There have been any number of books that exposed the horrors of slavery in America. But few have focused on a particular segment of slaves and descendants of slaves: those whose race is mixed to the degree it’s largely undetermined. In slavery times, these were the children produced from union by a black mother, usually not consensual, and a white slaveholder father. This is a history on racial “passing” into white society, how it was accomplished, the weight of that choice and any relevance today.
A Chosen Exile is full of examples of those who made the transition to living as white in white (usually urban) communities, those who were discovered and returned to slavery, and those who were mistaken as white but openly identified as black ⎯ and made a point of correction. Importantly, it goes into the emotional sacrifice of turning away from a part of yourself and disconnecting from family. That’s the payment extracted in the hopes of gaining a leg up, to live with dignity, to feed a family, to do more than just survive. The choice didn’t stop with the end of slavery but continued well into the 20th century.
One story detailed the escape of slaves Ellen Craft and her husband William. William said he came up with the complex plan.
It occurred to me that, as my wife was nearly white, I might get her to disguise herself as an invalid, and assume to be my master, while I could attend as his slave, and that in this manner we might effect our escape.
But it was Ellen who made her transformation so successfully to white southern gentleman. It worked to the point that, on the way to Philadelphia, young southern women fell all over Ellen saying what a “most respectable looking gentleman.” News of their method soon trickled southward, became legend and was replicated to varying degrees.
The term “racial ambiguity” is frequently used in the book. First to identify those of mixed race, but finally pointing to a larger meaning: when “passing” is no longer even relevant.
Highly recommend this book. It goes into great depth on the meaning of race, identity, loss and the need to thrive. Even though political backlash and racial tragedies are the consistent news of this day, through the details presented in A Chosen Exile, still I witness our slow march to freedom for all people.
I found my copy at the public library. Otherwise available on Amazon and elsewhere books are sold.