Do You Mind If I Pass?

The girls are in a production about the Civil Rights Movement.  I learned what ‘passing’ was.  It’s when a light-skinned African-American person used ‘white-only’ facilities.  Quietly, respectfully.  Not drawing attention.  Hoping just to sit on a train, for example, if they could.


Like me?

I heard my mother and grandmother discussing an event that happened a generation or two ago.  In the process of breaking up housekeeping of one of my great-great-grandparents, a photo was found.  It was a photo of a black woman.  On the back, it said one word…


At the time, I said nothing.  Sometime later, I referred to that event.  Mother just stared. It was anger and “I-don’t-know-what-you-mean?” at the same time.  Had she forgotten?  Was it a secret?


Whose mother? The answer is lost. Only Mother is alive to know it and, she isn’t talking.  There were the great-greats who both died, leaving the little girl who’d be my great grandmother, an orphan.  There is also the great-great who smoked cigars and only changed underwear twice a year–when she put on the winter underwear and when she took them off.  Her son would live 76 years, only to decide to end his life.

Someone kept a photo labeled, ‘Mama’.

My mother was born in the 40s.  My grandmother in the 20s. My great-grandmother died in 2005 at age 93.  If she was still alive, she’d be 101.  Given forty years for the two previous generations, that would place her grandmother’s birth in the year 1867.  Five years after the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation.  If by some chance my forebears in both those generations were older than 20 when my great-great was born, ‘Mama’ could have been born a slave.

It’s possible that the woman in the photo isn’t actually a relative at all, but a nanny.  Someone may have found a photo labeled ‘Mama’, and just never disposed of it.

Neither of those seem terribly likely, as this de-cluttering would have taken place before my grandmother was born.  Would it have been extremely likely that a white person, living in the 1920s in America, would keep a portrait of a black woman labeled ‘Mama”, if it held no personal meaning?

The photo, if kept, wasn’t kept by my branch of the family.  Of whom I am the only descendent.

May I pass?

Feel free.











  1. This is such an interesting story. I would be really curious about that, too.

  2. To me, the term conveys more than occasionally getting a white seat on the train. I think of it as transitioning into a new identity. It must have been a very painful experience, both for those who passed, and for the families they left behind. Is the concept new to you, or just the word?

  3. I’m sorry that our country’s history make sit so complicated for you to know your own personal history. Hopefully we can move towards an age where that is not a problem.

  4. jwilliams057 says:

    That is very interesting. I believe it is my nature that I would push and push until I got some kind of answer, but then I probably wouldn’t believe it unless it was the one I had been imagining all along.

  5. So interesting, I would be searching for answers too.

  6. I love this story. My family had lots of secrets that all came crashing down when I was 18 and one of my mom’s half-sister’s came around. I was confused because I didn’t know there were more aunts and uncles! Many interesting things happened…some are still a secret. Amazing! Thanks for sharing! Stopping by from SITS today!

  7. Strange how a strong love based word such as “Mama” can cause such emotion when attached to a picture from a divided and complicated time. My grandmother (an Italian immigrant) used to tell us stories of riding a bus to Georgia and being made to ride in the back because her skin was so dark.

  8. I LOVE a mystery, especially one possibly rooted in our family’s history. Your writing style is wonderful, it’s like having a conversation with you in person. If nothing else, this would make a great starting point for a fiction! Thanks for finding me yesterday, and congrats to you to for making “the list”.

  9. Beautifully written story!


  1. […] conflicted past that made her one of my favorite posts of the week. It all began when Maggie from Accidentally by Design overheard some family members discussing an old photo one of them had found. It was a photo of a […]

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