Thursday, July 14, 2011
Passing Strange by Martha A. Sandweiss, 370 pages
Clarence King was one of the premier geologists in the nineteenth century. He traveled the west, and mapped most of the American West, and was the first director of the United States Geological Survey within the Department of the Interior. He came from an old New England family, hobnobbed with the elite in New York and Washington, traveled Europe and was known as one the wittiest and brightest minds of his age. So why did this privileged white man have a secret second life as an black railroad porter? Because of the woman he evidently loved, a black, uneducated, former slave, Ada Copeland. It's believed that she didn't know he was white up until his death or right before. And most of his family and acquaintance knew nothing of his Negro wife or children until years after King's death, when Ada went to court to try to claim a "trust" left for her. With blacks passing for white in order to lead a better and easier life, why would anyone go the other way? This book explores this fascinating and confusing situation, looking at the people and attitudes involved.
This was a interesting look at a time in American history when the color of your skin was determined by just drops of Negro blood and perceptions were more important than truth. I had never heard of Clarence King before this book, but this was a compelling read that I'm glad I picked up.