Race Off

The fantasy of race transformation

Namwali Serpell
Installation of found hand mirrors arranged in an oval on a wall.

Genevieve Gaignard, People Make the World Go Round, 2019. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer. Courtesy the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles.

This essay was first delivered in September 2021 as the Finzi-Contini Lecture at Yale University's Whitney Humanities Center. The Finzi-Contini lectureship was endowed in 1990 by the Honorable Guido Calabresi, Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and former Dean of the Yale Law School, and Dr. Paul Calabresi, in memory of their mother, Bianca Maria Finzi-Contini Calabresi.

What if you could change your race? Some disturbing scandals of late have put this hypothetical to the reality test. A cluster of white American academics and activists, all women it seems, have been revealed to have spent years cosplaying a different race—Latinx, North African, black—deceiving their colleagues and comrades. The valedictorian of this recent class of racial fakers remains Rachel Dolezal, the former college instructor, activist, and president of an NAACP chapter, who was outed by a reporter in 2015. She confessed that she was “born white to white parents,” but still declares herself to be “racially human” and culturally black.

Such deceptions are nothing new. Racial hoaxes have been around for a long time, as Laura Browder explains in Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities (2000). In the mid-nineteenth century, P. T. Barnum showcased people of concocted races, such as “the Circassian Beauty,” and promoted a “Negro” who claimed to have discovered “a weed that turns a black person white.” Newspapers at the time called out runaway slave imposters, who went around “soliciting money,” “purchasing relatives and friends.” White writers published fake slave narratives, with some unconscious tells, according to Browder: their narrators tend to discover that slavery is bad (as if this were not obvious) and to betray both “disgust with the African-American body” and “an obsession with physical pain.” As late as the 1920s, the British-born Archibald Stansfeld Belaney disguised himself as Grey Owl, a Native American man. In his 2017 history Bunk, Kevin Young notes that “the hoax regularly steps in when race rears its head—exactly because it too is a fake thing pretending to be real.”

Indeed, historical evidence and scientific consensus tell us that race is a social rather than a biological reality. Yet we harbor a near-atavistic obsession with the mechanics and psychology of race impersonators. How do they change their skin color, their hair texture, their voice? And why? Is it minstrelsy? Is it racial self-hatred, white guilt, the fetishism of others? In The Atlantic, Helen Lewis diagnoses the new crop of race fakers with “social Munchausen syndrome,” likening it to the condition in which a person fakes an illness in order to garner sympathy. Others have argued that being not-white has come to seem politically profitable in our present moment. Hence the co-optation of social justice rhetoric in what we call the “Oppression Olympics” and “white grievance” politics. To wit, suffering is now a form of cultural capital.

What we think race is very much depends on who we mean by “we.”

While history, psychology, and sociology provide some context, we can also see these women as the latest players in a game I call the fantasy of American race transformation. If we take a lead from Barnum, we can taxonomize this genre along various axes: when these texts appeared and who produced them, which race gets transformed and into which race, what mechanism catalyzes it and how, whether it’s imposed or self-motivated and to what end, whether it’s reversible or permanent, and so on. While there’s a veritable circus of racial chimeras to consider, I’ll train my spotlight on the transformations between black and white people, in popular narrative works created by black and white Americans, from the 1850s to now.

From “passing” to cross-racial reportage to speculative fiction, the fantasy of changing your race cuts an electric line—thrilling, dangerous, illuminating—through the American popular imagination. At first glance, there’s something radical in the very idea of changing your race, which assumes that race is changeable and therefore unfixed: in short, a construct. But all the aesthetic energy in race transformation stories—their alchemy, ambiguity, and absurdity—springs from the surprise of a black person “inside” a white person or vice versa. And this assumes an essential racial self or soul lurking within the lightened or darkened skin.

To change your race either becomes a kind of thought experiment, geared to make you empathize with another race or to punish you for being bigoted, or it becomes a brief, giddy act of exoticism or slumming, a way to transcend race and class divisions immediately but impermanently. By attaching race to the body, then changing that body, these texts offer the promise of escaping the body yet often end up making it abject or an object. In this sense, race transformation tales reinscribe racism rather than transcending it. But they do give us some insight: not into what race actually is, but into what we think it is—and naturally, what we think it is very much depends on who we mean by “we.”

The immediacy, transience, and opportunism of race transformation encourages a self-congratulatory, self-fulfilling return to whiteness.

THE GROUNDS OF THIS RACE transformation circus are “passing” narratives, in which a person deemed by the law to be black has physical features that “pass” for white. It’s difficult to track the real-life phenomenon of passing statistically—how does one account for a disappearing group of people?—so it exists primarily as an artifact of its long tradition in literature. The passing narrative first appeared in nineteenth-century drama, and was popularized during the Harlem Renaissance by writers such as James Weldon Johnson and Nella Larsen. Fittingly, the birth of tragic passing literature coincides with the birth of comic blackface performance, as if in a theatrical conjoining of the smiling black mask and the mournful white mask—one exaggeratedly performs a grotesque blackness for laughs, while the other asymptotically yearns for an unimpeachable whiteness.

Chiaroscuro—high contrast between dark and light—is a common aesthetic in passing literature. Melodramatic sentiments of fear, taboo desire, and despair predominate; it is in a sense a Gothic genre. It is a tragic form, slow and sad and grand. In these narratives, miscegenation—often via the rape of enslaved black women—takes generations to yield a dramatic change in the racial appearance of a family. Only then do we find the melancholy “tragic mulatto,” distraught at the injustice of “the one drop rule” that banishes them from full subjecthood, torn between the white and black worlds.

As the word implies, “passing” is gradual: it moves like a wave over generations, drowning some, wrecking others on the reefs of guilt and grief—and always in one direction, toward the foamy crest of whiteness. When Johnson’s “ex-colored man” chooses to pass, he says: “I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.” It’s a lose-lose game: passing merely replaces the social death of racism with the social death of isolation; it trades the pain of injustice for the loss of culture and community. The critic Allyson Hobbs puts it succinctly: “Racial passing is an exile.” It can end with not just a figurative death but a literal one, as in the fate of Clare Kendry, who either is pushed, falls, or leaps out of a window in Larsen’s 1929 Passing.

