“Passing For Black” Discussion Prologue – Chapter 8


SPOILER ALERT:  We will be talking about things that happened in the book so if you have not read it and don’t want to know what happens, click away now.

Let me apologize for getting this post in a day late.  Dealing with some monitor death issues.  It should not happen again.

As the book opens, we read about the first meeting of Angela and Cait.  We are told right away that Angela is attracted to Cait and that this is not a one-off attraction.  We are then introduced to the other major players in Angela’s life.  Her fiance, Keith who is no friend of Cait’s to be sure.  Her best friend Mae, a buxom Southern woman trying to steer Angela in the “right” direction.  Her mother Janet Wright, a local anchorwoman famous for letting her fro fly.

Besides the set-up, another major event in this part of the book is the Lesbian Sex Conference where Angela goes under the guise of working but really it’s just another opportunity to see Cait again.  After a rather interesting workshop (Am I the only one who thinks that SuzyQ is based on Annie Sprinkle?), she sneaks into the transgendered “safe place” with her tape recorder to investigate the controversial decision to allow only bio women into the conference.

The overall feeling I get from the begining of this book is the trememdous amount of mental energy Angela has to put into being accepted by the very people who should accept her no matter what.  It seems like every move she makes, what kind of clothes she wears, even what opinions she expresses, has to be filtered through a percieved black orthodoxy.

Some questions that came up while I was reading:

01.  Why did Keith have such a viceral reaction to Cait when she entered the classroom.  I understand they had some sort of academic differences but Villarosa makes of point of having Keith’s body language claim possession of Angela.

02.  After his icy exchange with Cait, Keith states his indignation at gay people “appropriating” the language of the Civil Rights Movement.  Do you find this feeling more or less pervasive than say, ten years ago?

03.  Angela is facing pressure to set a date for her wedding.  Am I the only one slightly annoyed by her weak response?

04.  After observing the interaction in the transgendered trailer, Angela makes the following observation regarding the men and women there:

“She had all of the trappings but none of the history, a work in progress as far as her female authenticity.  Despite their high-fem exteriors, Helen and the other male-to-females exuded a kind of pushy air of assumption that screamed, “I’m always going to be a man”.  And Pat, though she had all the tough-guy accessories of a man, wasn’t wearing them well.  She and the other female-to-males still possessed a mannered tennativeness that whispered “woman inside”.

So is gender as much culturation as biology?  Is there ever a point when a transperson loses that masculine/feminine engery (for lack of a better word).  Should they have to?

What to you all think?  What has jumped out at you so far?

20 comments

  1. 1. My opinion: Probably previous interactions that do not go well between the two characters.
    2. I cannot say because I was younger ten years ago plus I do not know (as well as pay attention) about lgbt community/history. So I do not have an opinion.
    3. Angela is slightly annoying but I can see her point. Others are trying to make Angela set a date when she is not ready. Plus she is in a confusing state, I think it is best she continues to say “I (we) do not have a date set yet” so she won’t confuse others.
    4. I think (I truly do not know personally) for transgender/transsexual individuals, they always had the traits of the sex their mind believes, they are. I think what probably happens while growing up, parents and others (family, friends, strangers, etc) show in some way how a male or female should be. So I think the individual truly knows what they believe inside but in public, they would have to keep in mind others do not see/believe what they do. Strangers do not see the sex they believe they are, they see the outside view.

    I would like Lunakiss’ question answered by you. (look on the previous post) What do you think about it?

    1. You could take the birth symbolically as a way of entering a new phase in life. That is the standard motif. But while I was reading it, I took it quite literally. Angela was becoming a mother. I think the author was letting us know that we should pay less attention to the “what” that’s happening and more to the “how”.

  2. Lunakiss · · Reply

    Hey Swandiver nice you chipped in. Hey, that explains a lot. Just got in from work. I’m ready to dicuss.

  3. Lunakiss · · Reply

    1. Probably because Keith sees Cait as a threat. He thinks she knows everything about being a minority. He also can’t stand her because she’s a Lesbian. To him, it’s a threat to his masculinity.

    2.I believe more so b/c of the reptitiveness of LGBTQIA movement being compared to the Civil Rights movement.

