A Chosen Exile

"[Hobbs] takes nothing at face value--least of all the idea that the person who is passing is actually and truly of one race or the other....Critically vigilant work."

Danzy Senna, New York Times Book Review

"Her writing is elegant, bubbling with curiosity."

Imani Perry, San Francisco Chronicle

"Hobbs's book is an immensely readable and compelling history of racial passing in American life."

Journal of American Studies

"Allyson Hobbs' A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life is that rare work of scholarship that captures public attention and acquires a general readership....Hobbs is a gifted writer, both organizationally and stylistically. Her prose is authoritative and energetic. Hobbs's success in gaining a broad readership reflects her capacity to convey knowledge in a radically compressed way, as when she explains Reconstruction in one perfect phrase as being when the 'prospect of being both black and a citizen existed.'"

Jane Dailey, Law & History Review, February 2016

A Chosen Exile

Between the eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, countless African Americans passed as white, leaving behind families and friends, roots and community. It was, as Allyson Hobbs writes, a chosen exile, a separation from one racial identity and the leap into another. This revelatory history of passing explores the possibilities and challenges that racial indeterminacy presented to men and women living in a country obsessed with racial distinctions. It also tells a tale of loss.

As racial relations in America have evolved so has the significance of passing. To pass as white in the antebellum South was to escape the shackles of slavery. After emancipation, many African Americans came to regard passing as a form of betrayal, a selling of one’s birthright. When the initially hopeful period of Reconstruction proved short-lived, passing became an opportunity to defy Jim Crow and strike out on one’s own.

Although black Americans who adopted white identities reaped benefits of expanded opportunity and mobility, Hobbs helps us to recognize and understand the grief, loneliness, and isolation that accompanied—and often outweighed—these rewards. By the dawning of the civil rights era, more and more racially mixed Americans felt the loss of kin and community was too much to bear, that it was time to “pass out” and embrace a black identity. Although recent decades have witnessed an increasingly multiracial society and a growing acceptance of hybridity, the problem of race and identity remains at the center of public debate and emotionally fraught personal decisions.


A New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice


A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2014


A Times Higher Education Book of the Week


The Root, Best 15 Nonfiction Books by Black Authors in 2014

Library Journal #2 Best Seller in U.S. History between September 2014 and May 2015

One of the Best Books of 2015 by NewsOne Now