The race transformation here is like a gestalt switch between obliteration and creation.

Despite these morbid connotations, white Americans soon wanted in on passing, which portended greater melancholic dignity than the fakeries of slave imposters and the grotesqueries of minstrelsy. And so we come to Exhibit A of our show for today: race transformation as morality play. Alisha Gaines documents and analyzes this white liberal tradition in Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy (2017). She tells us that in the 1940s a series of popular columns ran in Negro Digest titled “If I Were a Negro,” with a famous subjunctive entry by none other than Eleanor Roosevelt (“I would have moments of great bitterness”). And over the course of the next two decades three white journalists would publish accounts of undergoing race transformation in order to report on being a Negro “from the inside”: Ray Sprigle’s In the Land of Jim Crow (1949), John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1961), and Grace Halsell’s Soul Sister (1969).

At the start of his journey of “‘passing,’ in reverse,” as he calls it, Sprigle applies a homemade concoction of “iodine, argyrol, pyrogallic acid, potassium permanganate” and the juice of walnut hulls, which leaves him striped. In the aftermath of this failed experiment, he realizes the prevalence of light skin among the black population, and opts just to get a three-week suntan before climbing aboard a Jim Crow coach on a train headed south. Nothing too terrible happens to him, which he perversely laments: “This would be a far better story if I could show some scars left by the blackjack of some Negro-hating, small-town deputy whom I’d failed to ‘sir.’ Or a few bullet holes, mementos of an argument with some trigger-happy Atlanta motorman.”

A decade later, Griffin begins his “scientific research study of the Negro in the South” by using a drug for treating the skin condition vitiligo, skin stains, and a sunlamp to darken his skin:

I went to look at myself in the mirror. A fierce looking, bald Negro glared at me from the glass. He in no way resembled me. The transformation was total and shocking. I had expected to see myself disguised, but this was someone else. I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger. All traces of the John Griffin I had been were wiped from existence. Even the senses underwent a change so profound it filled me with distress. I looked into the mirror and saw reflected nothing of the white John Griffin’s past.… I knew then that I was not a disguised white man but a newly created Negro.

The race transformation here is like a gestalt switch between obliteration and creation. It is apt that the film version of Black Like Me ran as a double feature with the horror film The Hands of Orlac, in which a “concert pianist who receives a hand transplant from a convicted killer…descends into homicidal madness.” In both films, the physical transformation isn’t a gradual or surface matter, but a wholesale conversion at an existential and even ethical level.

In Griffin’s unpublished journals, one entry finds him worrying that “becoming a Negro will do some profound damage to my humanity; and still more terrible, will perhaps forever alter my intimate relationships with my family” and that “the physical change will drag along with it a total transformation of identity, even interior identity.” He goes on to imagine having sex with his wife while he is “black,” his language teetering between titillation and horror: “I…did not ask her if the idea excited her equally, in this weird situation where intercourse would be legal, morally okay, but give the illusion of being a profoundly forbidden and even monstrous act.…I feared she would always see herself lying not with a Negro, but with a part-nigger.”

The immediacy, transience, and opportunism of race transformation encourages a self-congratulatory, self-fulfilling return to whiteness.

Halsell, who was mentored by Griffin before she began the six-month stint as a black woman that she documents in Soul Sister, took extreme measures with her transformation: two corrective treatments for vitiligo plus a tanning spell in Mexico so intense that she developed infected blisters her second day in Harlem. When a black diner owner offers to help her with her ailment, she is overcome by the imbalance of mercy (which is apparently supposed to tilt only the other way): “I came here to know you for what you are, you beast, you black, black, black man! And you are ugly to me. You are a nigger. And you feel sorry for me. You are pitying me, you are, Christ in heaven, you are loving me! It’s not supposed to be like that!… God, how I need you, how I want you.”

Today, these supposedly empathic efforts by white writers to understand what it is like to be black in America look like acts of self-serving and voyeuristic self-victimization. In Black for a Day, Gaines locates in these journalists the continuation of an aesthetic of “Dixie terror,” with “its perversely delightful penchant for splaying broken, bruised, and bloodied black bodies across the page, whether for sympathy or sales.” Gaines acutely notes that their “brand of empathy not only refuses to challenge the reality of black second-class citizenship, it actually requires it.” She cites bell hooks’s analysis of the voracious appetite of white racism, which turns even empathy into “eating the other.” In a world of white supremacy, hooks writes, “Desires for the ‘primitive’ or fantasies about the Other can be continually exploited…in a manner that reinscribes the status quo.”

White racial surrogacy in fact relies on the assumption that black suffering is not legible, not real, not worthy of redress unless it is experienced and articulated by a white person. As Saidiya Hartman puts it in Scenes of Subjection (1997), “Can the white witness of the spectacle of suffering affirm the materiality of black sentience only by feeling for himself?” The masochism of becoming black isn’t just a way to assuage white guilt; it is also a surreptitious way to flaunt one’s ability to survive racism (it’s not so bad if I made it out alive), as well as one’s presumptive prerogative to get out (to invoke Jordan Peele’s race transformation film of the same title).

Is it racial self-hatred, white guilt, the fetishism of others?

The immediacy, transience, and opportunism of race transformation encourages a self-congratulatory, self-fulfilling return to whiteness. These writers are like those minstrel performers who, as David Roediger writes in Wages of Whiteness (1991), “claimed the right to turn Black for as long as they desired and to reappear as white.” Their memoirs betray a desire for the monstrous consequences of racial surrogacy that in effect relies on being able to escape them. Halsell breathlessly anticipates being raped by both black men and black women: “I went with trembling heart to the ghetto, Harlem, fearful that a big black bogeyman might tear down the paper-thin door separating my ‘white’ body from his lustful desires.” She quits the project when a white man assaults her. Griffin’s book evolved out of a series of pieces in the magazine Sepia that kicked off with a piece titled “Journey into Shame”—implying, of course, a journey back out.

