early in the novel, Morrison establishes the importance of Sing by making her a significant absence. Aunt Pilate, for example, tells Milkman, "'I don't know her name. After she died papa wouldn't let anybody say it'" (43). Milkman's father also has little information to share, "'I don't remember my mother too well. She died when I was four.'" Although he also remains ignorant of his own mother's name, Macon Dead does remember that his mother "'looked like a white women'" (54). This whiteness and the missing name both symbolize loss for the Dead family, and Milkman's journey leads him to question the significance of these facts.

He discusses these things with the light-skinned Susan Byrd and Grace Long, who are representative of the broken links in family. After their first conversation, Milkman is more confused than ever and leaves their house with the following thoughts:

...the Sing that lived here went to Boston, not Danville, Pennsylvania, and passed for white. His grandmother would have been "too dark to pass." She [Susan Byrd] had actually blushed. As though she'd discovered something shameful about him. He was both angry and amused...(292)

Milkman recognizes the internalized racism, the color consciousness of these light-skinned black women, who have tried to school him in the history of passing for white:

"[Your grandmother Sing] probably started passing like the rest of 'em, that's what." She leaned toward Milkman. "There used to be a lot of that. A lot of it. Not so much nowadays, but there used to be a lot of 'em did it--if they could." (290)

This scene, a short digression into the history of passing, serves to remind the reader of one of the many ways that families became cut off from their past. But though Sing could have been light enough to pass, she did not necessarily choose to, and her history continues to be shrouded in mystery. Nevertheless, the idea of passing for white is invoked, and it is, moreover, the mystery of whether or not Sing did pass for white that finally doubles her significance. The past, Song of Solomon argues, can never be fully retrieved, and the act of passing for white presents special challenges to those who need the past.

Although Milkman's problems with family, identity, community, and love are forcefully connected to the mystery of passing for white, it is important to remember that the passing theme remains a very small part of the novel. It is something that is alluded to, but never something that develops into a fully realized drama. Susan Byrd and Grace Long debate the idea, while Milkman considers the possibility and its impact on his family, but no passing figure is ever presented directly. Morrison is more concerned with how passing is conceived, debated, remembered, fantasized, and discussed and less interested in actually depicting the character or drama of passing. And so she keeps any actual passing figure at a distance. Perhaps this is the reason that she has Milkman leave Susan Byrd with the thought of "asking her if she had a photo album." Although he "wanted to see Sing ... he decided against it" (324). In this way, Morrison refuses us visible proof of Sing's ability to pass. It is ultimately considered unimpo rtant, yet Song of Solomon highlights both its desire and resistance to depicting the passing figure through Milkman's truncated quest to "see" Sing, through both his desire to see photographic proof and his denial of that desire. Passing, in many ways, gets represented as a forbidden desire. [13]

Morrison's dual attraction and resistance to developing the passing figure fully is most clearly manifest in Jazz, a novel that more fully develops the drama of crossing the color line. Introduced late in the novel, Golden Gray's story provides historical background to the main story of Violet and Joe Trace, who live in Harlem when it was in vogue, but Golden Gray's connection to the main characters and the dominant plot always threatens to break, and his Faulknerian story at times seems quite separate from what precedes it. [14] Morrison has created dramatic juxtapositions in her other novels, but Jazz, with its jazz-like rhythms and jumps, highlights the role of the narrator in shaping its form.

The narrator of the novel not only intrudes but comments on her own ability to get the story "right":

Risky. I'd say, frying to figure out any-body's state of mind. But worth the trouble if you're like me--curious, inventive and well-informed. Joe acts like he knew all .... So he didn't know. Neither do I, although it's not hard to imagine what it must have been like. (137)

The narrator's role in creating a past, using her imagination to supplement history, is continually highlighted throughout this lengthy section, the most continuous narrative in the book: "I see him in a two-seat phaeton" (143); "I like to think of him that way" (150); and "He would have said, 'Morning'" (155). The narrator, who is never more present than in this section, even scolds herself for having "imagined him so poorly" and for being "careless and stupid and it infuriates me to discover (again) how unreliable I am" (160).

