Most white people who have ever heard of the term "passing," and know what it means, have probably seen the movie Imitation of Life.
Several years ago, my husband, who's white, watched the 1959 film with me. He was fascinated by the subject matter, and impressed that Imitation of Life had been made back in the 1950s.
I told him that this was the second version, and that the original had been produced in 1934. In that movie, I informed him, a "real black girl" played the part of Peola, the light skinned daughter desperate to pass as white. (In the 1959 movie, the daughter's name is Sarah Jane and she's played by white actress Susan Kohner). If you're not familiar with Imitation of Life, based on the 1933 Fannie Hurst novel of the same name, click here.
The real black girl mentioned above was Fredi Washington, an accomplished African American dramatic actress during the 1920s and '30s. Fair skinned with green eyes, she was often asked to "pass for white" in order to receive better opportunities in films. However, Fredi refused. "I'm honest," she said, "and you don't have to be white to be good." Here's some footage of her as Peola.
She faced discrimination from whites and, because of her appearance, resentment within the black community, which had complex feelings about obvious mixed-race people. Washington expressed her opinions about race and color prejudice, and after retiring from acting in the 1930's, became an activist and journalist.
In 1937, Ms.Washington was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America (NAG), which created better professional opportunities for blacks in show business. She also worked as Entertainment Editor of People's Voice, founded in 1942.
Never ashamed of who she was, Fredi Washington was no Peola!
Have you seen either version of Imitation of Life?
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