The desire to “expose” a self-evident racism looks a lot like the masochistic (safe, temporary, pleasurable) desire for suffering. In the 1948 musical Finian’s Rainbow, which became a film in 1968 directed by Francis Ford Coppola, an Irish immigrant curses a racist white senator: “‘There’s something wrong with the world he and his kind have made for people like Henry [a black man]. I wish he could know what that world is like. I wish to God he was black so—!’ (Suddenly there is darkness—a crash of thunder—a streak of lightning. When the lights go up rawkins is disclosed as a trembling heap on the ground. The people are drawn back, aghast. From their faces it is evident that sharon’s wish has materialized and that the senator is now, indeed, a black man.)” Yet punishment proves lucrative when the senator becomes a “happy Negro”—accompanied by a famous minstrel song—and joins a barbershop quartet. And it proves politically transformative when he is returned to his “pristine white” and presents a new, racially progressive platform. The pleasure and the penance of race transformation are intertwined: the racist white person secretly yearns to be whipped, and what better way than to become an enslaved black person—but only for a day.

Speculative race transformation speeds up the melancholy longue durée of passing: the better word would be switching.

The 1986 film Soul Man captures this amalgam of resentment, guilt, and entitlement. A white student takes “tanning pills” to make himself eligible for a scholarship for black students at Harvard Law. He falls in love with a (really) black single mom, who was, as it happens, the runner-up for the scholarship. The jokes are automatic: he plays basketball badly; he tries on a stagy Black Panther outfit; his preference in music turns to the “soulful”; he has sex with a white woman who exoticizes his penis. He eventually confesses, promises to donate to civil rights groups, punches a couple of racists, and is bestowed with this blessing from his (really) black professor: “You’ve learned something I can’t teach…you’ve learned what it feels like to be black.” Our penitent gets the girl, gets to stay, gets an A–. One can’t help but feel that, as a minor character snarks, “This whole thing is an argument against these affirmative action scholarships.”

The irony of the penance arc—whether inflicted on the self or on others—is that it ends up skewing the equality implied by race transformation. You might think that the upshot of these stories, as with Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches, would be that the plain bellies and the star bellies are the same inside. If only the plains and the stars could each understand what it’s like to be in the other’s skin, everything would be fair! But real life is haunted with hidden forms of asymmetry and injustice. (Consider the origin of the word fair.) And so we find the curious fact that in all the American race transformation tales I’ve encountered, while both white and black people swap skins for pleasure and privilege, no black person is ever turned white as a punishment. It is somehow inconceivable that to become white could ever be undesirable. The obverse implication is that to be white, yet able to turn black at will, is to have it all. You get to be white, you get to be black, and if experiencing racism humbles you, that’s all to the good, a moral improvement.

ONE OF THE ODDITIES OF THE STORIES in Exhibit A is how often they capitalize on the language of speculative fiction—the Gothic, science fiction, fantasy. This is obvious in the case of Finian’s Rainbow, but it’s true even of the nonfictional accounts. Sprigle connects his memoir to a fantastical tradition in which the hero wants “to turn Hindu, or Arab or one of the other darker races” and “goes to ‘an old woman’…and she gives him a lotion that turns him dark for weeks or months.” He finds that being a black man is “as bewildering as if I had been dropped on the moon,” and his fellow whites soon become “a people entirely alien to me.” For Halsell, it is a black women’s guesthouse that she finds “alien”: its residents, she imagines, “have lived their lives on one planet, so to speak, and I on another.” Playing black makes her feel like “a spook among spooks,” “disembodied, a cipher floating in a void,” and “a vessel of sorts for two personalities, two sets of eyes, two bodies.” This language emphasizes the magic and surrealism of race transformation, but also its crucial temporariness. The spell can be broken, the charm undone, the race transformer safely returned to a utopian “no place like home.”

The literary critic Taylor Evans calls the speculative genre that these texts are borrowing from “techno-passing”: “stories that have, as their technological novum, a fantastical technology that changes one’s appearance from phenotypically white to phenotypically black or vice versa.” I present to you Exhibit B: speculative race transformation tales. In an archetypal plot, you change your race through some fantastical or science fictional gimmick that either transforms your body, or transfers your soul, into a body of another race. Speculative race transformation speeds up the melancholy longue durée of passing: the better word would be switching.

In race-switching stories, passing’s melodrama and minstrelsy’s humor are fused into a magical Presto! effect that makes the race transformation intense, immediate, even violent. In typical American fashion, racial fate—the stain or bleach that eventually results from miscegenation—is turned into an act of racial will, whether internally driven or externally imposed. Narrating the ability to turn race on or off with the putative “flip of a switch” tends toward certain aesthetic effects: chemical or electric (catalytic or kinetic) energy; a compression of time (time travel, identity swapping or simultaneity, rapid change); and overturning binaries through slapstick and satire.

Identity transfer becomes literalized in the form of brain transplants.

The quasi-scientific techniques these narratives invent make the process of race transformation quick, topsy-turvy, and, most importantly, reversible—both in the sense that you can undo it and in the sense that you can switch in either direction, from black to white or white to black. That said, a slight imbalance in reversibility is key to differences in how white-to-black and black-to-white transformations are presented. On a white person, a tan eventually fades, blackface can wipe off. To induce vitiligo in or apply bleach to dark skin is more threatening because it has the potential for a permanent transformation, both of a black person’s race and of the American racial hierarchy.

Classic works of speculative fiction have often flirted with both slavery—the etymology of robot is robota, a Czech word for forced labor—and the fantasy of race transformation. In one sequence of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1887), the hero spends the night carousing as Hyde, then takes an elixir to return to his more respectable avatar. But in his sleep, he unknowingly relapses into his deviant double and wakes to see a hand on the bedspread: “The hand of Henry Jekyll…was professional in shape and size: it was large, firm, white, and comely. But the hand which I now saw…was lean, corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor and thickly shaded with a swart growth of hair. It was the hand of Edward Hyde.” Hyde is an amalgam of othernesses: he is “small,” “ugly,” “queer,” “dwarfish,” “hardly human,” “ape-like,” “monstrous,” a “Juggernaut,” a “troglodyte,” a “savage.” These features are blatantly racialized in the quasi-Darwinian terms of Stevenson’s time. And the phrase used for the strange hold that Hyde—whose name no doubt puns on animal skin—has over Jekyll? “I fell in slavery.”

