2023-2024 Events & Programs

Racial Passing: Efforts to Belong and Assimilate in the United States (Mini-Course)

Racial Passing 2023-2024

Date: Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Time: 07:00pm - 08:00pm

Discussions of who “belongs” in the United States are hardly new. From the very moment the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they were not only interested in who belonged in the United States, but also in who did not. In the nineteenth century, questions of “assimilation” and “Americanization” became prominent. These issues yielded codified laws and social norms that upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine, including enslavement, Jim Crow laws, and social antisemitism. As long as segregation existed, so did efforts to circumvent racial norms, especially since “belonging” in our republic entailed being white, male, and Christian. As a result, light-skinned African Americans who could pass as white began doing so in the antebellum period, both to save their lives and to circumvent racial/racist expectations. Jews, too, had a long history of “assimilating” into gentile culture, “passing” if their looks were deemed “not Jewish,” changing their names, and adopting gentile social behaviors.

This mini-course will explore African American and Jewish literary texts that engage the issues of racial passing and belonging in the United States. Readings for this mini-course will include discussions of memoirs and fiction, such as Nella Larsen’s Passing, Philip Roth's The Human Stain, and Langston Hughes's "Who Is Passing for Who?", among others.

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Mini-Course Three Sessions:

Week 1: Key Terms for Black & Jewish Intersections and Passings 

Sessions to be held through Zoom

In this first class, we will lay the groundwork for the course by discussing important terminology: passing, the color line, assimilation, conversion, name changing, and their importance for Blacks and Jews in the United States—with some reference to the Jewish experience in Europe. 

Readings (in .pdf form):  Langston Hughes,  "Who's Passing for Who?" (1953); the case of Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), "Baptism as a Ticket of Admission to European Society," and his conversion: https://blog.nli.org.il/en/heinrich-heine/.

Suggested Reading: Kirsten Fermaglich,  A Rosenberg by Any Other Name, introduction.

Session 1 ZOOM Recording


Week 2: Roth and Americana

Name Changing from American Pastoral

We will discuss a quintessential American writer, Philip Roth, and how his writing reflects many aspects of Americana, Jewishness, and a distinctive New Jersey identity. We will focus on Roth’s novel The Human Stain.

Reading: Selections from Philip Roth, The Human Stain (2000), pp. 5-14.

Suggested Reading, Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997), p. 20—image above.

ZOOM Recording Session 2


Week 3: Blacks, Jews and Racial Passing 

We will contrast racial passing for African Americans will assimilation for Jewish Americans. Our conversation with explore the various ways Americans create new identities for themselves, using excerpts from Nella Larsen’s novel Passing as our key text. We will also meditate on why the Netflix movie Passing (2021) remains popular among 21st century audiences.

Reading: Selections from Nella Larsen, Passing (1929), pp. 51-67.


Session 3 ZOOM Recording