In allowing her narrator these self-conscious moments, Morrison conveys a rather standard, albeit postmodern, suspicion of "truth." Truth, history, and identity are shaped by words and consciousness. Perhaps this theme can be seen in all of her work, but in connecting the problem of storytelling, which is the problem of interpretation, with the traditional and shopworn narrative of passing, Morrison offers something new. It is important to recognize how closely Morrison comes to lifting the traditional narrative out from the past and dropping it into her sixth novel.

The story of Golden Gray refers back to Faulkner and writers of his generation. For example, Golden Gray does not learn about his black heritage until he is an adult, at which point he speeds off to find and kill his black father. Confronted by his father, who tells him to "be what you want--white or black," Golden eventually chooses to embrace his blackness. Although the Oedipal struggle can be found in many traditional passing narratives, the scene--indeed the characters themselves--serves as background and only becomes interesting in relationship to the core story of Violet's unhealthy love for Joe. Passing, which is associated with the past, becomes important for understanding subsequent generations.

Golden Gray, the narrator suggests, is the unhealthy love that is situated in the past like a recessive gene. Violet, after all, learned about Golden from her grandmother. His golden story is Violet's legacy from the grandmother, True Belle, who took care of Golden. There is a less direct connection between Golden Gray and Joe Trace, whose mother, named Wild, was bewitched by Golden. But the narrator can and does "trace" both Joe and Violet Trace's unnatural and sick love back to this figure of racial ambiguity. Although the passing figure does not pass down his genes, he has an effect on the lives of those who come after him. Stories shape our lives, Morrison seems to be telling us, and the passing narrative, specifically the story of Golden Gray, may determine as much or perhaps more than do genes. This postmodern emphasis on the importance of language over genetics in structuring our world distinguishes Morrison from modernists like Faulkner, Larsen, and Chesnutt.

Characters Whose Racial Identity Is Obscured from the Reader In "Recitatif" and Paradise

Although I would argue that all of Morrison's novels show postmodern tendencies, "Recitatif" makes the greatest postmodern gestures. [15] "Recitatif," a rare short story from a dedicated novelist, restructures the drama of ambiguity so that it involves the reader in the impulse to fix racial meaning and to know the racial status of its characters. But even as it enjoins us to figure out the racial complexion of its characters, so too does it resist and deny the very possibility of knowing. Twyla narrates the long and erratic history of her friendship with Roberta, "a girl from a whole different race." Her account moves from early remembrances of the 1960s to the 1980s. Twyla relates the details of her life with a strange distance and as if she can see nothing in hindsight. She begins her narration by recalling, without embarrassment, how she felt when she first learned that she would be sharing a room in a shelter with somebody of a different race: "My mother won't like you putting me in here" (361). Twyla co nveys the importance that race can play in defining people and structuring the world, but this alone is neither inventive nor uniquely realized in "Recitatif." The strength of the story comes from Morrison's "removal of all racial codes from the narrative of two girls of different races." [16]

It is surprising, given the tremendous importance of Toni Morrison and the rich opportunities of "Recitatif," that very little has been written on this sole short story from one of the most important living novelists. The intelligence, authority, and exhaustiveness of Elizabeth Abel's "Black Writing, White Reading" may explain why little analysis has followed. [17]

"I was introduced to 'Recitatif,' by a black feminist critic, Lula Fragd," Abel tells us in the beginning of the essay.

Lula was certain that Twyla was black; I was equally convinced that she was white; most of the readers we summoned to resolve the dispute divided similarly along racial lines. By replacing the conventional signifiers of racial difference (such as skin color) with radically relativistic ones (such as who smells funny to whom) and by substituting for the racialized body a series of disaggregated cultural parts-pink-scalloped socks, tight green slacks, large hoop earrings, expertise at playing jacks, a taste for Jimi Hendrix or for bottled water and asparagus--the story renders race a contested terrain variously mapped from diverse positions in the social landscape. (471-72)

It would be difficult to add substantially to Abel's explication of the codes and how they work in this story. But Abel does not historicize the story, nor does she explore the importance of this story to Morrison's work.