The titular character in H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man (1897), as Ralph Ellison discerned, undergoes a transformation not just in visibility, but also in race—an ambiguous and incomplete one. Witnesses see the invisible man as “black,” “just blackness,” “black as my hat” and as a man with “a pink and white face and red eyes” and as “piebald,” “black here and white there,” “a kind of half-breed” whose “colour’s come off patchy instead of mixing.” He thinks of himself as “a gaunt black figure” and at one point says, “I went to work—like a nigger.” We later learn that he is in fact “white with the whiteness of albinism,” a condition that facilitates his transformation: “‘One could make an animal—a tissue—transparent! One could make it invisible! All except the pigments—I could be invisible!’ I said, suddenly realizing what it meant to be an albino with such knowledge.”

These quasi-scientific bases for race transformation recur in later American pulp stories of “techno-passing,” as Evans shows. Apart from albinism, we find vitiligo (or leukoderma)—a real medical condition in which the skin loses its pigment cells (melanocytes)—and melanosis, a real biological phenomenon by which, as the 1935 story “Pigments Is Pigments,” published in Wonder Stories, puts it, “the Arctic fox, the American varying hare, the ptarmigan, and other mammals always turn black in the summer, being white all winter.” The story is about two white scientists who use race transformation to make money and to inflict vengeance: a malevolent millionaire is turned from white to “coal, ebony black,” and then from black to a “white as alabaster” albino, by a biologist he scammed out of money.

"Passing" is gradual: it moves like a wave over generations, drowning some, wrecking others.

David H. Keller’s “The Menace,” a four-part novella which appeared in a 1928 issue of Amazing Stories Quarterly, pits a humble white detective, Taine, against a group of elite, power-hungry Harlemites called “THE POWERFUL ONES”: “They were all negroes, banded together for the total subjection, and, if necessary, destruction of the Caucasian race.” It is by posing as an octoroon millionaire that Taine learns that these wicked “white negroes,” having determined that “the difference between the negro and the white is mainly a matter of pigment,” invented a serum that turns black people white: “Our physicians inject one drop of serum into the child at birth and any tendency to develop pigment is at once checked.” Taine hires a female impersonator to uncover the Harlemites’s plot to convert seawater into fake gold, with which they hope to flood the market. He later dresses up as a woman to foil their plan to infiltrate the water supply with a chemical powder that will turn white people black. Taine’s success in thwarting these plots seems to stem from a natural superiority which the “white negroes” can never attain, no matter their alchemy: “Your race can change the color of their skins but they cannot change the color of their souls. No matter how white they may become, they will always remain black inside.” The racism in “The Menace” is wild, almost surreal. It demonizes Taine’s black nemeses and patronizes his black sidekick, Ebony Kate, who goes unaccountably from a dignified “Voodoo” woman too proud to change her race to a shuckin’-’n’-jivin’ Mammy whom Taine hires as a nurse: “She delighted in telling the little Taines how their grandfather and she had fought those white-black-boogers.”

In the 1930 story “Dr. Immortelle,” the narrator, a man with “soft waving brown hair,” “hazel eyes,” and “fair skin,” turns out to have been born “negro black chattel.” The mad scientist who once owned him discovered, by consulting “ancient Alchemists,” the key to immortality: blood transfusions from children. He tested his theory on Dr. Immortelle, who underwent “the gradual loss of most of my own blood…and the substitution of Caucasian blood through the process of transfusion.” In “Dr. Immortelle,” blood becomes a literal vehicle for race transformation but also a metaphorical one for a set of familiar eugenic assumptions about the inherent superiority of certain races: “The negroid strain being predominant in my blood, and the negro race being inferior to the Caucasian, he logically reasoned that the introduction of pure white blood into my veins might result fatally to me.” A white love interest has “a lily-white soul,” while the formerly enslaved Dr. Immortelle has “a soul as black as my face once was,” “a passionate desire for offspring,” and a “tendency toward inertia,” all because he still retains “a drop of negroid blood in his veins.”

The desire to transform oneself into the black race, even imaginatively, amounts to the capitalist impulse to own.

Swapping a soul into the body of a different race—a device called “identity transfer”—is another common science fictional mechanism for race transformation. This is the basis for Harry Stephen Keeler’s The Man Who Changed His Skin, which was written in the 1930s and posthumously published in 1959. A nineteenth-century white Bostonian receives a jet-black pellet of “Oguva” gum from a homeless man, who claims he got it from an African tree that sprouted from a celestial seed planted by a meteor. If you swallow it, he says, your soul, spirit, and mind will “slide off into the carcass o’ somebody else.” The Bostonian takes the pellet and wakes up, like Dr. Jekyll, to an unexpected sight at the end of his sleeve: “The hand—was black as coal!… ‘My God! I—am somebody—other than who—I was!’”

Over time, these procedures grow more sophisticated. Identity transfer becomes literalized in the form of brain transplants, as in the 1969 film Change of Mind: to investigate a murder, a white lawyer’s brain is placed in the body of a black man (“Is he a white man with a black man’s body or a black man with a white man’s brain?”). Not just the skin but other features too are transformed through “racial reassignment surgery”—so-named to emphasize its resonance with “sexual reassignment surgery”—in Jess Row’s 2014 novel Your Face in Mine. A man who claims to have had “racial identity dysphoria” undergoes “a series of facial surgeries, scalp surgeries, body-sculpting procedures, and pigmentation treatments, transforming me from my original appearance as a Caucasian-Jewish ‘white’ male into a convincing African-American.”

While the scientific techniques for race transformation seem to advance, these stories remain stuck in the old mysticism of racial essentialism, which is not just the idea that racialized features carry inherent values like beauty or intelligence, but also the feeling that race subsists in the soul. Even in Row’s sophisticated and meditative literary novel, people can be “born in the wrong race.” These contradictions are familiar to American race politics. Race is somehow both surface and depth, construct and essence, transmutable yet fixed, a contingent phenomenon with real-world effects, a fantasy and a reality, a chess game that insists on an equal distribution of black and white elements but in which white just happens to go first.

Race is not strictly arbitrary, but it has always been subject to arbitration.

The paradoxical sense that some magic has bestowed incalculable value upon something with no intrinsic worth is hardly strange, though. We engage with something that fits this description every day: money. As Karl Marx notes, the fact that money takes the form of coins and cash is “a matter of accident,” largely independent of the erstwhile functions of metal and paper. Capitalism’s “magic” transforms these material things, making them both fungible—exchangeable in a market—and abstract, indices of the values of other things: “The money-form comes to be attached… to the most important articles of exchange from outside.”

