Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture.
By Baz Dreisinger.
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, November 2008. Paper: ISBN 978-1-55849-675-0, $24.95. 224 pages.
Review by Jackie R. Booker, Winston-Salem State University
Recently, scholars have witnessed an outpouring of works concerning racial passing in American society: for example, George Hutchinson’s excellent biography, In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography; Martha A. Sandweiss’s Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line; and now Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture by Baz Dreisinger.
In five succinct chapters, Dreisinger takes readers through the various mechanisms in which whites have used to imitate black culture. Her thesis, that some whites “chose blackness or brownness merely as a way to escape the stigma of whiteness and to avoid responsibility for owning whiteness is still very much an act of whiteness” (149). She also argues that whites seldom give attention to or pay respect to the very blacks they seek to emulate or copy. She wants whites, as self-identifiers, to be cognizant of the historical perspective in which they operate, to recognize it for its validity and give credit where it’s due—to black culture—rather than prostitute black culture, that is, earn money from appropriating black culture.
Dreisinger uses a number of filters through which to describe near-passing. Some novels and historical texts that cover slavery and Reconstruction, for instance, include William Wells Brown’s Clotel and Ellen Craft’s Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. In these works, Dreisinger describes the physical passing from white to black. In chapter two, she turns to whites who make an effort to become black through various means, including tanning or oil-skin dyeing. Chapter three continues the theme of some whites who pass for black via physical means, but Dreisinger also addresses how some white women pass. According to the author, passing on the part of white women usually occurs through interracial sex. Here, she uses narratives about interracial relationships but exhibits her best analysis through films. In Jungle Fever, Zebrahead, Save the Last Dance, and Black and White, she clearly demonstrates how and why these unions take place. Although she explores music and how some white women seek out black musicians for passing, this filter in chapter three is not as useful as her analysis of films. Nevertheless, her point is persuasive: some white women operate as “passers” to acquire sex from black men in a way that shocks and challenges white culture.
Chapter four moves the analysis to American music, especially jazz, rock-and-roll, rap, and hip-hop. Here, Dreisinger presents her strongest case for racial passing. Beginning with examples from the 1920s, she shows how whites initially referred to jazz as uncivilized music but as its popularity grew, some white jazz artists crossed over. Two prominent examples were Mezz Mezzrow and Johnny Otis, both of whom not only passed as black men in their music but also in their written works. Dreisinger does miss a key point when she fails to discuss bebop. Black jazz musicians developed this form of music to protect it from whites. Although she analyzes Elvis Presley as a passer, she did not elaborate on his interracial affair resulting in a bi-racial child. This section would have also benefited with a discussion of Alan Freed, the white disc jockey during the 1950s who coined the phrase rock-and-roll and played black music for white audiences.
The author brings out her best in an analysis of rap and hip-hop music. Born in the streets of Brooklyn and Harlem, rap personifies black masculinity and sexuality, so powerfully that once congressional hearings were held to discuss its impact on American culture. White rappers, among them Vanilla Ice, Fred Durst, Boss, and Eminem all embraced this genre of music when it became more socially accepted and whites in suburbs became the major consumers of rap and hip-hop. Quick to seize on the lucrative genre, some white rappers turned out to be frauds. Boss, for example, a female rapper from Los Angeles, came from a wealthy suburb and did not possess the authentic linkage of black rappers from rough areas like Watts and Compton. In addition, while white male rappers sometimes have sexual affairs with black women that help them in passing, it is more important for white male rappers to have links to black male rappers. Thus, white rappers like Fred Drust, Paul Walls, and Paul Barman have found “blackness” in collaborations with Method Man, Chamillionaire, and Prince Paul of De La Soul respectively. Some readers of Near Black may quibble about its unbalanced nature: for instance, its lack of discussion of Mick Jagger, a rocker known for racist comments but one who appropriates black music. Some may also question Dreisinger’s focus on mostly white male passers with less emphasis on white women as crossovers. Her use of the concept “post-racial society” also presents a problem. Racism remains a deep societal ill, despite the election of the nation’s first black president.
Overall, Near Black is a good read and highly recommended for scholars and lay persons alike. It would also make a good text in most American culture courses. Finally, the book makes a significant contribution to the growing genre of works focusing on racial passing.