In this letter to the editor of "The Chronicle of Higher Education" I respond to Professors Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Rudolph P. Byrd on their discovery that Jean Toomer was passing.
In their article "Jean Toomer's Conflicted Racial Identity," The Chronicle Review, February 11, the authors Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates Jr. claim that Toomer suffered from a case of "conflicted racial identity." Toomer, one of the first proponents of thinking about race in multiracial "American" terms, is now said to have been passing as white. The authors justify this assertion by presenting new evidence that Toomer identified himself differently based on location and situation.
It is true that Toomer most likely self-identified as "Negro" when he registered for the draft. It is also true that in Toomer's era, and the eras in which his ancestors were identified, census takers were allowed to list racial designation as they perceived it. So, whether Toomer is listed as white or black on the census may say little about his own thoughts on racial identity. It may, however, say much about how he was perceived by the person taking the census and/or responding on his behalf. A similar case can be made for the marriage licenses. In the absence of a handwriting expert, eyewitness, or recorded conversation, it is not verifiable that Toomer self-identified as white or whether he was designated as white by the licensor.
Nevertheless, Byrd and Gates maintain that Toomer had to be passing—and therefore engaging in racial deception—because it is not documented that any of his "direct ancestors chose to live or self-identify as white."
Flying in the face of decades' worth of scholarship that builds on Toomer's work, Byrd and Gates ignore Maria Root's "Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage." In it, Root states that multiracial people may identify differently over time, may identify differently than their parents or siblings, and that doing so is totally acceptable. As my colleague Ulli K. Ryder of Brown University put it, "It feels like Byrd and Gates have made a conflict where, in fact, there isn't one."
What's more, Byrd and Gates foreclose Toomer's attempts to enlarge the social imaginary and think differently about identity. Surely being black was one way to be multiracial in Toomer's time, but the mores of that time also said that he could not be multiracial and white. The authors also challenge the authenticity of Toomer's situational take on identity. I want to challenge their implication that an unchanging identity is somehow more stable or true than one that changes and questions itself. Don't we all somehow alter our identities over time? We identify in particular ways with parents, in other ways with friends, and still in other ways with co-workers and romantic partners.
We must also remember that before Jean Toomer, there was no way to publicly declare oneself and be accepted as both white and black. In light of this I propose that we stop thinking of passing as a form of denial or deception. Instead, as I write in my forthcoming book, Things Said in Passing, let us consider passing as a dynamic process of expression in which passers self-identify as monoracial, and not as multiracial for the sake of others (whether it's for clarity, comfort, or acceptance). That definition allows us to understand multiracial identities in Toomer's time in the absence of legal, social, and civil recognition, and to see race today less in terms of blood quantum, skin color, or family background, and more in terms of self-identification.
We also need to question whether passing as white is the only or most meaningful type of racial passing. If Toomer sometimes passed as white, then logic dictates that he also sometimes passed as black. But that is not what Byrd and Gates propose when they acknowledge his multiracial perspective. They maintain that Toomer "fled his identity" simply to further his career. Ironically, Byrd and Gates do not entertain the possibility that Toomer presents so eloquently in his writing and his life: a way of identifying as not-only-black and not-passing.
Sadly, the teachable moment that Byrd and Gates are seeking about the nature of race cannot be achieved by rehashing boxes checked on government forms. A truer teachable moment occurs when we treasure Toomer's life and writing as opportunities to question the very categories that tell us who we have been, who we are now, and who we might become for the purpose of positive change. I suspect that Toomer still has much to teach. And, if we are up to the task, we still have much to learn.