February 15, 2019KR Reviews

On We Wear the Mask

We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America. Edited by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2017. 216 pages. $18.00.

One of my favorite historical films is Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa (1990), a story based on the 1989 autobiography of Solomon Perel, a German Jew, who was able to pass as a gentile in a Hitler Youth boarding school and eventually escaped the Holocaust. The most memorable scene in the film for me is when a Nazi expert on racial science uses Perel as an example of a German citizen with authentic Aryan pedigree, after careful measurements of his head and facial features. The film is an epic story of survival. Perel’s case rhymes well with the argument in We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America: that some people pass due to the gatekeepers of certain groups who perceive kinship in the person they think or feel is part of their tribe. But for whatever reason people pass—either through calculation or by accident—the process of passing is filtered through a spectrum of emotions that highlights the conundrums of identity, the usefulness of masquerade, and the beguiling contours of physical appearance. This collection wrestles bravely with those issues, not through the guise and deceptions of fictional narratives, but through personal accounts so deeply tied to the private aspects of family life.

Editors Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page argue that people pass because of opportunity, access, safety, fear, trauma, and shame, among other reasons. In many ways, these reasons work together as layers in the process of passing, as shown in this collection. But more so, they often latch on the idea of improving one’s station in life, which is the case with Brando Skyhorse himself, who was born to Mexican-American parents but became American Indian at the age of three, when his mother wanted to reinvent her family’s identity after his father abandoned them. Her decision appears to be a byproduct of trauma and shame. Now, according to Skyhorse, his mother is not biologically American Indian. In that light, did she feel more authentic as a person being American Indian than being Mexican-American? And so, Brando Ulloa became Brando Skyhorse and still goes with the revised name today. But since being American Indian has a certain currency in college admissions, Skyhorse made it to the top of Affirmative Action programs in college applications and eventually chose Stanford. Today, Wikipedia’s entry for Skyhorse identifies him as Mexican-American. But in an interview for his award-winning novel The Madonnas of Echo Park, Skyhorse underlines his mixed background “as if [he] were an immigrant, someone who moves between the worlds of Indian & Mexican culture, but into the ‘American’ world, too”.[1]

Patrick Rosal’s story of an awkward encounter at a National Book Awards ceremony stands out as the only piece in the collection that utilizes the epistolary form. Rosal attended the event to support a friend who was an honoree. But when Rosal excused himself from his table to see the friend at another table, a head-server intercepted Rosal and instructed him to do something for her. To this person, Rosal didn’t pass as someone who belongs in a literary event other than as help. Now, how does a professor, respected writer, and award-winning poet reflect on this kind of incident? Rosal writes a series of letters addressed to The Lady in Table 24, which meditates on the larger implications of her behavior. But they are more than letters; stylistically, they are illuminating prose-poems, paeans to the struggles in Rosal’s life, his family, the Filipino-American struggle itself, and how “the Mistake” reverberates to the “All-Black-People-Look-Alike Mistake” and  the “He’s-got-to-Be-the-Help-Because-He’s-Brown Mistake.”

In contrast to Rosal’s story, Lisa Page’s story of passing runs deep in family history. In fact, both her story and her husband’s story have enough tension and drama for a Netflix mini-series. Page’s father, Grady, is of Caucasian, West Indian, and Seminole extraction; he had a grandmother who passed as white and earned a college degree.  On the other hand, Page’s mother, Marge, is white, of Dutch and German ancestry. Interestingly, Marge’s mother was a fan of Adolf Hitler back in the 1930s. And true to the spirit of this admiration, Marge’s parents never approved of Marge’s interracial marriage to Grady. Seven years later, Marge filed for divorce, got a white boyfriend, and never had black friends again. The impact of this transformation is still devastating to Page. But this was also the time when Page was learning about her mixed-race body; Page still remembers her maternal grandfather telling her and her sister that “You’ll never be as dumb as colored people [ . . . ] because you’re half-white. But you’ll never be as smart as white people because you’re half-colored.”  Occasionally, Lisa could pass as white. From Marge’s point of view, this is a wonderful thing; in fact, Marge wanted Lisa to ground herself in the spirit of that perception, if she wanted to be successful.

