Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Book Review - Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line

This was a fascinating book, and if you’re interested in American biographies, science or social history, I think you’ll really enjoy it. It's the true story of a white man born in the 19th century who leads a double life. Clarence King was a famous American scientist, author and explorer, and the first Director of the US Geological Survey. But he was also known as James Todd, a black porter, and later salesman, who lived with his wife, Ada Copeland Todd and their children in Queens, NY.

The title of the book seemed unusual to me. I knew what the story consisted of, but it wasn't until halfway through the book that I realized the title was a play on words for a deeper historical term, called “racial passing.” Passing refers to a person “classified by society as a member of one racial group who chooses to identify with another, usually because of social and economic reasons.” This was done most frequently in the South, where light-skinned black children of mixed marriages passed themselves off as “white” as they moved from their hometowns.

In America, the “one-drop rule” was constitutional until the 1960s, and children with any African ancestry were automatically classed with the lower socioeconomic or ethnic group. So it’s understandable why some people chose “passing” to help them get ahead. But this was not the case for King. No one questioned if King was African American, even though he was light-skinned. He passed over the color line to be with the woman he loved.

Sandweiss did an excellent job in researching the family history that surrounding Clarence King. He grew up in a house full of women, and was very well educated. King knew many famous people and had close friends, but no one ever knew of his double life until he was on his deathbed. He died of tuberculosis in Phoenix, Arizona, and was buried in Newport, Rhode Island, near his mother. Kings Peak in Utah, Mount Clarence King, and Clarence King Lake at Shastina, California are named in his honor. The US Geological Survey Headquarters Library in Reston, Virginia, is also known as the Clarence King Library.
Brewer Party of 1864:
James T. Gardiner, Richard Cotter,
William H. Brewer, and Clarence King

On the other hand, there is very little known about his wife Ada, who was born into slavery. Ada Copeland Todd King died in Flushing, N.Y., in 1964, at the age of 103, in the house that John Hay, one of Clarence King’s close friends, had bought for her anonymously.

As Sandweiss sums up in her epilogue, “King lied because he wanted to and he lied because he had to. He loved Ada Copeland, but to marry her in a public way - as the white man known as Clarence King - would have created a scandal, cost him his friends, devastated his mother, and destroyed his livelihood... King’s secrets protected her [Ada] as well... . Only now can we begin to discern the ways in which King’s extraordinary life might help us think about broader social issues in late-nineteenth-century America: the possibilities and limitations of self-fashioning, the simultaneously rigidity and porousness of racial definitions, the fluidity of urban life.”


Nancy said...

Just think about how many Americans at that time lived their "white" life and had a secret life on the side. We know about a few of them, but if there were a few, there must have been many. Very interesting. It makes you wonder if a lot of people did see the wrongness of slavery but still played it out anyway because that was how society was set up.

tori said...

Wow, that's a very interesting tale. It's amazing the things that go on behind the scenes in history.

Rose Works Jewelry said...

Looks interesting :)

BeadedTail said...

I hadn't heard of this book but it sounds very interesting. It's incredible he was able to pull off the double life during that time. I'll have to put this on my "to read" list!

Very Verdant said...

The racial tension of America is a shameful bloch in our history and often in our present day. I am always amazed at the perserverence and strength of those who must fight prejudices to survive. I will definitely be getting this book for myself.

Splendid Little Stars said...

I have heard of him, but not this book. It sounds very interesting. Right now I'm listening to "the Autobiography of and Ex-Colored Man" by James Weldon Johnson (fiction). I love the voice of the reader, Allen Gilmore.

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