A picture of Clarence King is well worth a thousand words. That’s because readers of Martha A. Sandweiss’s scrupulously researched work about this celebrated 19th-century explorer, geologist and writer — whom Secretary of State John Hay called “the best and brightest man of his generation” — are likely to ask one question: What, exactly, did he look like? Fortunately, “Passing Strange” includes photographs.
King, you see, was a white man who for 13 years passed as black. For many, that is unimaginable. Didn’t pigmentation give him up? It didn’t, because, as King’s story reaffirms, race is not really about skin color. If it were, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Walter White, for instance, could never have identified himself as “a Negro,” served as executive secretary of the N.A.A.C.P. or written this paradoxical sentence: “The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.” Race is the emperor’s new clothes: we don’t see it; we think it.
So goes the unspoken mantra behind the spate of books related to racial passing that have surfaced in the past decade or so. Philip Roth’s “Human Stain,” Bliss Broyard’s “One Drop,” Brooke Kroeger’s “Passing” — all suggest that passing is hardly passé; it’s new and improved, embracing narratives not just of the “traditional” black-to-white variety but also of the white-to-black, gay-to-straight and female-to-male kind. Like these, Clarence King’s is “a peculiarly American story.” Sandweiss, a professor of history at Princeton, says it represents “the possibilities and limitations of self-fashioning, the simultaneous rigidity and porousness of racial definitions, the fluidity of urban life.”
“Passing Strange” meticulously — sometimes too meticulously; the book can be plodding — recounts the unlikely convergence of two lives: King was born in 1842 in Newport, R.I., to parents of longstanding American stock, and Ada Copeland was born a slave in Georgia, months before Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter. Copeland, like most slaves, is woefully underdocumented; we know that she somehow became literate, migrated to New York in the 1880s and found a job in domestic service. King, by contrast, is all but overdocumented; after schooling, he went west as a surveyor, summing up 10 years of work in two books, including the 815-page “Systematic Geology,” which told, one historian said, “a story only a trifle less dramatic than Genesis.”
The pair met sometime around 1888, somewhere in bustling New York. By telling Copeland he was “James Todd,” a Pullman porter from Baltimore, King implied his race; a white man could not hold such a job. They married that year (though without obtaining a civil license), settling in Brooklyn and then, as Copeland had five children, Flushing, Queens. All the while King maintained residential club addresses in Manhattan, where colleagues knew him as an elusive man about town. Living a double life is costly, and King’s Western explorations never quite delivered returns, so the Todds were always broke.
With every page of “Passing Strange” — as King runs off yet again to the frontier, or to Cuba or the Bahamas, leaving his pregnant wife, Sandweiss imagines, “exhausted and grateful for her husband’s visits, however short or infrequent they might be” — I liked King less. Details denote an unflattering portrait: his sport of “slumming” in places like Manhattan’s Tenderloin district — as a precursor to Norman Mailer’s “white Negroes” — and his passion for “primitive” women, ogled on trips to Tahiti and Hawaii. Ultimately, a lacuna lies at the heart of Sandweiss’s book: she tells us that “King loved Ada, and she loved him back,” but do we really know that? Even his letters to his wife — relating “the daily comfort of remembering that far away in the East there is a dear brown woman who loves me” — struck me as disingenuous.
Before King died of tuberculosis in 1901, he confessed his real name in a letter to Copeland. She lived to 103 — one of the few former slaves alive at the time of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech — and during the legal battle for her husband’s estate she was, curiously enough, represented by an eminent black lawyer who had once passed as white. Her two daughters also passed as white; from decade to decade, the census alternately designated her children “black,” “mulatto,” “Negro” and “white.” What’s strange, then, is how very unstrange all this is: racial-passing stories are not historical oddities but strikingly familiar tales, long woven into the fabric of American life.