Privilege and Rejection of Identity through Racial Passing in Iola Leroy; or Shadow’s Uplifted
Considering its initial publication in 1892, during the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Frances E. W. Harper employs the meaning of racial uplift through passing. During the era of slavery, the phenomenon of racially passing was a common practice in that it gave way as a means to freedom. Often times, mixed-race subjectivity allowed for passing; if an individual were able to pass as white, they were granted “special” privileges through black eyes, but typical inherent privileges through white eyes such as education and fair treatment. The strategic usage and manipulation of the act of passing throughout the novel symbolizes the racial solidarity that was needed to get through difficult times, while showcasing the lengths at which people were willing to go through to achieve economic success by earning careers. In some ways, passing as white can be viewed as a strategy to acquire knowledge during a period of oppression against minorities; it is also a sheer survival tactic that reflects the power inequities within slavery. The act of passing in Iola Ler oy, or Shadows Uplifted not only signifies an internal longing for inherited privilege but displays a sense of giving up an identity.
The novel promotes this understanding of racial passing most extensively though Iola Leroy’s upbringing and her parent’s decision to raise her as white. Being that she is in fact a mixed-race woman who is remanded to slavery when her white father Eugene unexpectedly dies, the vital decision of her mixed-race mother, Marie, and father, Eugene, to mask her racial identity was one that was selfish and ultimately damaging to Iola’s identity. In speaking with Eugene, Marie states:
“No, no, it is not that I regret our marriage, or feel the least disdain for our children on account of the blood in their veins; but I do not wish them to grow up under the contracting influence of this race prejudice. I do not wish them to feel that they have been born under a proscription from which no valor can redeem them, nor that any social advancement any individual development can wipe off the ban which clings to them,” (72).
Maria and Eugene’s shrewd choice to withhold Iola’s identity stresses the importance of passing during the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Not only does Marie vividly express that she wants the best for her children, but she expresses that she does not want them to feel as if they are worthless and can not be compensated by their courage for their black heritage they possess. However, the tradition to pass as white to obtain better social, economic, and political opportunities asserts an inner discontentedness that is evident through thoughts of “whiteness” equating to a “good” life being one characterized by the privilege and affluence of the white upper class and “blackness” affording a life locked up with no escape route. In some cases, whiteness awarded opportunities that people of African descent did not necessarily have, but strategically choosing to pass as white displays a dissatisfaction with life in which nothing can help to alleviate and a denial of self-identity.
Deliberately neglecting or choosing not to identify as half of one’s ethnic identity shows an internal conflict of being in denial of one’s background. The meaning of mixed-race subjectivity is denoting or relating to people whose parents or ancestors are from different ethnic backgrounds. With that, choosing to pass as white symbolizes a concerted effort to reveal one portion of ancestry while concealing and rejecting another. Abandonment of a background, black in many cases during the Civil War era, unequivocally demonstrates an uneasiness with the trials and baggage a culture might afford. Similarly, the reactions from whites and blacks are different based on which ethnicity one chooses to identify with. White counterparts would typically be satisfied if someone of mixed-race subjectivity were to pass and identify as black because they were regarded as such by the one-drop rule, but if they were to identify as white, whites would most likely be discontent and angry because it would signify their privilege and opportunity being stolen from them for someone who is unworthy. If someone of mixed-race subjectivity were to identify as white, their black peers would most likely break all ties no matter what, whereas if they were to identify as black, they would be applauded and accepted through the forces of racial solidarity. This similar but different reaction accounts for the hardships that mixed-race people battled but also displayed the racial unity that was formed out of identifying with a certain race.
The multiple levels of discrimination and racial abuse that African Americans faced during Reconstruction required that later blacks commit themselves to racial solidarity. As a result of systematic discrimination, committing racial solidarity was practically deemed necessary as a means to confide with peers about certain issues within society. In an effort to reclaim the other half of her stolen identity, Iola Leroy claims African-American heritage and blackness as her sole identity. As Dr. Gresham attempts to propose to Iola, she tells him:
“Doctor, I did not choose my lot in life, but I have no other alternative than to accept it. I intend, when this conflict is over, to cast my lot with the freed people as a helper, teacher, and friend. I have passed through a fiery ordeal, but this ministry of suffering will not be in vain. I feel that my mind has matured beyond my years. I am a wonder to myself,” (114).
To be content with the dominant culture’s hostility toward blacks, cultural survival comes to depend less on secret alliances and more on open displays of racial unity. Iola realizes that the only opportunity she has for a good life is not to solely pass as a white person, but to embrace all that her African heritage offers. Despite being white complexioned and blue-eyed, her motivation in passing as black shows her publicly asserting loyalties to her race by taking full ownership. As Iola Leroy explains her longing for a job outside of the social normative like cooking, cleaning, and having children, she covertly symbolizes womanly empowerment. The act of claiming blackness as her ethnic identity not only shows her attempt to gain years of cultural unawareness that was withheld, but influences her want for a fixated job and leadership in the black community.
Through Iola’s role as playing a staunch advocate for racial equality, she ultimately works to become a motivating and strengthening force for the black race. Harper also exudes feminist qualities in which Iola’s independent spirit and desire to work outside the home as a teacher, accountant, nurse is explicitly noted. For Iola Leroy, “blackness” and “whiteness” mean much more than a social construct and instead dictate an entire world view. The phenomenon of racially passing as black shows Iola’s attempt to reunite with a culture once stolen from her, but also shows her banding together with her fellow African-American peers over a shared oppression. Thus, Shadow’s Uplifted must be understood as a book that uses passing not only as a central theme but also as a paradigm for analyzing the ongoing hardships of black life in the postbellum United States.
Works Cited Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins. Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2010. Print.