The Performance of Racial Passing

Generational Identity, Passing, and White Supremacy in Mark Twain's The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson and Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half —Whose Tragedy Is It?


Studies in American Literature

Hannah Arkorful

While Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson is a work of fiction, its depiction of the world in which white-passing, Black people lived in the early 19th century America is true to the reality of that time. Pudd'nhead Wilson is about the cultural shift within the Antebellum Southern United States. It is about re-imagining the concept of race, and the complicated relationship between whiteness and Blackness—between social obligations and personal freedom. The novel is an indictment of whiteness, it examines personal invention in a world where ambiguity is a threat to the social order. It reveals the desire to transform, and the extent humans will go to to exist. In this paper, I will examine white privilege, white supremacy, passing, and how racism sustained this practice in Mark Twain’s Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) and Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half (2020). There is this mutual understanding between passing and oppression; without it, there would be no need to pass—institutional racism and other forms of discrimination would not exist. These novels are understood to be tragedies, but they also explore race to be something of an absurdity, and in doing so they ask the question, whose tragedy, is it?  

Mark Twain’s Pudd'nhead Wilson proved to be much more serious, dark, and tragic than anything I could expect from his writing, which is not to say that this is a bad thing. In that sense, the book was a pleasant surprise. When Roxana (Roxy), a one-sixteenth Black slave concludes that she would rather kill her child and commit suicide then risk being sold down the river, there is an overwhelming sense of her needing to go out on her terms. Roxy’s one-sixteenth African American blood is what determines whether she is viewed as a Black person or white person. The narrator states: “To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one-sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a negro. She was a slave and salable as such” (Twain 23). In this context, the one-drop rule is a tool of white supremacy, a social order that was meant to complicate the increase in amalgamation—the mixing of two races. To maintain white supremacy, whiteness must be considered “pure”—an anxiety rooted in eugenics and scientific racism. Blackness was considered a contaminate, something that was going to taint the genetic pool. It is not only used as a defence in anti-miscegenation laws, but in the concentration of white power and supremacy. When Roxy dresses her baby in nice clothing before attempting murder and suicide, she thinks about switching her child with the slave owner's child. Being that both infants are the same age and skin tone, it was visibly impossible to tell the difference between the two. With the options being to be sold down the river or continue living through extreme forms of violence, by committing suicide she would not only be trying to save her child but doing something final—choosing her own ending.  It is interesting that we see an almost perversion of white supremacy's core tenant—that white people can and should be dominant, overrule, and overpower other races within Roxy’s genetic background. Although her racial makeup is predominately white, because white supremacy insists that Blackness on even the most minute level is inferior, a person with a predominately white racial makeup becomes a victim of white supremacy. In no other aspect of the Antebellum era can we expect a minority to be considered dominant in the way that they were during this time.  

Tom Driscoll’s upbringing is based on this false reality, he is a cruel person, specifically towards other Black people and slaves. His temperament is the direct result of being surrounded by this world of whiteness, such that it is meant to place him higher than other Black people.  The narrator states: “Chambers was strong beyond his years, and a good fighter; strong because he was coarsely fed and hard worked about the house, and a good fighter because Tom furnished him plenty of practice––on white boys whom he hated and was afraid of. Chambers was his constant body-guard” (67). Race is revealed to be in part a performance, and Blackness as a perception. It is not only about white supremacy and slaves, but about what slavery does to the individual—the slave and the slave owner. They become immoral, inhumane people, it is almost stating that slavery should be abolished not only because Black people deserve equal rights, but because it negatively impacts the slave owner too—a common but misguided talking point in abolitionist culture. As stated by abolitionist and author Austin Steward: “Whips and chains are everywhere necessary to degrade and brutalize the slave, in order to reduce him to that abject and humble state which slavery requires. Nor is the effect much less disastrous on the man who hold supreme control over the soul and body of his fellow beings. Such unlimited power, in almost every instance transforms the man into a tyrant; the brother into a demon” (Steward 108). 

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half examines twin sisters Stella and Desiree Vignes, who come from a small town called Mallard. This town is different in that its inhabitants, in what is predominantly Black space, are so light that the unfamiliar person might mistake them to be white. The narrator states: “The founder of Mallard dreams of a refuge for mixed-race people like himself. Implicit in his dream is the belief that Black people are inferior. The light-skinned founder passes his own prejudice on to succeeding generations of Mallard residents” (Bennett 5). Their daughters, Jude (Desiree’s daughter) and Kennedy (Stella’s half-white daughter, fathered by a white man she met while passing and working as his secretary) are directly shaped by their mothers, yet they are a new generation, the first to break their mother’s past. The Vanishing Half is not only an exploration of race, but of colourism, and how that can impact a person as they grow up. 

Stella is nursing this internalized anti-Blackness as she passes in the role of a white woman. An internalized racism that stems from a traumatic event she witnessed as a child (the murder of her father by racist white men), causing her to hide behind the freedom and shield of whiteness. In this passing perspective, Stella is seen from an outsider's perspective, as someone selfish and racist, who would abandon others for her own sake. Through Stella’s eyes, however, she is a scared Black person who is desperate to transcend the racist ideology and societal structure of her time and is using her privilege in passing to attain it. Racism is, in part, the opportunity for one group to make themselves feel better by acting out to oppress others, including those that are oppressed themselves. It questions whether you can leave your past behind you, a theme that is also present in Pudd'nhead Wilson—can you leave your past behind and start something new? The twins escape thinking they could be in control of their own destiny, but as they come into adulthood and develop their own identities, their time spent in Mallard subsequently follows them, shaping their decisions and where they end up. It is possible to live separate lives through separate decisions, but as seen through the twins' contrasting paths, they exist within the parameters of their past. As Bennett juxtaposes race, gender, class, and sexuality, she does not simplify the outcomes of their choices but instead complicates them to expose the convoluted hierarchies within American culture and society. Pudd’nhead Wilson was published alongside “Those Extraordinary Twins”, a story about Italian-born conjoined twins Angelo and Luigi. It is an interesting distinction that they are twins, opposed to being brothers or cousins—especially considering that Tom and Chambers are a version of twins. There are parallels between both stories, they almost foil each other. Angelo and Luigi have been joined together since birth, while Tom and Chambers were switched at birth. Luigi saved Angelo from being murdered by a thief, Chambers saved Tom from drowning. It questions the nature of individual identity and power, what it means to move from a position of “we” to “I”.  