If the basic structure of many traditional passing narratives relies on secrecy and the threat of exposure,

Morrison has shifted the power of knowledge from that between two or more characters within the story to a tension between reader and text. The reader, black, White, or other, becomes a character or participant in the racialist complications that have been set up by the narrator and her ambiguous use of language. "My writing," Morrison has said in an interview, "expects, demands participatory reading, and that I think is what literature is supposed to do. It's not just about telling the story; it's about involving the reader" (Tate 164).

"Recitatif" ingeniously anticipates and parallels the reader's concern to fix the racial identity of Roberta and Twyla by having the girls try to fix the racial identity of Maggie. Roberta argues that Maggie is black, while Twyla remembers her to be white. The debate creates anxiety in Twyla and Roberta and increases our sympathy for them; they ask, after all, the same questions that readers ask. The girls must struggle with their different versions of the "sand-colored" Maggie, wondering what role race played in their reactions to her, just as we must wonder what role our assumptions about their racial identities play in our reading of the story. If we somehow get to the end of the story without questioning our reading of the racial codes, then the debate over how to read Maggie, which takes place in the final scene, reminds us that all knowledge is partial and we each read out of our own identities.

Maggie's role as victim, emphasized by her "crippled" legs and her treatment by the sadistic "gar girls," becomes ultimately less interesting and more invisible than her role as a text for Twyla and Roberta to read race upon:

...I was puzzled by her telling me Maggie was black. When I thought about it I actually couldn't be certain. She wasn't pitch-black, I knew, or I would have remembered that. What I remembered was the kiddie hat and the semicircle legs. I tried to reassure myself about the race thing for a long time until it dawned on me that the truth was already there, and Roberta knew it. I didn't kick [Maggie]; I didn't join in with the gar girls and kick that lady, but I sure did want to. We watched and never tried to help her and never called for help. (372)

In Twyla's memories, Maggie's ambiguous race is tied to many other unknowns about personal responsibility and guilt. But it is finally this one thing, which only gains importance at the very end of the story, that remains ultimately unknowable. The passing figure and her unsure racial identity become central to the history that Twyla is trying to recover.

While Maggie is ambiguous because of her "sand-colored" skin, Twyla and Roberta are not. Morrison ingeniously counterpoints a more traditional passing narrative, a narrative which clarifies the race of the characters, against something that is very different, something that transforms tradition. It is in the interplay of these two stories that Morrison's experiment succeeds in inviting the reader to examine the reading process by seeing our own interest in fixing racial identity in relationship to the concern to fix Maggie's identity. But "Recitatif" does more than ask us to identify with its characters or narrator; it allows us to read the codes according to our conditioning and then asks us to examine that. Some may say that it sets a trap, but perhaps it simply reveals the traps that are everywhere around us. If we are as intelligent and fearless as Elizabeth Abel, we begin to see through our own cultural beliefs and conditioning. If we are as generous and wise as Morrison, we challenge others to do the s ame. [18]

In asking us to become participants in the creation of story, in both the delineation of character identities and in what their racial complexion signifies, "Recitatif" asks us to be active and not passive readers. In Morrison's most recent novel, Paradise, this strategy is repeated. Paradise begins: "The white woman was shot first." This provocative first line highlights the importance of race in much the same way that

"Recitatif" does. The novel also, much like the short story, refuses to solve the mystery of racial identity and instead asks its readers to examine the importance they place on fixing racial identity, hardly allowing them to remain passive readers or disingenuously uninterested.

