The passing of David Matthews

A new memoir chronicles author’s quest for peace amid turmoil of racial identity.

In Harlem Renaissance author Claude McKay’s 1931 short story “Near-White,” Angelina Dove, a pale African American hoping to move up in the world, asks her mother “if some people are light enough to live like whites, why should there be such a fuss? Why should they live colored when they can be happier living white?”

Apparently many did. According to “The White African American Body,” by Charles D. Martin, a professor of literature at Florida State University, Ebony magazine published an article in 1948 titled “5 million U.S. white Negroes.”

The story, Martin wrote, proudly reported an upsurge in the number of African Americans who crossed the color line undetected by Jim Crow America. The article’s centerpiece was a series of photographs. The reader was invited to guess which person was black and which was white. Of the 14 portraits, three were white.

One of these “millions” of “white Negroes” was Anatole Broyard, the New York Times literary critic who, for decades, protected the Ivory Tower of European high culture from the unwashed proletariat while also “passing” for white, to the extent that even his wife and children didn’t know of his African ancestry until after his death in 1990.

Broyard’s hidden identity was revealed by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in a piece titled “The Passing of Anatole Broyard” for the New Yorker in 1996. The practice of racial passing, and the serious questions the social phenomena raises about the metaphysics of race and the paradox of racial identity, received wider attention four years later thanks to Philip Roth’s novel “The Human Stain” and its eventual movie adaptation.

In the decades since Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which have witnessed the rise of black nationalism, hip-hop, political correctness and influential black figures like Tiger Woods and Barack Obama, one might think passing for another race an archaic endeavor – discouraged by proud enfranchised blacks, dismissed by guilt-ridden whites.

As David Matthews demonstrates in his new memoir, “Ace of Spades,” however, passing continues. Like Angelina Dove, Matthews passed for white for the first 20 years of his life – throughout the 1970s, ’80s and into the ’90s – as a means of living more happily in an America still in thrall to the oppressive requirement of identification according to race.

Written by the son of a white Jewish woman and black journalist for the Baltimore Afro-American, “Ace of Spades” chronicles Matthews’ coming of age and his reconciliation with the ultimate cost of having traded one color for another.

“I wanted access,” Matthews writes. “I wanted the benefit of the doubt. … This America smiled back at blacks, but it was more the indulgent smile of a listener who, having already heard the joke, waits patiently for the punch line. I knew there was only one thing to be in Baltimore, America, and that was white. … Life for me was not a war between black and white, or rich or poor, it was a life sentence that could be commuted only by whiteness, real or imagined.”

The gravity of choosing a racial identity came into sharp focus on the first day Matthews entered a new elementary school. Seeing his pale, slightly yellowed skin, his classmates demanded to know what race he was. Never having considered it before, he didn’t know what the right answer was, but he sensed, given the urgency of their questions, that a wrong answer was possible.

“I was David Ralph Matthews,” he writes. “That had been as far a depth as I’d ever needed to plumb. Those first few moments in the hallway had alerted me to the importance they (and to a larger extent, Baltimore, and even larger extent, America) place on white or black. Pick one.”

From that day forward, Matthews was white, a practice his father, Ralph Matthews, whom he lived with (his mentally deranged mother had by then decamped to Israel), must have been aware of. Part of David’s passing was a disavowal of a father who embodied, to him, all the negative connotations of blackness.

Skateboarding in the park one day with a gaggle of white friends, he noticed his father applauding (David had just done a cool trick): “While I was proud that he had seen me, and had seen me commended by my friends, I was not proud enough to acknowledge the little black man by the fence clapping gently.”

When a friend inquires about the solitary spectator, “I shrugged, ‘Beats me … watch this,’ and skated away hard.”

Ralph eventually warns David he will not be able to carry on the charade long. His body, Ralph said, will mature to betray David’s effort to veil his “African” features.

Ralph echoes the mother of Angelina Dove, who warned that the ambiguity of race poses a greater threat to light-skinned blacks than obvious blackness: The mother, who is also fair, said the whites “hate us even more than they do the blacks. For they’re never sure about us, they can’t place us.”

The potential for white violence is immediately apparent when the brother of a white girl David is dating takes him to an isolated spot under a bridge. Backed up by his drunken buddies, the brother demands to know “What are you?”

Again, there is definitely a wrong answer.

Ultimately, David is wrenched between the forces of those who define him (as black, white, even Jewish) and his own desire to define himself as a human being. The journey of “Ace of Spades” is one every high school student ought to read, as it is a discussion of race that’s candid, complicated and, most of all, necessary.

As he notes, trying to explain – to us and to himself – the conflicted emotions experienced by those of mixed race in America: “I was not a racist; I was a hater. I hated the netherworld in which I found myself, the one that tacitly reassured me that it would shun, relegate, fear and ignore all of me if I acknowledged half of me. Half-black, eighth-black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon – all meant black. … I wanted to be black – charred black as pitch – so there could be no doubt; then America would have to confront me, fear me, let me revivify myself and my wounded spirit on poisoned grains; my blackness unequivocal, I would become a potent figure, a black-gloved first raised in triumph at the Olympics, a menacing reminder of America’s failures.”

This article was originally published in the Savannah Morning News on Jan. 14, 2007.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.