This isn’t mere analogy. Money gleams and rustles throughout race transformation tales. The ex-colored man who “sold his birthright” when he chose to pass wears a ten-dollar gold coin—pierced through its center, tied around his neck—that his white father bequeathed to him. The evil Harlemites alchemize black to white, white to black, and seawater to (false) gold in “The Menace.” Race transformation texts know that in America race is money: an externally imposed form of value.

If one race—black people—was essentially invented in order to be bought, sold, used, and enjoyed at will, the desire to transform oneself into that race, even imaginatively, amounts to the capitalist impulse to own. As Toni Morrison notes in Playing in the Dark (1992), “The slave population, it could be and was assumed, offered itself up as surrogate selves.” Black people have so long been deemed to be property that to put race on and take it off becomes akin to consumerism. The techno-minstrelsy of “blackfishing”—the phenomenon of non-black people using bronzer, tanning, photoshop, and/or cosmetic surgery to appear black, especially on social media—and of white TikTok users copying and profiting from dance videos made by black TikTok users makes this clear. Some claim that this desire to be or cosplay another race is an innocent form of allophilia: an affinity for otherness, or liking people who are different from you, racially or culturally. But race transformation is grounded in familiar stereotypes, which begs the question of diversity as a kind of exotic variety. In short, the other always looks the same—it is a brand you wear, so to speak.

To transform your race comes to seem laborious, perverse, grotesque—as perhaps it should. But it also comes to seem vengeful.

And so, the value of whiteness in race transformation tales always manifests in abstract aspects of personhood like safety, status, and purchasing power; in a sense, whiteness is perceived less as a race than as a social identity and an ideology. The value of blackness, by contrast, has long been cast as physical or sensual, even bestial. The two Disney animated movies with black heroes, The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Soul (2020)—which features an identity transfer race transformation—magically place them inside animal bodies for much of the plot. A disconcerting number of race transformation tales intimate that being a black man is correlated with having a large and skillful penis, an erotic obsession that is tinged with fear and resentment. It’s often implied that becoming black bestows the ability to dance, to play or appreciate music, and to excel at sports—in a 2005 episode of South Park, Kyle has a “negroplasty” to make him better at basketball.

It makes sense, then, that in the race transformation fantasies I’ve exhibited thus far, race is seen as a kind of property, in several senses of the word. First, race is a physical “property,” a set of features affixed to the body, which require great labor or the energy of magic to transform. Second, race is assumed to be attached to the individual subject, to their so-called “proper” self (whose relationship to property like land or wealth is often determined by their race). And third, race can be owned: it is itself a “property” to be bought or sold; it can be pegged to a market value like gold; it is a form of capital that is seen as fungible and abstract but can be hoarded. As Evans suggests, speculative race transformation stories thus offer evidence for the argument that the legal scholar Cheryl I. Harris made in 1993:

Whiteness, initially constructed as a form of racial identity, evolved into a form of property, historically and presently acknowledged and protected in American law.… Following the period of slavery and conquest, whiteness became the basis of racialized privilege—a type of status in which white racial identity provided the basis for allocating societal benefits both private and public in character. These arrangements were ratified and legitimated in law as a type of status property.

Race is not strictly arbitrary, but it has always been subject to arbitration, contingent on the law.

While black people may have been denied the artistic privileges afforded to white people, blackness is the ground of the American popular imagination.

WE CAN SEE ALL OF THESE racial logics—passing, prurience, perversity, and property—come together in a recent specimen of speculative race transformation. Gather round and let’s take a closer look. Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel Lovecraft Country entwines a history of the Jim Crow 1950s with a pulp subtext derived from H. P. Lovecraft, whose work, despite its virulent and decadent racism, has proven generative for writers of many races. In a chapter called “Jekyll in Hyde Park,” Ruff revisits and reverses Robert Louis Stevenson’s race transformation scene. A woman named Ruby, “curvy and dark,” wakes in an unfamiliar bed, on what appear to be “bloodslick sheets.” In terror, she stumbles to a bathroom, splashes water on herself, then opens her eyes to see “a crazed white woman’s face hovering in the dark just inches from her own.” Ruby screams. “The white woman in the mirror screamed with her. Ruby clapped her hands over her mouth; the white woman aped the gesture. The white woman: her.”

When the whitened Ruby, going by the name Hillary, visits a beauty salon to get her hair done, she is startled to find that “the entire process—shampoo, cut, dry, and a manicure—had taken less than an hour. Ruby had known white women had it easier, but my God.” Ruby’s shock resonates with those black women who have suffered the toils of styling their hair in a world that values the long, straight, and thin. But this attention to an imbalance caused by racism devolves into blaming race itself for it. When the elixir’s effects fade, Ruby in anguish watches “Hillary’s beautiful hair coarsen, darken, and twist, while the white of her skin drained away.” The progressive narrative trick—to grant a black woman freedom and agency—is undermined by the values implied in the language; what is beautiful and white is coarsened, darkened, twisted, drained as it becomes black.

Black writers invented race transformation before Robert Louis Stevenson even took up his pen.

The 2020 HBO adaptation of this sequence also mixes its messages, adopting a radical narrative logic that runs up against a stereotyped visual logic. Ruby, played by the regal Wunmi Mosaku, is seduced by a blond, white man who, unbeknownst to her, works for a cabal of white supremacist magicians. He approaches her at a bar. Ruby tells him she wants a job at a local department store, but there’s already another black woman working there, and “for us, it’s a rat race to the finish line…if I was in your skin, I wouldn’t even have to run.” The man offers a double-edged pick-up line: “What if I told you I could change your life?” They spend a night of overwrought passion together. The morning after finds not the gorgeous black woman we’ve been watching but a plain white woman lying nude in bed. To block the sun from her eyes, she raises her hand, then notices its color. She bolts up, tripping over pale feet on her way to a mirror. She addresses the white woman in the glass: “Wake up, Ruby.” She slaps her cheeks, wide-eyed. “Wake up.”