Although Paradise, much like "Recitatif," remaps the passing dynamic onto reader and character, effectively creating a metafictional narrative, it also includes yet another brief reference to the tradition. Delia Best can and does shop in a whites-only store and must not be seen with her dark-skinned husband "because it would have been no use telling a stranger that you were colored" (200). But Delia Best, not unlike Sing and Golden Gray, appears as history, the dead and lost ancestor. Her story is told, furthermore, by the town historian, who happens to be her daughter, Patricia Best. Although the act of passing and even the figure of passing gets mediated through Pat and is not presented directly, Morrison does not replicate the same obfuscating strategies found in Song of Solomon and Jazz. Delia Best, in contrast to Sing, is clearly delineated as capable of passing and somewhat willing to pass for white. And in contrast to the narrator in Jazz, Pat Best does not reveal herself to be as unreliable. In this very brief representation of the traditional passing figure, Morrison continues her decentering strategy, but she also provides for the first time a contrast between a traditional and nontraditional or reconceptualized passing figure. Paradise, thus, makes use of two previous strategies.

Perhaps Patricia Best, the traditional passing figure, should be viewed as a counterpoint for the more prominent metafictional play that centers on the unnamed white woman, or nontraditional passing figure, in the first line of the novel. While the former strategy might be characterized as a decentering of the passing narrative, the latter defamiliarizes an old story. In the play between these two strategies, Morrison does the impossible-she passes on (i.e., both rejects and accepts) the traditional passing narrative.


Passing for white captured the imaginations of past writers because it was symbolic of America's contradictions-the rhetoric of equality and hierarchies based on race, the melting pot and Jim Crow laws, unity and division. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these contradictions were powerfully conveyed in passing narratives too numerous to mention. Although many of these same problems still plague this country, contemporary writers address a different audience and zeitgeist. Morrison has found ways, as this essay has argued, of revisiting the passing narrative without surrendering to its outmoded purposes and meanings. Other contemporary writers have not been so successful in "breaking the back of the story."

The recent controversy over the revival of Show Boat is illustrative. Protestors argued that it was racist and that new plays, with new images, should replace this outdated musical. Despite the protests, the tragic mulatto Julie (among other stereotypes) continued to be seen in theaters across the continent. Her passing for white is central to the musical, as is her self-sacrifice and death. [19] Although the controversy over the revival of Show Boat easily positions those who are repulsed by the stereotypes against those who are attracted (whether consciously or not) to the stereotype, other passing narratives invite more complex responses.

How do we, for example, read the inversion of the passing formula? Whose interests are served by those narratives that show white privilege trying to gain temporary rewards by passing for black in movies like Vice Versa and Tales of the City? Whether satire or serious drama, what messages do these stories hold and how are they related to the traditional passing figure? The uneasy comedy in these inverted passings is far more anxious than versions that might be labeled parodic. In movies like The Associate, Watermelon Man, and True Identity and in Eddie Murphy's Saturday Night Live skit "White Like Me," the darkskinned African American, with the help of modem techniques in make-up, passes for white with quite comical results. But do racial categories get reinforced or deconstructed in these comedies?

Mel Watkins, in On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying and Signifying, addresses the complicated problem of interpreting the black humorist's subject, which is aimed inward as well as outward toward white America. "And," Watkins goes on to say, "the comic vision assures that those who embrace it maintain vigilance on themselves even as they satirize the hypocrisy and follies of others" (567). The task of evaluating each satire for its ability successfully to challenge or critique insider and outsider communities is complex and ultimately outside the scope of this paper; it is, however, important to note that these many comic reversals fill the void created by a culture that still hungers for some enactment of racial ambiguity, some troubling of the color line.

Morrison's short story, with its parallel between our confusion and Twyla's and Roberta's confusions over their racial identities, makes sure that we realize the risks involved with this subject matter. Morrison has invented a striking metaphor, associating Maggie with her legs like parentheses, which invites us to imagine all that remains parenthetical to or buried within the main story of two girls of different races. As the tragic figure in the margins of this story, Maggie functions as a foil for Twyla and Roberta. But Maggie, more importantly, highlights the role that language plays in determining who we are and how others react to us. Because her race is passionately debated by Twyla and Roberta-and in much the same way that readers of the story may debate the racial identities of the girls- Maggie becomes representative of the text itself, specifically symbolic of "Recitatif" and its "removal of all racial codes."

