Cover image for A chosen exile : a history of racial passing in American life
A chosen exile : a history of racial passing in American life
Hobbs, Allyson Vanessa, author.
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press, 2014.
Physical Description:
382 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Prologue: To live a life elsewhere -- White is the color of freedom -- Waiting on a white man's chance -- Lost kin -- Searching for a new soul in Harlem -- Coming home -- Epilogue: On identity.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E185.625 .H63 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
E185.625 .H63 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
E185.625 .H63 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



Between the eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, countless African Americans passed as white, leaving behind families and friends, roots and community. It was, as Allyson Hobbs writes, a chosen exile, a separation from one racial identity and the leap into another. This revelatory history of passing explores the possibilities and challenges that racial indeterminacy presented to men and women living in a country obsessed with racial distinctions. It also tells a tale of loss.

As racial relations in America have evolved so has the significance of passing. To pass as white in the antebellum South was to escape the shackles of slavery. After emancipation, many African Americans came to regard passing as a form of betrayal, a selling of one's birthright. When the initially hopeful period of Reconstruction proved short-lived, passing became an opportunity to defy Jim Crow and strike out on one's own.

Although black Americans who adopted white identities reaped benefits of expanded opportunity and mobility, Hobbs helps us to recognize and understand the grief, loneliness, and isolation that accompanied--and often outweighed--these rewards. By the dawning of the civil rights era, more and more racially mixed Americans felt the loss of kin and community was too much to bear, that it was time to "pass out" and embrace a black identity. Although recent decades have witnessed an increasingly multiracial society and a growing acceptance of hybridity, the problem of race and identity remains at the center of public debate and emotionally fraught personal decisions.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

Historian Hobbs examines the possibilities, challenges, and losses that passing for white offered light-skinned black Americans. (Xpress Reviews, 8/21/14) (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

In contrast to most scholarship on racial passing, Hobbs (Stanford) focuses on the losses rather than the rewards that racially ambiguous individuals experienced as a result of their decision to assume a white identity. In addition to literary texts, Hobbs draws on a wide range of historical sources, including runaway slave advertisements, censuses, diaries, letters, and newspapers to demonstrate that from the late 18th through the early 20th centuries, racial passing was neither a hidden enterprise nor an individualistic endeavor. The decision of racially indeterminate men and women to reject their black racial identity deeply affected the larger communities they left behind. Hobbs, whose own family history is marked by the phenomenon of passing, contends that the losses-personal, familial, and psychological-outweighed the advantages that racially ambiguous persons accrued from passing, encouraging many of these individuals to "come home," as she calls it, by the 1940s and 1950s. Hobbs's cultural history of passing provides greater insight into the simultaneous malleability and salience of race in US life, and helps readers understand the continued tensions surrounding racial hybridity in the 21st century. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. --Meredith L. Roman, SUNY Brockport

Table of Contents

Prologue: To Live a Life Elsewherep. 1
1 White Is the Color of Freedomp. 28
2 Waiting on a White Man's Chancep. 71
3 Lost Kinp. 124
4 Searching for a New Soul in Harlernp. 175
5 Coming Homep. 217
Epilogur: On Identityp. 266
Notesp. 281
Acknowledgmentsp. 365
Indexp. 373