Former Clevelander and author Gail Lukasik named her recently published memoir White Like Her. Subtitled My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing, Lukasik tells the story of her mother, Alvera Frederic Kalina, who changed her racial identity from black to white when she married in 1944 and moved to Cleveland. With that move, she abandoned her black family and racial heritage and in her mind, became white like the man she married.
Alvera hid her secret from the world until her daughter made the discovery when she was tracing her family tree. Her mother’s birth certificate and that of her grandfather and other relatives ,along with census records, showed that her mother and other relatives were black. When confronted with such concrete evidence, Alvera refused to admit her mixed-race heritage. In her mind, her life as a black person was over when she married and left New Orleans, the city of her birth. She begged her daughter not to reveal her secret. For 17 years, until her mother’s death, Lukasik continued her research but did not reveal her findings outside her immediate family.
Stories of passing — a term used to define the process of abandoning one’s cultural identity and adopting another — are traditionally associated with a light-skinned black person who assumes a white identity. People of color living as white have been the theme for many literary works in the late 19th and 20th century. Clevelander Charles W. Chesnutt, a black man who could have easily passed for white, wrote a significant number of stories about black people passing for white around the turn of the 20th century. Many of the stories take place in Cleveland which he fictionalized to be Groveland, Ohio.
Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larson’s 1929 novel Passing is recognized as a classic in the genre, telling the story of a black woman who passes for white while struggling to live in a world with the ever-present fear of someone discovering her race. John Howard Griffin demonstrates a reverse side of the story in his 1961 book Black Like Me. He chronicles his life as a white man who temporarily darkened his skin and traveled in the Jim Crow South of the late 1950s, living the black experience firsthand. His story is different from the others in that when the experiment was over he returned to being a white man.
Hollywood has brought the story of passing to the big screen several times. One of the first was the 1934 production of Imitation of Life. In a 1959 remake, Natalie Wood plays the light-skinned daughter of a black woman who, because of her fair complexion, was able to change her racial identity. In 1949 Mel Ferrer made his big screen debut in Lost Boundaries. Cast in the role of Dr. Albert C. Johnson, his character shows the trials and tribulations of a black man passing for white a small New England town. In 2003 Anthony Hopkins played the leading role in Human Stain with a similar theme. It tells the story of a college professor who was racially black but held himself out as a white man. When he is accused of making a racial slur, he gives up his academic career rather than admit his true racial identity.
Lukasik, who grew up in Parma, intertwines her mother’s story with bits and pieces of African-American history, especially about her great great grandfather who fought in the Civil War, and details of her research, sometimes to the excess. Based on information she found, she was able to piece together vignettes about other relatives. I found her use of fictionalized letters as a vehicle to speak in what she believed would have been her ancestors’ voices a bit contrived. She also tells the story of her childhood with a mother who told wonderful stories of her past but when asked about her parents and why she did not want to visit New Orleans, would change the subject or say the subject was too depressing to talk about.
In retrospect Alvera must have had a very sad life. She wore makeup constantly, apparently to cover any hint of her olive complexion. Before going to bed at night she would add another layer of makeup, saying that you never know when you might get sick in the middle of the night and end up in the hospital. She told her daughter she always want to look good. The truth was she always wanted to look white.
Alvera never went in the sun, and when she was forced to, she always wore a hat and even gloves. She was stuck in an abusive marriage with an alcoholic husband, but sadly she had burned her bridges in terms of returning to her family. How could she even think of introducing her husband, who Lukasik describes as a bigot and racist, to her black relatives? As a child, Lukasik didn’t think much of her mother’s quirky behavior. As an adult she realized that much of her mother’s life was a deception, all to hide the deep dark secret of her racial heritage.
In our 21st century world of mixed-race marriages and blended families, the concept of passing may be a thing of the past. Having grown up in a family with many light-skinned relatives, I remember overhearing whispered conversations about someone who was passing. Back then there was an unwritten code of honor among black people that you would never out a person who no longer identified as a black person.
Lukasik is a college professor who teaches English and is an author of several mystery novels. When interviewed about her book, she says that the search for her roots was comparable to solving one of the mysteries in her novels. As a result of an appearance on the Genealogy Roadshow, she has connected with her black relatives, hopes to make a documentary about her mother’s life and is on the lecture circuit talking about race as a social construct.
I guess I’m still living in the age of the one-drop rule — the social and legal principal of racial classification that reigned for most of the 20th century. It held that any trace of sub-Saharan African ancestry made you black, no matter what your skin color. Following that rule, Lukasik could take the step across the color line and identify herself as black. She doesn’t go that far. She continues to define herself was a white woman with some mixed-race relatives.
It’s up to the reader to decide: is Lukasik black like me or white like her mother wanted to be.
C. Ellen Connally is a retired judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the President of the Cuyahoga County Council. An avid reader and student of American history, she serves on the Board of the Ohio History Connection, is currently vice president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission and president of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table. She holds degrees from BGSU, CSU and is all but dissertation for a PhD from the University of Akron.