The HBO series goes on to deviate from Ruff ’s novel in many ways, but the most profound is in the blood. In the novel, blood seeps up under Ruby’s nails whenever she starts to slip back to black; a white woman’s blood is a key ingredient of the elixir that transforms her. In the show, the blood is thicker, more literal, more gruesome. Indeed, Ruby doesn’t turn white so much as she wears a tight white flesh suit, inside which she shimmies seductively (dancing being “in her blood”), then seems to burst out of (her “real” body being naturally “curvy”), and eventually rips off in dripping strips and chunks. To transform your race comes to seem laborious, perverse, grotesque—as perhaps it should. But it also comes to seem vengeful. Ruby starts out wearing her white skin in order to apply for a dream job and winds up tying up her racist, handsy manager and…anally raping him to death with a stiletto. Her white skin is essentially a temporary disguise that grants her access, then permission to release some inner savagery.

Later in the series, we learn that the white male body that Ruby had sex with was, in fact, housing a white woman named Christina, played by Abbey Lee Kershaw. The show’s ultimate villain, Christina uses her powers of race transformation to “become” Ruby, disguising herself to get close enough to kill Ruby’s loved ones. Christina also hires two white men to do to her body what was done to Emmett Till’s. What’s interesting about this scene is that Christina does not transform into a black boy, though ostensibly she could. Instead, we see her as a thin, near-translucent white woman being beaten, shot, tied up with barbed wire, and thrown in a river. Whether rightly or disingenuously, the show treats Till’s lynching as sacrosanct—it cannot be visually represented or replicated. But this doesn’t make sense in the plot: why wouldn’t she pay these men to lynch someone they believe is a black boy as she experiences it within his body? Her creepy smile broadcasts her villainy, but we end up with a familiar visual dyad: the monstrous black Mammy—dark-skinned, strong, curvy—and the fragile horror-film “final girl,” pale and stick thin.

The aim of Chesnutt's satire is not to wrest an eye for an eye, but to open eyes and make people see the world through the polarized view of double-consciousness.

In sum, in Lovecraft Country there are two scenes in which a black woman covered in blood brutally attacks other people. (In the first, it’s Ruby, having burst out of her white skin; in the second, it’s Christina, hiding inside Ruby’s black skin.) And there are two scenes in which a white woman, covered in blood, is brutally attacked. (In both of these instances, Christina, who is under an immortality spell, doesn’t die.) The contradiction at the core of race transformation erupts as a clash between the show’s narrative logic (race is meaningless and can be swapped at will) and its visual logic (blackness is violent but ultimately defeated; whiteness is delicate but ultimately triumphant).

In writing his novel, Ruff says, he wished to redress the troubling history of race in genre fiction: “One of the many forms of exclusion African Americans faced was being shut out of the popular imagination. For as long as genre fiction has existed, there have been black genre-fiction fans, but most of the time they were either ignored or insulted.” Misha Green, the black showrunner of the HBO adaptation concurs: “What Matt was doing in the book… was reclaiming genre spaces for people who have typically been left out of them.” But as Angelica Jade Bastien notes in a scathing review of the racial politics of recent TV series produced by black artists, inclusion rhetoric “supposes that putting a Black person in a visually white concept is inherently radical.”

The affective shift between the first and the last parts of Watermelon Man makes the whole an uncanny, avant-garde work of art.

These well-meaning creators forget—or perhaps don’t know—that while black people may have been denied the artistic privileges afforded to white people, blackness is the ground of the American popular imagination, from music to film to literature, for both black and white artists. Green says blithely, “So the ghost is a metaphor for the things that are haunting you. And being Black in America is like being in a horror story so it just fits perfectly.” As Toni Morrison, who published Beloved, a rather famous ghost story about slavery, in 1987, writes in Playing in the Dark, “Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities. For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination.”

The twenty-first-century liberal rhetoric of “inclusion” centers whiteness as a default only through an erasure of this cultural history. Ruff says that he wanted to give black people “a chance to star in their own personal weird tale…of course, tales of the supernatural are just a lot of fun. There’s a reason African Americans wanted a chance to play, too.” He doesn’t seem to realize that black people have long been writing their own weird and supernatural tales. Indeed, black writers invented race transformation before Robert Louis Stevenson even took up his pen.

AND NOW WE COME to our final event, Exhibit C: black speculative literature about changing your race. Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative, a manuscript from the 1850s, has been authenticated as the first novel written by an African American woman. It was first published in 2002, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and is filled with Gothic tropes, from dark and stormy nights to madwomen in small spaces, from creepy family portraits to a house haunted by the enslaved woman (a “witch” with a “whelp”) who was gibbeted on a tree on its lawn. Crafts’s novel also includes a singular and highly amusing scene in which an enslaved woman, herself so light-skinned that she can pass, tricks her white mistress into applying an Italian face powder that briefly turns the skin black: “The powder certainly is white, and yet it may possess such chemical properties as occasion blackness. Indeed I recently saw in the newspapers some accounts of a chemist who having been jilted by a lady very liberal in the application of powder to her face had invented as a method of revenge a certain kind of smelling bottles, of which the fumes would suddenly blacken the whitest skin provided the said cosmetic had been previously applied.” Gates identified two Scientific American articles to which the author had access, both of which mention “a white silver-nitrate powder that, in the presence of ammonia, turns black.”

Woman in a white dress stands outside of a gate where a man is inside.
Robert Gilbert Wells's 1905 book Anthropology Applied to the White Man and the Negro culminates with a scene of race transformation. Wells illustrated this moment with a tableau, titled "Sam has changed Mr. Jones' color for practical experience on Mr. Jones [sic] part, for the sake of solving the race problem."

Another barely studied text—there are only twenty-two extant copies—Robert Gilbert Wells’s self-published 1905 Anthropology Applied to the American White Man and Negro, includes science fiction tropes like invisibility, time travel, and a scene of race transformation: a formerly enslaved man named Sam uses a potion to turn his white “ex-master,” Mr. Jones, black. Mr. Jones, not realizing he has been thus transformed, steps aboard a train: “By the time he had caught his breath he was out of the door of the white man’s coach and thrown head long into the Negro’s jim-crow car, mangled and bleeding. Sam had heard the racket and was watching what is commonly known as the white man’s fun and method of teaching the Negro his place.” Mr. Jones is so confused he initially thinks his new skin is black and blue from bruising. Sam’s wife, Sally, begs him to free Mr. Jones from this condition; Sam responds that Mr. Jones “will have the pleasure of knowing that he was the first blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon who was ever changed into a Negro.” But after the blackened Mr. Jones is almost lynched for trying to talk to his own white wife and family, Sam generously uses “fluids and liquids” to reverse the transformation anyway. The irony has been delivered: during his madcap transformation, Mr. Jones has had a weepy reunion with his long-lost “tanned” brother, who was reputed to have “wandered off and turned dark; his hair exceedingly curly or kinkey.”