    3. I don’t know. I wasn’t annoyed.

    4. Gender is biological as far as birth. However, the exterior biological state of gender can change during one’s life here on earth. The culturation of how one is supposed to look with whatever gender a soul is in, depends on the indiviual’s acceptance of scoiety’s gender standards or perhaps their own. One can based on hormonal balance of the body and/or after taking hormon shots or pills can have a more masculine or feminine energy. One energy can never vanish. We all have both. Some of us repress one of those energies to conform to society’s standard of gender ideals of how masucline and feminine energy supposed to be.

    5. What has what jumped out at me?

    1. 01. I was curious to know why Keith would find Cait such a threat. As Benny says below and as Mae points out to Angela in the book, Keith would be considered a good catch, his reaction to Cait was a bit harsh and lacked a certain level of class one expects from someone in Keith’s position.

      02. So the more vocal those of us in the LGBT community become, the more resentment some African-Americans will feel. Maybe this is because there’s a perception that the gateway to full civil rights is so narrow, only one group can get in at a time. If queer people make headway on their issues, then blacks and hispanics have to wait and vice versa.

      03. The annoyance may be a personal thing to me, I don’t like seeing women take a position of weakness.

      04. When I first read this quote, I did some appropriating of my own and imagined what it would be like for a white person to become black. That’s the only other power relationship I can think of that approximates the male/female dynamic in our culture today. Once black, that white person could completely immerse themselves in African-American culture all they want but there are subtle ways in which they will always feel a sense of entitlement.

      05. When I say “jump out” I mean what else would you like to add to the discussion? The questions I ask in the post are just a starting point, this group will thrive on feedback from everyone.

  4. 1. Keith’s reaction to Cait was so ugly to me. I really was taken back by it, because of the way I was introduced to him. He is this highly educated and esteemed college professor, it didn’t seem fitting. It wasn’t professional and it didn’t seem necessary to make it that extreme to communicate his dislike or disapproval for Cait and her comparison. It was insecure behavior for a man in his position.

    2. I think that 10 years ago, people weren’t as accepting of LGBT people as they are now. The media as changed that. I’m not sure it was a thought for to compare lgbt struggles to the civil rights movement. Now it is more of an obvious comparison. It’s sad that some people within the black community do not allow themselves to see the connections. No it’s not the same history or story but the same rights are being with held. It’s like the NAACP doesn’t own the words “civil rights”. I’m ranting 🙂

    3.Yes, I agree her response is very weak. But what we have to keep in mind is that when we’re introduced to their relationship she had been giving him excuse after excuse..so it’s fair to say that by this point anything else she comes up with is going to be dry and meaningless. The thing that gets me is that her people are not picking up on this.

    4. I do not know.

    5. Okay off the top, the who SuzieQ thing. For a women not sure of her sexuality or who she wants to be with, or whatever she just seem a little to comfortable with that. I mean I don’t think she labored over that decision too much, it wasn’t convincing.

    Angela, is the black women who doesn’t neatly fit into the black “package,” let say. For instance, her mother’s pro black afro wearing protesting sista, her fiancé a “strong black man” teaching black history, and her friend happens to be a southern bell, who’s heavy set and enjoys food. Pretty much what missing is a preacher and his wife with bible in hand to force her to set a date. I don’t know. I find the dynamics between Angela and these characters is interesting. It does seem to be formulated.

    I must say that Mae is my favorite character thus far.

    1. Yeah, I also thought it was a bit odd to just go up and stick your hand in someone’s vagina like that on stage. I am quite comfortable with who I am and don’t think I could do it. But could that also be another symptom of Angela letting people make decisions for her instead of causing a confrontation?

      1. prof susurro · ·

        @swandiver ha! I think that, minus the exhibitionists in the audience, that is the exact dynamic in the real world when these performances are done. In many ways Angela’s naivete is very normative.

        @Benny your description of the characters as formulaic is one of my biggest complaints about this book. thanks for saying this so succinctly!

  5. Lunakiss · · Reply

    Angela being told what to do was an obstacle for her to face. She is a pleaser and a giver no matter how uncomfortable she felt she did it anyway.
    Keith did come across as stuck-up.but at the same time overbearing on his pro-black life. He thought every white person thought negative of him. I think he is trying to live a certain standard. Really it was him who needed to chill.
    I can see how Angela and Keith were attracted to each other. One had what another didn’t.
    Cait isn’t my favorite character. I had issues with her. I,too, like Mae.

