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By Toi Derricotte

A professor invites me to his “Black Lit” class; they’re

reading Larson’s Passing. One of the black

students says, “Sometimes light-skinned blacks

think they can fool other blacks,

but I can always tell,” looking

right through me.

After I tell them I am black,

I ask the class, “Was I passing

when I was just sitting here,

before I told you?” A white woman

shakes her head desperately, as if

I had deliberately deceived her.

She keeps examining my face,

then turning away

as if she hopes I’ll disappear. Why presume

“passing” is based on what I leave out

and not what she fills in?

In one scene in the book, in a restaurant,

she’s “passing,”

though no one checked her at the door—

“Hey, you black?”

My father, who looked white,

told me this story: every year

when he’d go to get his driver’s license,

the man at the window filling

out the form would ask,

“White or black?” pencil poised, without looking up.

My father wouldn’t pass, but he might

use silence to trap a devil.

When he didn’t speak, the man

would look up at my father’s face.

“What did he write?”

my father quizzed me.


“Passing” is from Tender, by Toi Derricotte, © 1997. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.

Source: Tender (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997)

  • Social Commentaries

Poet Bio

Toi Derricotte
Born in Michigan, Toi Derricotte is the co-founder of the African-American writers retreat, Cave Canem, and Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh. A two-time poetry fellowship recipient from the National Endowment for the Arts, her literary memoir, The Black Notebooks, won the 1998 Annisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction.

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