"Veiled Aristocrats": The Problem of Racial Passing in Oscar Micheaux's Race Films

Saturday, January 8, 2011
Ballroom C (Hynes Convention Center)
Allyson Hobbs , Stanford University, Stanford, CA
Oscar Micheaux, the most successful and prolific early African American filmmaker, wrote, directed and distributed forty-three feature films in the years between 1913 and 1951. In these films, Micheaux explored a wide range of issues related to African American life in the early twentieth century: the importance of land ownership, the promise of the American West to deliver the rights of citizenship that were violently denied in the South, the valorization of bourgeois marriage, ideals of sexual purity and the problem of intraracial class conflict. My poster focuses on a theme that has received less scholarly attention: the featuring of the phenomenon of racial passing in many of Micheaux's films. Racial passing is the self-conscious act of representing one's race as something other than what one knows it to be. Micheaux critiqued this practice and bemoaned it as a strategy of “false uplift,” an inauthentic, dishonest and cowardly form of class mobility. My poster asks: why did Micheaux turn to the phenomenon of racial passing in many of his films to explore the problem of race in early twentieth century American life? My poster expands on scholarly discussions of passing by exploring the complex family relationships presented in two films, The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) and Veiled Aristocrats (1931). I use the treatment of passing in these films to examine the work that passing does on more intimate registers—laying bare the high emotional stakes and threats to familial coherence that passing entails. Micheaux's films offer a window onto the ordinarily inaccessible spaces of early twentieth century black family life. These films shed light not only on the ways that racial identities are ascribed, but also on the ways that people live their identities through their family locations. An exploration of the connections between passing and black family life in Micheaux's films exposes the profound sense of loss and the painful familial ruptures that passing left in its wake. A poster session is an ideal venue for a presentation on the relationship between family dynamics and the politics of passing in Oscar Micheaux's films. My poster will be accompanied by a laptop computer that will feature stunning visual images—“the look in the eye” that leads to the revelation of the protagonist's racial identity and the unfortunate timing of a dark-skinned mother who arrives only to ruin her nearly white son's marriage proposal to a white woman. I will rely on visual media, including stills and video clips, advertisements, photographs and film reviews, to present Micheaux's politics on passing and to reveal the connections between racial identity and familial identity. This project is drawn from my book manuscript that explores the history of racial passing from the moment when passing became a problem in the late eighteenth century to the moment when it reportedly “passed out” in the 1950s. My work challenges the idea that passing was merely an individualistic or opportunistic practice; instead, I present this phenomenon as deeply embedded in familial relationships and communal politics.
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