  6. Nona J. · · Reply

    1. I think this goes both ways. Cait is as much as a threat to Keith as Keith is to Cait.
    Keith teaches a 20th Century Black Experience Seminar which has numerous subject matters, but out of all the subject matters that Villarosa could have chosen to highlight, she chose “The Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys” (there is a book called “Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Males” by Jawanza Kunjufu , which is a guide in protecting and ensuring that African American boys don’t lose their identity) to be the assigned reading. I think Villarosa tried to give some kind of indication of Keith’s ideology. I think they have a tug of war history already. When Cait walked in his class wearing a Foxy Brown shirt, (I immediately thought – 60’s Sexplotation films), and Keith being so Pro black, I can see why he would comment on it. (Imo -childish/unprofessional)

    Cait is a threat in her appearance and her being a lesbian, and the moment she used Angela to set him off, I can understand why he became so defensive. Angela gave Keith assurance of his body language by squeezing herself closer to Keith. Cait is a clear indication that males aren’t the only dynamic in a relationship a woman.

    Cait is the organizer of the Women’s Conference, which only allows women born only into the conference, regardless if they are M to F. This gave me an indication males pose a threat to her.

    Sorry, I could be reading too much into it. : )

    2. I think so, even more since Obama won the election and Prop 8 passed. Also, I agree with Benny that the LGBT community is more accepted now.

    3. I think Angela is weak at this moment. I think along with the continuous pressure everyone is putting on her to get married, she is also going through an identity crisis.

    4. I was trying to figure out the same thing. I do agree with Lunakiss’s answer to the question.

    1. So while there was initial attraction between Angela and Cait in the hallway, do you think the fact that Angela was Keith’s fiance made Cait more brazen in her flirting? Because I find it to be kinda disrespectful to so openly ogle a woman in the presence of her significant other.

      1. Nona J. · ·

        I agree. I think it’s very disrespectful to ogle a person in front of their significant other. In Angela and Cait’s hallway meeting, Angela’s involvement with Keith was unbeknownst to Cait, so Cait’s flirtation was innocent. The second meeting after the heated debate with Keith, believe she intentionally flirted with Angela, to try to one up Keith.

  7. prof susurro · · Reply

    1. I put the bk down after reading this conflict b/c of the way it completely flattened out conflicts between ES and WS (departments I happen to teach in) & seemed to completely exempt Cait for her potential race issues (Foxy Brown is not just sexploitation, she is a black woman whose character plays into certain white female expectations and fantasies about blackness, black female sexuality, etc.) and her transphobia (remember that she is just as upset as Keith expected her to be when he said he was voting to add transgender to women’s studies). At the same time, Keith is entirely vilified, from his choice of teaching material (Thanks for the heads up on that Nona) to his homophobia to his misogynist possessiveness of Angela. He is a walking stereotype of ES which while based in some truth has been used to undermine ES in academe and mask certain white women’s racism when they complain about ES; Cait too has stereotypical aspects, the t-shirt, the obsession w/a sex conference, hitting on potential students in the hallway, criticisms that are eqaully used to undermine WS in academe and mask homophobia, and anti-lesbian sentiment, from straight professors. The difference again, is that the narrator gives Cait a pass. Note, instead of an equally offensive rejoinder when Keith goes off, Cait simply looks down her nose and makes a pass at his fiance. (and again while Keith is depicted as possessive tho reassuring b/c of Angela’s internalized homophobia, Cait is exempted from using the female body to score pts against her male nemesis and instead described as sexy and exciting in this moment; it’s good to see others pick up on that here.)
    2. I also found this rant poorly executed and once again playing into mainstream depictions of the black community that I think are really dangerous in a world where many GLBTQI advocates feel at ease saying “black people are more homophobic than white people.” While many who make the “civil rights aren’t gay rights” argument really are homophobes, many others are actually calling for a specificity model. They argue that racism and homophobia are specific experiences of oppression that need to be fleshed out separately in order to unmask the nuances of each and then seen as part of a larger picture of oppression in which both groups are being held down to benefit a single power structure. Specificity then honors those who have suffered and the lesson we have learned from them, it ensures that we have sharp analytical tools for addressing oppression, that we do not play oppression olympics b/c we see it as equal rather than worse, etc. And many ppl who speak out against the appropriation of racism for other causes do so b/c it plays into “black people had it bad once but now it’s us who suffer.” As Audre Lorde said about race and sexuality when talking about white and black women, “We must first recognize our uniqueness and then celebrate our sameness.”