Charles Chesnutt’s better-known short story “Mars Jeems’s Nightmare” from his 1899 collection The Conjure Woman delights in the same upending of the white enslaver’s sense of self-possession. “Mars” (Master) Jeems is a hard and cruel man, “monst’us stric’ wid his han’s.” The hands on his plantation seek help from Aunt Peggy, the conjure woman, and she gives them a “goopher” made of powdered roots. It turns “Mars Jeems ter a nigger”; he winds up at the plantation, allegedly as payment for a gambling debt. A poor white overseer whips and abuses this “noo nigger” mercilessly. When a hexed sweet potato turns Jeems white again, he resumes his authority but fires his overseer, relaxes his rules, and ends up with “a finer plantation, en slicker-lookin’ niggers…makin’ mo’ cotton en co’n, dan any yuther gent’eman in de county.” The tendency toward pedagogical penance for the white racist appears here, but the tone is much funnier and less heavy-handed than in white-authored texts. The aim of the satire is not to wrest an eye for an eye, but to open eyes and make people see the world through the polarized view of double-consciousness.

For cultures to survive, they must be willing to grow and change. They cannot be pegged to specific properties or values.

We can see the contrast between white-authored and black-authored race transformation fantasies even more clearly if we compare George Schuyler’s 1931 satire Black No More to “The Menace,” which appeared three years earlier. In Schuyler’s “techno-passing” novel, Max Disher, fresh from sexual rejection from both his “high yeller” girlfriend and a white woman in a nightclub, stumbles upon the “Black-No-More” procedure. This device uses “electrical nutrition and glandular control” to induce and speed up vitiligo, which, per the novel, “absolutely removes skin pigment and… turns a Negro completely white.” Enough people use the “Black-No-More” that American social hierarchy is overturned. Leaders of black communities and white supremacist organizations riot; politicians are rousted and institutions razed. To be white becomes a sure sign you were once really black; newborns and genealogy charts are scrutinized for any hint of blackness, which becomes a matter of descent rather than appearance. There is a retributive comeuppance here too: a tonally dizzying scene in which three white racists, who have blacked up with shoe polish, are lynched in a rural village, their ears sewn to their backs to make gruesome “wings.” But unlike the insistence on a fixed racial hierarchy no matter the alchemy in Keller’s “The Menace,” Black No More soon tumbles into a jumbling of too many shades to keep track of or rank. In perhaps the most prophetic moment of this satire, a proto-tanning lotion called an “Egyptienne stain” becomes a best seller; the most popular tint is “the Zulu tan.”

Another instructive juxtaposition is evident in the production history of Melvin Van Peebles’s 1970 film Watermelon Man. In Herman Raucher’s script, a racist white insurance salesman wakes up black. Hysteria ensues: screams, tears, mobs. He desperately tries to blanch his skin with floods of milk, soap, and bleach. His liberal wife stays level-headed: “It would serve you right with that attitude of white supremacy.” Is it a nightmare? Is it his sun lamp? Is it a medical condition? It turns out he’s just black, having grown belatedly into his “family lineage.” As a black director, Van Peebles insisted on two changes to the script: one, he cast a black actor, Godfrey Cambridge, who is only briefly in whiteface at the start; two, the race transformation isn’t reversed at the end—Raucher originally had the hero wake up and realize it was all a dream. While the opening of Van Peebles’s film is infused with the script’s antic minstrelsy, the denouement grows moody and somber. White neighbors threaten, then bribe, the newly black hero to leave town. His wife rejects his sexual advances (“I’m still liberal, to a point,” she insists) and absconds with the kids. Eventually, he starts his own black business and joins a black community. The film ends with him leading a group of black men in karate practice, in a seeming embrace of black power. The affective shift between the first and the last parts of Watermelon Man makes the whole an uncanny, avant-garde work of art.

While both white and black people swap skins for pleasure and privilege, no black person is ever turned white as a punishment. It is somehow inconceivable that to become white could ever be undesirable.

We see the same medley of tone in contemporary race transformation tales by black artists. In Jordan Peele’s 2017 hilarious horror movie Get Out, wealthy white people buy black bodies to inhabit for physical perks: stronger tendons and a longer life, but also, for one character, a better photographic “eye,” implying that Du Bois’s “second sight” has become a desirable commodity. Identity transfer takes place through the quasi-medical form of brain transplants: a “Coagula procedure” that starts with hypnosis—a spoon circling the inside of a teacup—then moves to “transplantation,” a partial lobotomy and replacement with the brain of a white “master.” The film literalizes double consciousness through medicalized “zombies” who are black and white, slave and master, in one body. But even more sinister than the science fiction or the horror in Get Out is the realism of the black hero’s encounters with his white girlfriend’s family, whose seemingly bland liberalism—beautifully satirized in her dad’s aside, “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could”—conceals a sadistic white supremacy.

In Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s 2019 burlesque We Cast a Shadow, the racist condescension of his white co-workers induces a black New Orleans businessman to dress up like a “Zulu chief ” and dance to a “dark tribal beat”: “If I could have sprung from my own body and watched myself…I would have seen a skinny, nearly naked Negro in a sumo squat, flapping his arms and legs as though they were on fire. People laughed and imitated my movements. Flashes popped.… Every time I raised my spear, they cheered louder.” We learn that he is obsessed with earning enough “copper coins” to afford a new-fangled surgical procedure called “demelanization”—not for himself but for his mixed-race son, whose dark birthmark threatens to spread over his entire face.

