Stories of racial deaths, from Nella Larsen’s pages to Detroit’s upper class

Elsie Roxborough was born in 1914 in Detroit to one of Michigan’s most prominent black families. When she died in New York in 1949, her death certificate listed her race as white. She had lived there as a white woman for more than a decade, working for a time as a model while aspiring to acclaim as a playwright.

“She goes to New York almost immediately after graduating from the University of Michigan, said Ken Coleman, a journalist who researched the Roxborough family. Elsie Roxborough “at least professionally changed her name to Pat Rico at one point, then eventually Mona Manet, and her brown, brownish-black hair becomes auburn Lucille Ball.”

Roxborough represents one of Michigan’s few documented historical examples of a black person choosing to live almost full-time as a member of white society. This phenomenon, known as racial crossing, has received renewed popular attention thanks to recent artistic works like Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel. Who passed and Britt Bennett’s novel Half evanescent.

A striking aspect of Elsie Roxborough’s story is both her ability and her choice to step away from her position as a visible member of the American black upper class.

University of Michigan Alumni Association


Bentley Historical Library

Prolific playwright Elsie Roxborough was born into a wealthy black family in Detroit. But when she died in 1939, her death certificate listed her as white.

Elsie’s father was elected Michigan’s first black state senator in 1930. As a child, Elsie spent her summers in Idlewild, an elite black resort community in Manistee. She dated boxer Joe Louis; their joint refusal of a marriage engagement made headlines in 1935. At the University of Michigan, she was among the first known black students to live in a dormitory on campus. She had a strong network that included fellow schoolmate and Michigan Daily colleague Arthur Miller, and a close connection to Langston Hughes, who saw her as an up-and-coming writer.

Despite his talent and connections, Roxborough saw racism as a ceiling to his success.

Elsie Roxborough adapts to times which suggest to her, in order to be what she ultimately wants to be — a great playwright — that it is advantageous for her, because of her fair skin, to pass on, to cease to be a Negro or to be colored to be white,” Coleman said.

How common was it for black Americans to live across races like Elsie Roxborough?

It’s hard to say. By design, passing stories tend to get lost in history. But the evidence suggests that cultural representations of death were far more frequent and socially powerful than the actual cases.

“I don’t think it was that common,” said Sandra Gunning, professor in the Department of African American and African Studies and the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan. And, she pointed out, “different contours of overcoming are expressed depending on what is happening”.

“There’s always the assumption that if the person comes across as white, then they reject blackness.” Gunning said. “You might have people doing it not because they’re necessarily avoiding the dark, but because at the time it’s something they have to do.”

For example, to escape slavery in Georgia, light-skinned Ellen Craft and her dark-skinned husband William posed as a white gentleman traveling with his enslaved servant in 1848. And at least three black men passed to enlist in all-white regiments to fight. for freedom at the start of the Civil War, before the Union recruited black soldiers.

More commonly, light-skinned blacks who might have passed refused. A few have made a public point about their choice, such as writer Charles Chestnutt (a famous neighbor of the Roxboroughs in Idlewild).

“He sees his job as using his fiction to confront white people with their fears and completely false assumptions about black people,” Gunning said. “So it has mixed-race characters, but it uses them to say to the white reader, ‘What’s the difference between you and this character?'”

“I view passing literature as part of a larger, longer tradition of writing about this light-skinned, mixed-race character,” Gunning said.

Since before the revolution, African-American writers have used mixed-race personalities to challenge white supremacy.

“By the time you get to Nella Larsen and other writers of her time, eugenics is at an all-time high,” Gunning said. Many Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries believed that you could look at someone’s characteristics and draw definitive conclusions not only about their race, but also about qualities like intelligence, health or crime.

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Passageby Nella Larsen

Real or fictional light-skinned black people, physically indistinguishable from white people, suggested the manifest absurdity of this false racial “science”.

“Part of what the writers are saying is that this racial hierarchy, this racial philosophy is nonsense because if it were true, you couldn’t have an overtake, could you?” Gunning said.

Gunning said she appreciated Hall’s artistic choices in Who passed that continue to destabilize contemporary audiences’ expectations of what whiteness and blackness look and mean.

“We use the same [racial] terms that appeared in the 18th century. So the movie sort of warned us, and that confuses us. I mean, how far are we in 2022 from all the eugenics hypotheses that were rampant in the 19th century and early 20th century? »

Calvin W. Soper