In the early part of 1987, Lisa Page was still Lisa Johnson, the year she married Clarence Page, a journalist. Two years later in 1989, Clarence won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. As expected, Lisa’s mother, Marge, was not happy with her marriage to an African-American man. Now, if Lisa had married Clarence after he had won that prize, would Marge have been happier with the marriage? Would the Pulitzer have changed Marge’s perceptions of Clarence’s skin color? Years later, when Marge retired in Mexico, she would brag to her white friends that her daughter, Lisa, was married to Clarence Page, who now made regular appearances on public television, especially The McLaughlin Group. Like Marge, Clarence’s strategy for success also involves strategies of passing; but it’s a different type of passing, because it attempts to de-emphasize the element of race in social intercourse for something else. Clarence learned the value of passing as a child, when his grandmother told him that “You may not have a dime, but always look prosperous.” In fact, Clarence has been so successful with this game of trying to pass as rich that folks have turned to him for large donations, even though his budget is nowhere near the figures of the donor class. Now, if Rosal had passed as someone from the donor class at the National Book Awards ceremony—a major function organized by a non-profit organization, inundated with affluent donors—would the lady in Table 24 have mistaken Rosal for a server?

No doubt Clarence Page can taste the lingering sweetness of flattery every time someone mistakes him as a member of the class who has enough to give away. But one wonders if flattery is simply a prologue here or something indelible in gauging the extent to which one is able to pass as someone. In Gabrielle Bellot’s essay as a binary transgender woman, you can surmise a long archive of flattering moments after transition; she offers a glimpse into the anxieties and melancholies of someone caught in the struggles of becoming and not simply passing as a cisgender woman: “I was happier than ever, living as a woman, but now I knew more about what womanhood meant.” Gender reassignment subjects the body to a kind of complete physical transformation, where the idea of going back to one’s original gender opens a new paradigm of struggles and conundrums about identity, and, to an extent, mental health. And so, Bellot’s struggle to keep passing like a cisgender woman is the heartbeat of life itself. Unfortunately, Bellot has a problem with the language of passing, because it’s not precise enough to define her status, as it carries the weight of an ideal or an “ignorant form of idealization.”

Besides the authors mentioned above, the text includes other distinguished writers, such as Achy Obejas, Marc Fitten, Teresa Wiltz, Trey Ellis, Margo Jefferson, M.G. Lord, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Susan Golomb, Sergio Troncoso, and Rafia Zakaria. This anthology offers many revealing stories about the human body as a delicate object and perennial field of evolving, overlapping taxonomies. Here, the body propels melodrama, a site of contentions, ambiguities, and, of course, dreams and ambitions. But that body inspires high drama in the fragile membranes of the private, where one’s sense of correctness might hold the answers to personal improvement, meaning, and survival. The stakes run high when the private and public dimensions of the self are caught in questions about being authentic and performing authenticity.  Perhaps being is performing, and vice-versa. Readers who have an unrestricted affinity for memoirs will find this collection appealing, which vaguely courts the spirit of sociology, wherein the subtle object of study is the public in the first-person pronoun, both struggling to unmask and defend their truths in the body politic that is America.


[1] From the Wayback Machine: The very last sentence of this interview: http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Brando-Skyhorse/66513643/interview

Michael Caylo-Baradi
Michael Caylo-Baradi’s work has appeared in Galatea Resurrects, Our Own Voice, PopMatters, New Pages, The Common (Dispatch), Galway Review, Eunoia Review, Ink Sweat & Tears, Otoliths, and elsewhere. He is an alumnus of The Writers’ Institute at The Graduate Center (CUNY).