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Langston Hughes, « Who’s appeared amazed and delighted to meet
all at once two Negro writers and a black
Passing for Who ? », 1956.
painter in the flesh. They invited us to
have a drink with them. Money being
scarce with us, we deigned to sit down at
One of the great difficulties about being their table. The white lady said, « I’ve
a member of a minority race is that so never met a Negro writer before. » The
many kindhearted, well-meaning bores two men added, « Neither have we. »
gather around to help. Usually, to tell the
truth, they have nothing to help with, « Why, we know any number of white
except their company–which is often writers, » we three dark bohemians
appallingly dull. Some members of the declared with bored nonchalance. « But
Negro race seem very well able to put up Negro writers are much more rare, »
with it, though, in these uplifting years. said the lady. « There are plenty in
Such was Caleb Johnson, colored social Harlem, » we said. « But not in Iowa, »
worker, who was always dragging said one of the men, shaking his mop of
around with him some nondescript white red hair. « There are no good white
person or two, inviting them to dinner, writers in Iowa either, are there ? » we
showing them Harlem, ending up at the asked superciliously. « Oh, yes, Ruth
Savoy–much to the displeasure of Suckow came from there. » Whereupon
whatever friends of his might be out that we proceeded to light in upon Ruth
evening for fun, not sociology. Friends Suckow as old hat and to annihilate her
are friends and, unfortunately, in favor of Kay Boyle. The way we flung
overearnest uplifters are uplifters–no names around seemed to impress both
matter what color they may be. If it Caleb and his white guests. This, of
were the white race that was ground course, delighted us, though we were
down instead of Negroes, Caleb Johnson too young and too proud to admit it. The
would be one of the first to offer Nordics drinks came and everything was going
the sympathy of his utterly inane well, all of us drinking, and we three
society, under the impression that showing off in a high-brow manner,
somehow he would be doing them a when suddenly at the table just behind
great deal of good. You see, Caleb, and us a man got up and knocked down a
his white friends, too, were all bores. Or woman. He was a brownskin man. The
so we, who lived in Harlem’s literary woman was blonde. As she rose he
bohemia during the « Negro knocked her down again. Then the red-
Renaissance » thought. We literary ones haired man from Iowa got up and
considered ourselves too broad-minded knocked the colored man down. He said,
to be bothered with questions of color. « Keep your hands off that white
We liked people of any race who smoked woman. » The man got up and said,
incessantly, drank liberally, wore « She’s not a white woman. She’s my
complexion and morality as loose wife. » One of the waiters added, « She’s
garments, and made fun of anyone who not white, sir, she’s colored. »
didn’t do likewise. We snubbed and high- Whereupon the man from Iowa looked
hatted any Negro or white luckless puzzled, dropped his fists, and said,
enough not to understand Gertrude « I’m sorry. » The colored man said,
Stein, Ulysses, Man Ray, the theremin, « What are you doing up here in Harlem
Jean Toomer, or George Anthell. By the anyway, interfering with my family
end of the 1920’s Caleb was just affairs ? » The white man said, « I
catching up to Dos Passos. He thought thought she was a white woman. » The
H.G. Wells good. We met Caleb one nigh woman who had been on the floor rose
tin Small’s. He had three assorted white and said, « Well, I’m not a white woman,
folks in tow. We would have passed him I’m colored, and you leave my husband
by with but a nod had he not hailed us alone. » Then they both lit in on the
enthusiastically, risen, and introduced us gentleman from Iowa. It took all of us
with great acclaim to his friends who and several waiters, too, to separate
turned out to be schoolteachers from them. When it was over the manager
Iowa, a woman and two men. They requested us to kindly pay our bill and
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get out. He said we were disturbing the « She’s part white herself. » « Read
peace. So we all left. We went to a fish her, » we advised. « Also read the
restaurant down the street. Caleb was Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man. »
terribly apologetic to his white friends. Not that we had read it ourselves–
We artists were both mad and amused. because we paid but little attention to
« Why did you say you were sorry, » the older colored writers–but we know it
said the colored painter to the visitor was about passing for white. We all
from Iowa, « after you’d hit that man- ordered fish and settled down
and then found out it wasn’t a white comfortably to shocking our white
woman you were defending, but merely friends with tales about how many
a light colored woman who looked Negroes there were passing for white all
white ? » « Well, » answered the red- over America. We were determined to
haired Iowan. « I didn’t mean to be epater Ie bourgeois real good via this
butting in if they were all the same white couple we had cornered, when the
race. » « Don’t you think a woman needs woman leaned over the table in the
defending from a brute, no matter what midst of our dissertations and said,
race she may be ? » asked the painter. « Listen, gentlemen, you needn’t spread
« Yes, but I think it’s up to you to defend the word, but me and my husband aren’t
your own women. » white either. We’ve just been passing for
white for the last fifteen years. »
« Oh, so you’d divide up a brawl « What ? »
according to races, no matter who was
right ? » « Well, I wouldn’t say that. » « We’re colored, too, just like you, » said
« You mean you wouldn’t defend a the husband. « But it’s better passing for
colored woman whose husband was white because we make more money. »
knocking her down ? » asked the poet. Well, that took the wind out of us. It
Before the visitor had time to answer, took the wind out of Caleb, too. He
the painter said. « No ! You just got mad thought all the time he was showing
because you thought a black man was some fine white folks Harlem–and they
hitting a white woman. « « But she were as colored as he was !
looked like a white woman, » countered
the man. « Like some Negroes pass for Caleb almost never cursed. But this time
white, » Caleb interposed. « Anyhow, I he said, « I’ll be damned ! » Then
don’t like it, » said the colored painter, everybody laughed. And laughed ! We
« the way you stopped defending her almost had hysterics. All at once we
when you found out she wasn’t white. » dropped our professionally self-conscious
« No, we don’t like it, » we all agreed « Negro » manners, became natural, ate
except Caleb. Caleb said in extenuation, fish, and talked and kidded freely like
« But Mr. Stubblefield is new to colored folks do when there are no white
Harlem. » The red-haired white man folks around. We really had fun then,
said, « Yes, it’s my first time here. » joking about that red-haired guy who
« Maybe Mr. Stubblefield ought to stay mistook a fair, colored woman for white.
out of Harlem, » we observed. « I After the fish we went to two or three
agree, » Mr. Stubblefield said. « Good more night spots and drank until five
night. » He got up then and there and o’clock in the morning.
left the cafe. He stalked as he walked.
His red head disappeared into the night. Finally we put the light-colored people in
« Oh, that’s too bad, » said the white a taxi heading downtown. They turned to
couple who remained. « Stubby’s temper shout a last good-by. The cab was just
just got the best of him. But explain to about to move off, when the woman
us, are many colored folks really as fair called to the driver to stop.
as that woman ? » « Sure, lots of them
have mor white blood than colored, and
She leaned out the window and said with
pass for white. « « Do they ? » said the
a grin, « Listen. boys ! I hate to confuse
lady and gentleman from Iowa. « You
you again. But, to tell you the truth, my
never read Nella Larsen ? » we asked ;
husband and I aren’t colored at all.
« She writes novels, » Caleb explained.
We’re white. We just thought we’d kid
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you by passing for colored a little while–
just as you said Negroes sometimes pass
for white. » She laughed as they sped off
toward Central Park, waving. « Good-
by ! » We didn’t say a thing. We just
stood there on the comer in Harlem
dumbfounded–not knowing now which
way we’d been fooled. Were they really
white-passing for colored ? or colored-
passing for white ?

Whatever race they were, they had had
too much fun at our expense–even if
they did pay for the drinks.

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