The recent interest in transracial identity—sparked by Dolezal and fanned by heated public debates about gender transition—becomes the occasion for a very funny documentary-style skit on Donald Glover’s TV show Atlanta, in which we see an interview with a black teenager with dark skin and a blond wig who believes he’s really “a thirty-five-year-old white man.” And in Ishmael Reed’s latest play, Life Among the Aryans, staged at the Nuyorican Poets Café, a white woman uses a “racial-reassignment serum” in order to try to collect reparations.

A lovely irony, this: that becoming black, a condition still so tied to the body in the American imagination, is often associated with the awakening of the mind.

These works of race transformation use satire to highlight the monstrosity of racism, especially the way even apparently liberal nonracist whiteness can abruptly tip into paternalism and, worse, horrific violence. Like their white compatriots, black authors play with the tropes of the genre of race transformation and elaborate on familiar themes: sexual exoticism and disgust (penis size comes up here, too, or as Ruffin’s narrator puts it, “the myth that all us black men were hung like Clydesdales”); the suggestion that blackness is somehow closer to the body; and the spiritualized notion of a racial “soul.” But I think they also offer a countermodel to the idea that race is property.

For one thing, race in these stories is not a set of fixed physical properties. When it comes to so-called phenotype, black communities in America have always been heterogeneous: multiple shades, shapes, and textures abound. These stories render skin- or hair- or features-based conceptions of race altogether absurd precisely by showing up the fact that many white Americans have black blood in the family—and vice versa. Yet, in historical legal terms, the surreal “one-drop rule” meant that even an enslaved person who could pass was barred from buying “whiteness” and full freedom.

In short, race was never a property that black people could buy or own. We might even say that black American cultures came into being in resistance to property, as a refusal of the very idea of purchasing people or their ways of speaking, making art, and relating to each other. Blackness is, in the parlance of scholars like Fred Moten, fugitive. This is a matter of adaptation: for cultures to survive, they must be willing to grow and change. They cannot be pegged to specific properties or values—this would constrict them or turn them into a parody of themselves.

Indeed, when we take a Pan-African view of black diasporic communities, we cannot help but notice how radically inclusive they are—welcoming biracial and multi-ethnic people, even those who had no choice in the attenuation of their blackness. Compare this to the fastidious parsing and policing of “who is white” that we find in American legal history. In this relational and communal black conception of race, race cannot belong to a “proper self,” an individual.

Black American cultures came into being in resistance to property, as a refusal of the very idea of purchasing people or their ways of speaking, making art, and relating to each other.

What black-authored race transformation tales know is that personhood and race are not fungible but relative. These texts shift us toward a theory of race that is neither wholly constructionist (the idea that it’s a fiction) nor wholly essentialist (the idea that it’s real). Rather, race emerges as both: a matter of performance within a material, body-based paradigm; a series of repeated and self-consciously fictional acts (interracial responses; cultural tropes and gestures) that, over time, constitute a lived experience and, in relation to other people, forge a community.

If the white theory of race as (being) property is emblematized by money, the black theory of race as what escapes (being) property can be analogized to something else we engage with daily: time. Both metaphors convey how race is at once real and unreal: we impose divisions and values on to material cash and coins, and we impose divisions and values on to the invisible passage of time. But a money metaphor for race transformation is flashy, fickle, and fluctuating—a spinning coin of value, heads and tails alternately coming into view. A time metaphor is steady, ongoing, and open to contingency—not a stopwatch or a clock, but a history, a process. Race is not a genetic reality, but insofar as it is an identity or a culture with real-world consequences, it entails time and effort.

Speculative race transformation tries to take a shortcut to the pleasure, pain, passion, and perversity of race.

Historically, we know that becoming white is a process, a legal one that befits its association with physical property, and has historically used court cases and legislation to admit various ethnic groups—Jews, Aryans, the Irish—into the ideological fold. And, according to William E. Cross, becoming black is a cultural and psychological process that he dubs nigrescence: the development of “a collective identity or sense of peoplehood that enabled Blacks from diverse backgrounds to be linked together” and share “a common cultural historical experience, resulting in a common world view.” Three aspects of Cross’s theory of nigrescence are relevant here. First, “There is no one way to be Black. Being Black involves a wide spectrum of thoughts and orientations. The discourse on becoming Black and what it means to be Black echoes throughout Black history.” Second, “At the heart of this identity conversion was not so much the dynamics of personal self-hatred as the metamorphosis of a Eurocentric world view into an Afrocentric one.” And third, “Blackness is a state of mind, not an inherited trait, and its acquisition often requires considerable effort.”

Hence the very different emphases on the diversity, duration, and difficulty of race transformation in texts by authors of distinct races. A story by Keeler or Keller, a journalistic account by Griffin or Sprigle can make the process of becoming black seem easy—or, rather, facile—a matter of darkened skin, minstrel-level dialect, living in the hood, and so on. But Van Peebles’s Watermelon Man slows down considerably once the protagonist learns that he is black for good: he spends time, he hangs out, he learns, he grows; over the years, he becomes “conscious.” (A lovely irony, this: that becoming black, a condition still so tied to the body in the American imagination, is often associated with the awakening of the mind.) In Get Out, putting a white person’s mind inside a black person’s body is hardly sufficient for race transformation. The black victims of the surgery don’t look white nor are they fully brainwashed. Their bodies stay black and a “sliver” of their black consciousness remains, emerging from “the sunken place” in brief, emotional glimpses: tears, anger, and abrupt warnings for the hero to “Get out!” We come to understand that blackness isn’t reducible to bodies—their running “legs,” their photographic “eye”—but is rather something that comes from experience over years, conveyed in the film through the black hero’s literally salvific relationship with his black best friend.

Speculative race transformation tries to short-circuit the time of racial passing, to take a shortcut to the pleasure, pain, passion, and perversity of race. In so doing, it shortchanges the way race can be an experience of culture and community, one that can only happen in time, over time, through time—one which we would want not to get out from, but to move deeper into, move gradually with. Rather than “passing,” “reverse passing,” or “switching” between races—and rather than indulge in Barnum’s taxonomic barking—perhaps we might treat race as what I hope this essay has provoked: a contingent, curious, and ongoing “movement” of the mind.

Namwali Serpell is a Zambian writer and a professor of English at Harvard. She is the author of Seven Modes of Uncertainty, The Old Drift: A Novel, Stranger Faces, and The Furrows: An Elegy.
Originally published:
September 27, 2021


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