    Like the book Keith is teaching, Villarosa’s examples of how slavery is supposedly different than homophobia also subtle undermine Keith even as the narrative blatantly does. His two examples of how black and queer oppression are different were actually experienced by both communities. In the colonial period, gay men were lynched in the Americas and the graphic descriptions of their torture both mirror similar torture of black men while each had a specific reference to either perceived heterosexual or homosexual transgression. Looking at these moments thru a real specificity model helps highlight the way that existing power structures punish marginalized bodies for sexual “tansgressions” (sameness) and how these punishments contain elements that warn against those transgressions for the rest of the community (difference), so that we have a more nuanced understanding of the master’s tools and common ground from which to fight them.

    ultimately both these sections left me asking larger questions about the meaning of an ethnic writer and their relationship to fiction and community and what it means to have Villarosa radically undermining black characters in ways that support dominant depictions of them as more sexist and more homophobic.
    3. I agree with Tara here. it definitely gives us an eye into her character
    4. I’m really glad you quoted this passage. The way transgender functions in this book is extremely transphobic, from the threats Keith makes to Cait’s reaction, to this description of gender as biologically fixed, to other moments that come later in the book. I found myself asking why Villarosa include transgender people just to make them the Other in the background since they are neither full characters in this book nor respected ones. And while Angela says a lot of naive and some times stupid things about gender and sexuality, the anti-trans vein seems to run thru all of the characters in one way or another.

    As to the question: transgender identity is about lacking gender alignment with one’s biological sex. The passage you quoted implies that it is a performance and worse, a failed one in which maleness and femaleness are inherent and transgender ppl are awkwardly trying to subvert that in ways that neither fool “real women and men” nor themselves. While this maybe a cissexual cis-normative experience of transgender identity it certainly is not the way transgender people or anti-transphobic ppl see it. (for a good example of a trans positive discussion of black trans men’s experiences see Still Black – its reviewed on my blog and is making the college campus rounds)

    Sorry Swandiver, I think you can tell I really didn’t like this book and found much of it problematic. I have a lot of respect for the black women’s health work that Villarosa does and I was really surprised at how much I disliked this book, and how passages like the anti-trans stuff and the descriptions of working class black ppl made me rethink her other work.

    1. The link to your blog please.

  8. Lunakiss · · Reply

    Prof Susrro, you defintely have a different insight. Thanks for the link I must check it out.

    Do you think Angela likes being the pawn between two people, casting a ugly old stereotype about black womyn being promscuious?

    I find it interesting how a womyn like Angela, despite her mom’s upbringing, enjoy wearing it like it’s part of wardrobe. Or is it becuase she was confused?

    1. prof susurro · · Reply

      I read that more as internal struggle. I’m curious what others here think about her overall character. Is she a stereotype? is she weak? is she just confused and scared? is she, as I’ve asserted naive and if so is that an excuse for many of the things she says and does with regards to sexuality? (I suppose that is an end of book question tho . . .)

      1. The character Angela, I view her as confused and scared. It seems like she grew up never (or hardly) choosing and/or deciding for herself what she wanted to do; it was decided by someone like a family member. So right now in her life she is dealing with an issue that cannot be decided by her mother or anyone else, she has to give herself that power now. Which is her attraction, she has to be honest with herself and realize she has to live for herself and respect her choices/decisions; not based them on anyone else’s approval.

      2. Nona J. · ·

        Is it me, or does anyone else have a problem with Nona also?

        Why are black men considered the most oppressed when in actuality it is the black woman? The class hierarchy has always been the white men in power, the white female, and then the black male, and lastly the black female. No one seemed to complain when black women where left behind.

        I ask this because Nona is very defensive of the black man. Women shouldn’t be too strong or they’ll scare away the black man, stating sisters don’t have the luxury of being mad at our men and we have to support them, build them up, not tear them down, and , her favorite quote being “take a break from the fast track and spend more time on your back”.

  9. prof susurro · · Reply

    Nona J – That quote you picked out is so spot on! @Benny was the first to say these characters are formulaic (or as I put it stereotypes) and Nona is no exception. She is both real and profoundly unreal at the same time. I wondered if this was a genre issue more than Villarosa’s writing.

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