As a human text that is read by the girls and as a form of punctuation that includes what might have been left out, Maggie represents language as mystery and complexity. Jan Furman has argued that the burden of Twyla's and Roberta's "young lives was bearable when pain, transformed to anger, was shifted to Maggie" (110). I would add that the pain of addressing the unique problem of the passing figure is shifted from a dynamic between various characters to a dynamic between the reader and the main characters, Twyla and Roberta. The burden of the passing story, in other words, becomes bearable when it is a metafictional tale, a story about the construction of stories, a fiction that turns outward to challenge. This gives us a sense of involvement and possibility. It is not, therefore, the friendship between Twyla and Roberta that holds hope; it is, instead, this new kind of fiction that requires our participation, promising wonderful opportunities for epiphanies that are no longer about theme or character but a bout the reading process itself.

Juda Bennett, an assistant professor of English at The College of New Jersey, is the author of The Passing Figure: Racial Confusion in Modem American Literature (Peter Lang, 1996) as well as several essays on popular and literary representations of racial passing. In addition to his scholarly pursuits, Professor Bennett writes fiction and co-edits the journal Transformations.


(1.) In examining the survival of passing fiction, this essay might have explored Charles Johnson's The Oxherding Tale (1982), Danzy Senna's Caucasia (1998), Ralph Ellison's posthumously published Juneteenth (1999), or Phillip Roth's The Human Stain (2000). I have passed over these interesting "anomalies" in favor of the multiple representations from a single author.

(2.) McDowell's introduction to Passing can also be found in her book The Changing Same: Black Women's Literature, Criticism, and Theory. For examples of the array of approaches to passing, see Judith Butler's "Passing, Queering: Nella Larsen's Psychoanalytic Challenge" in Bodies That Matter, Sollors; and Gates, "White."

(3.) See Wald; Kawash; Somerville; and Bennett.

(4.) For valuable, though limited, histariographies of passing, see Sollors; Berzon. Sollors's book, the most comprehensive of the two studies, is more broadly concerned with "Interracial Literature," and so passing is a subset of his concern. Nevertheless, there is one long chapter devoted to the topic and Appendix A (361-94) provides an invaluable list of texts, chronologically presented and covering works up to 1996.

(5.) See Derricotte; Hall. See also the collective histories edited by Lise Funderburg and Claudine O'Hearn, which include discussions and accounts of passing for white. Although passing for white has rarely been represented on television, an article in the June 1998 Soap Opera Digest suggests how hungry television audiences are for this theme: "Although it's been 12 years since Phil Morris left YOUNG AND RESTLESS, people still remember him. How could they forget? The African-American actor (playing law student Tyrone Jackson) put himself on the map by playing a controversial half-year plot in which he donned white face (as Robert Tyrone) to infiltrate the mob" (30).

(6.) I have excluded Sula and Beloved from the body of this argument. Although I have not used these two novels for this essay, they help to suggest the range of Morrison's handling of the passing theme. Sula, for example, never clarifies whether Tar Baby is actually black or white. "Most people said he was half white, but Eva said he was all white" (39). Along with Langston Hughes's "Who's Passing for Who?" and William Faulkner's Light in August, Sula highlights the complexity of passing by leaving the ambiguously raced character undefined. Morrison's fifth novel, Beloved, evokes the passing theme in a brief reference to a "bleached nigger" who gets his face shoe-blackened (260). Although this brief passage could allude to George Schuyler's Black No More, which describes how Snobbcraft and Buggerie were first bleached by Dr. Crookman's BLACK-NO-MORE machine and then later blackened with "shoe polish" (202), it more immediately suggests that race can be masked, complicated, and/or paradoxical.

(7.) See Morrison's discussion of race and writing in Playing in the Dark. In reinventing the passing narrative, Morrison effectively reveals her concentrated struggle to "free up the language from its sometimes sinister, frequently lazy, almost always predictable employment of racially informed and determined chains" (xi).

