By Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
A Black Woman Passing as White
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This book is a work of historical fiction and tells about Belle da Costa Greene, who was the personal librarian of J.P. Morgan in the early 1900s. She is instrumental in procuring rare manuscripts, books, and artwork for his Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. Her connection to the man and the library help her become a very powerful person in the art and book world, not to mention a figure in society. All the while, she is hiding an enormous secret. Her real name is Belle Marion Greener. She is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard. She is a black woman passing as white.
The ever-present worry of being found out is one of the main story lines in the novel. We learn, for instance, that in her position at the library, Belle reads many newspapers and so she knows “of the hundreds of lynchings that happen every year, including one of a college student who’d been caught passing.”
When warned by her uncle of the danger she and her family face by passing in New York, she says, “Every morning when I wake up, I prepare myself, knowing that once I walk out that door, I’m on a stage and playing a role. And I’m careful.”
I should mention the idea of passing caused difficulty in Belle’s immediate family. Her father, while light-complexioned himself, had no desire to pretend to be white. Instead, he worked diligently for the equality of his people. He and Belle’s mother disagreed strongly on this point.
He said, “You think our pale skin is a gift from God?…Don’t you ever think about the reason we are light-colored? Does the violence that white men perpetrated upon our ancestors never cross your mind?”
In response, Belle’s mother said: “In this country, as colored people, we have to use every advantage. Our pale complexions give us a choice.”
The couple eventually split up. It falls to Belle to support her mom and three siblings. She doesn’t see her father again for decades. In their reunion he tells her he has been following her success in the press: “When I saw your picture in the New York Times, I was so proud of you. But I was also profoundly sad. I realized that to achieve one dream, you had to forsake your core identity. Changing your name is easy. Changing your soul is impossible.”
If this isn’t enough food for thought, a couple other themes operate in the background of the novel. Both have to do with the intolerance existing in the early part of the 1900s. In one story line, J.P. Morgan’s daughter, Anne, is jealous of Belle’s relationship with J.P. Morgan. This makes her antagonistic toward Belle, but more than that, she is also suspicious, guessing at Belle’s secret. However, Anne has her own secret and suspects Belle knows it. The secret is that Anne is in a “Boston marriage” with her friends Elsie and Bessie. I looked that up! It means they are gay. By not outing Belle, Anne protects herself from being outed.
In another part of the story, Belle finds a romantic partner in one of J.P. Morgan’s business associates, Bernard Berenson. He too is a person with a secret – he is Jewish. As Belle tells us of that era, “While Mr. Morgan has been kind to me, I’ve overheard him in conversations disparaging everyone from Jews to Italians to the new Polish immigrants. And while I’ve been spared any overt disdain he may have for the colored in this country, I can’t assume he doesn’t have the same feelings about my people as he does for so many others.”
It is interesting to note that in writing this book, two accomplished authors worked together. Marie Benedict is white and Victoria Christopher Murray is African American. More to the point, VCM’s grandmother was “fair and often passed when necessary.” Their writing skills and life experiences brought great depth to the novel. I learned a lot from it, was greatly entertained by it, and often sat on the edge of my chair because of it as I worried Belle’s secret would be exposed.