Thursday, April 2, 2009

Passing Strange

22. Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, by Martha A. Sandweiss

When Clarence King died in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1901, he was eulogized by friends like John Hay, private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State under McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and historian and memoirist Henry Adams. He was remembered as the first director of the United States Geological Survey, the man who exposed a diamond hoax that threatened the economy of the United States, a devoted son and confirmed bachelor.

He was all those things, except the last. The man who, in 1880, said that he had lost the only woman he had ever wanted to marry through too much attention to duty, in 1888 married a woman so far outside his social circle and standing that he did so under a false name, a false occupation, a false identity and a false race. For Clarence King, son of a prosperous China trader, interlocutor of Ruskin and Turner, guest at the White House, had fallen in love with Ada Copeland, an African-American woman born into slavery. He courted her under the name "James Todd", and told her he was a Pullman porter, a job which must mean that he, too, was African-American.

How this blond, blue-eyed man passed as black is more than a story of love and deception. It is the story of how this nation has interpreted race and how social and cultural assumptions translate into racial "certainties". It was interesting to compare how King used those assumptions to pass as black with way in which Belle da Costa Green used them to live as white (see An Illuminated Life). Although in some parts of the world distinctions were and are drawn between "white", "black" and mixed race ("colored", "mulatto" "mestizo"), in the world of Clarence King/James Todd any black ancestor made you black, no matter how you looked. At the same time, people took their cues about someone's race from their surroundings. So King, looking like this:

could be perceived as "black" simply because he was met in an African-American neighborhood, visited an African-American church, and claimed to be a Pullman porter, a job for which only African-Americans were hired. (Curiously, though, he was in fact a bit too light-skinned for that to be entirely credible, as light-skinned blacks were more likely to be dining-car attendants.) A census-taker would look at the "white"-appearing children of Ada and Clarence (James) and mark then as "black" upon seeing their mother. (In fact, their two daughters would eventually marry white men and list their race as "white" on the marriage license applications.)

When King was dying in Arizona, away from his wife and family in New York, he finally revealed his secret to her, via letter, and to certain of his friends. Because he had kept Ada in the dark as to who he was and what his real life was, because, in order to keep his secret, he had left no documentation of their relationship other than his letters to her (obviously, though, not under his real name), she had no idea of his true financial situation either. And he had, foolishly, made no provision for them in his will, which left everything to his mother. Based on things that he had told her, Ada believed that he had left money in trust for her and the children, and his friends arranged to have money sent to her each month, which she believed came from that trust. It was not until many years later that Ada sued in court to obtain the funds she believed were rightfully hers. The forces of privilege were marshalled against her.

Ada King died in 1964 at the age of 103. Did she hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak of his dream that "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood" and think of her own life? Did she hear "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" and think of her husband and children, whose races were judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the company they kept?

Sandweiss has written an engaging account of the lives of King and Copeland, separately and together. She has illuminated their relationship, and Ada's later legal efforts, through the prism of American social, class and racial mores. Her work is thoroughly researched, through interviews and consultation with primary sources, and any speculation (for instance, as to where and how the two may have met) is clearly labeled as such and is backed by credible argument.

Passing Strange is both a love story and a story of the racial and social divides of 19th-century America, and is successful at telling both.

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