In having a Black mother and white child, they are both your family members. In public spaces, your Black mother is identified as Black and treated as such; but your white child has only ever been seen and will only ever be treated as such. They are a generation connected by someone who is in the in-between, someone seen as “mixed”. Their only difference being that one has the option to walk through the world relatively unburdened by race, and the other living through the world feeling its hurt because of their skin colour and features. In the Jim Crow south, out of the need to survive, many light-skinned children passed and were raised as white, white in skin tone and identity, although they were of Black lineage. Whiteness in the south was constructed in an environment of systematic dehumanization through economic exploitation. It was used to differentiate between those with power, and those who were disenfranchised from the system and the opportunities that came from being in it. In passing, one could re-claim their power, this was something done by their own choice—when the American dream was something understood to be attainable. Mothers with young passable children would have to ask themselves: should I let my child live as a Black person, or should I let them pass? In this instance, Roxy and Stella chose the latter. The narrator of The Vanishing Half states: “She’d imagined, more than once, telling her daughter the truth, about Mallard, and Desiree, and New Orleans. How she’d pretended to be someone else because she needed a job, and after a while, pretending became reality. She could tell the truth, she thought, but there was no single truth anymore. She’d lived a life split between two women—each real, each lie.” (260) The choice to let someone pass was out of necessity, passing meant securing your place in society, where you could live as a normal being. These characters understood the opportunities that present themselves when opting out of your Blackness.  

It is through passing that white supremacy presents new challenges; some people have grown into their adulthood as white children in white families but are presenting as Black to achieve personal success as “race saviours”. Rachel Dolezal (now known as Nkechi Amare Diallo), the former American instructor and activist, claims Black ancestry (Blackness and Black womanhood)—despite being born to white biological parents. Similar to American historian and activist Jessica Krug, they manipulated their way to success, denying women of colour the opportunities they claimed themselves. In contemporary culture, I would argue there is this demand for racial authenticity, a confirmation that is built on the anxieties there are towards passing. With racial passing being an act of survival in response to Black enslavement, those of Black parents who could pass as white people did so to be perceived. They had to erase their past to create their future. It is not only an emotional, but social sacrifice—it is as strategic as it is sentimental.  

With Dolezal and Krug, their claims of Blackness are self-serving, individualistic in the sense that they do not exist in a world that is working against them. If the question is whether or not you can live differently from the life you are trying to escape and starting to enter, the answer continues to be probably not—you still live within the parameters of your past. As the narrator in The Vanishing Half states: “You can escape a town, but you cannot escape blood. Somehow, the Vignes twins believed themselves capable of both” (6). Using their white privilege, they are silencing Black people, those whose Blackness is not as easily identifiable. As Bennett said in the New York Times Style Magazine essay, “The Performance of Passing” (2021), “Oh, I thought, [Dolezal] thinks Blackness is suffering, and because she has suffered, she feels that she is Black. It didn’t help that after she was discovered, many Black folks seized on pain as a reason her masquerade was offensive. If she hasn’t suffered from being Black, the argument went, then how dare she take part in the beauty and joy?” (par 13). Laura Brownson’s documentary The Rachel Divide (2018) opens with a questions from Dolezal, who asks: Who’s the gatekeeper for blackness? Who can protect it, define it, own it? Do we have the right to live exactly as we feel? (Brownson 04:40–04:55). Dolezal and Krug’s underlying and unconscious desire to pass is rationalized by a moral consideration that’s desire is not only unclear, but aided by the rationalization they have created—to be Black while being born to white people. They do not understand the reality of their desires and the fantasy of their rationalizations—they seem to be only acting according to their desires. When this false narrative is disrupted, when they are told that they are not Black, which happens the be the truth, it is to say that at the root of it these rationalizations are the same desires they are against—which causes them to feel misunderstood and wrong accused. We can welcome the complexities of racial experiences, but to work towards dismantling white supremacy, there needs to be questions directed towards racial anxiety. But, it needs to be done through one's lived experiences, not through living a lie. When racial identity is the difference between struggling, surviving, and existing, there needs to be accountability, an upholding of the systems that force us to claim, perform and live authentic identities. In Pudd'nhead Wilson and The Vanishing Half, the characters are arguably as self-serving as Dolezal and Krug. They want certain opportunities and a chance to escape their past. Though, what are Dolezal and Krug gaining by passing as Black women? The same question directed towards Tom and Stella is more obvious—freedom.

Hannah Arkorful

Hannah Arkorful (she/her) is a third year graphic design student at OCAD University. She was born in Toronto, where she still resides.  

Works Cited 

  • Bennett, Brit. “The Performance of Racial Passing.” The New York Times, The New York    Times, 2 Mar. 2021,  
  • Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half. Penguin Group USA, 2022.  
  • Steward, Austin. Twenty-Two Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman: Embracing a Correspondence of Several Years While President of Wilberforce Colony, London, Canada West. Andrews UK Limited, 2012.  
  • The Rachel Divide. Directed by Laura Brownson, 2018, Netflix, 
  • Twain, Mark. Pudd'nhead Wilson ; and, Those Extraordinary Twins. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015.