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. 
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.  Gayle Wald and a host of other young scholars have
first books devoted to theoretical and critical studies of passing. 
Passing, it should be noted, represents a quickly evolving field of
study with a complex history that has only begun to be written.  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. 
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. 
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. 
Characters Incapable of Passing for White in The Bluest Eye and Tar
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.  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
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.  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
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.  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. 
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
"White?" She was startled out of fury. "I'm not ... you know I'm not
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. 
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
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"
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
the internalized racism, the color consciousness of these light-skinned
black women, who have tried to school him in the history of passing for
"[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
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
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.  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
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
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
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. 
"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
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.
"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.
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
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
...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. 
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
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.  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.
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.
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
(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,
(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
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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