(8.) For a discussion of Morrison's "revisionary acts" against past authors and texts, see Awkward. Awkward positions Morrison's first novel against Ellison's Invisible Man, Dick and Jane stories, and other texts, but he does not explore how The Bluest Eye takes on the passing narrative. Morrison's revision of passing narratives may have remained unexamined because there is no central or quintessential narrative. Awkward's pairings allow him to position one specific text (Invisible Man) against another (The Bluest Eye). I have found it more useful to position Morrison's work against the dynamics of passing rather than against James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man or Nella Larsen's Passing.

(9.) Most people know this story through the 1959 movie, which changes Peola's name to Sara Jane, and so the allusion may be considered somewhat obscure. Although passing is not the central concern of either the book or the movie, scholars have been fascinated with this one aspect of the narrative, and so Morrison's allusion might be fruitfully read against this scholarship. See Berlant; Kawash 14-18; Smith; and Caughie.

(10.) For further discussion of the twin metaphors of invisibility and passing, see Wiegman 21-42.

(11.) The Bluest Eye also revises the traditional tale by focusing on a child and not an adult and then examining the responsibility of the community rather than the individual. Although these changes threaten to make the passing narrative unreadable, there are other allusions to the tradition. The classic scene of denying family, for example, takes place when Folly Breedlove refuses to name or claim her daughter, Pecola (87).

(12.) For more on the tension between telling and not telling, see Morrison's Nobel Prize lecture.

(13.) Marianne Hirsch describes Song of Solomon as mediating "between the too close incestuous literality of a nonsymbolic nonlanguage and the arbitrariness and uncaring distance that has made the characters 'dead'" (87). In examining how names function in this novel, Hirsch describes how Pilate becomes her mother by singing. But there is more weight to that name. Morrison accentuates how Sing's legacy is vocal and disembodied, but Sing's name, which had been nearly erased by the grieving husband's ban, survives. This creates a fascinating parallel to the survival of blackness, which the act of passing itself threatens. Passing is paired with Sing, whose name is lost, because they share the dynamics of secrecy and the loss of family ties.

(14.) Eusebic Rodrigues argues that "we easily make the cross-connections...that, for Violet, Joe was a substitute for Golden Gray" (258). Morrison does underline this and ether connections between the two stories, although the stories are set in different states, at different times, and with mostly different characters. But Morrison has also introduced a narrator who significantly highlights the distance and the problems with connecting these stories.

(15.) See Hogue, who positions Morrison in a Modernist tradition on the strength of Sula and Song of Solomon. "Recitatif," Jazz, Beloved, and Paradise would lend themselves to his later readings of postmodernity. It would not, for example, be difficult to apply these texts to Hogue's description of a postmodern narrative: "These texts critique and expose racial essentialism and deconstruct notions of racial wholeness and historical continuity. They show the Ineffectiveness of the pure notion of culture in a postmodern world" (193). For essays that situate Morrison in a postmodern tradition, see Rafael Perez-Torres, Marianne DeKoven, and Dwight McBride In Peterson's Toni Morrison: Critical and Theoretical Approaches.

(16.) See the preface to Morrison's Playing in the Dark (xi). Although she only mentions "Recitatif" in a parenthetical remark, her brief remark about this experimental story is situated in a longer discussion about what it means to be a black writer.

(17.) See Goldstein for another rare examination of this short story.

(18.) Morrison also challenges herself. Her Nobel Prize lecture is basically an allegory of how teacher and student must collaborate and learn from one another. The allegory begins with a classic tale of youthful presumption, but Morrison does not allow students to serve merely as a foil for the wise woman's intelligence. Their brash criticism of the woman suggests the importance of their role as challengers to wisdom and age.

(19.) Elsewhere, I have argued the "central" importance of passing to Show Boat, noting that "Julie's story of racial 'passing' structures the rest of the narrative, and ... actually bleeds through into Magnolia's story" (75).

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Publication Information: Article Title: Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative. Contributors: Juda Bennett - author. Journal Title: African American Review. Volume: 35. Issue: 2. Publication Year: 2001. Page Number: 205. COPYRIGHT 2001 African American Review; COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group