Passing Strange

by Marni Sandweiss.

Introduction to the discussion board

Many years ago, as a first-year graduate student, I read Thurman Wilkins’s exhaustive biography of Clarence King, the celebrated nineteenth-century explorer, geologist and writer. In a book of some 400 pages, Wilkins devoted only about four pages to King’s secret 1888 marriage to Ada Copeland (whose family name he did not know) and the domestic life they shared for thirteen years. Why was that? Was it because King was white and Copeland black?  Or because King descended from a distinguished family noted for its public service, and Copeland came from a lower socio-economic class? King played a complicated double game of deceit. His well-to-do white friends never knew of Ada and their five children. And Ada did not learn of her husband’s true identity until 1901, when he lay on his death bed. She believed herself married to a Pullman porter named James Todd.

Neither Wilkins nor King’s other biographers showed much interest in King’s domestic life. That troubled me. How could we understand King without understanding his private life?  Some of my students may recall me suggesting that one of them ought to write a play about King’s life. But no one ever did and a few years ago I decided to go back and see if I could discover anything more about King’s unusual family life.

American census records had recently been digitized. It took me just a few moments to find an astonishing document:  “James Todd” was living as a black man. The possibility that King had crossed the color line from white to black to marry the woman he loved, had never occurred to me. Nor, I think, to anyone else. Now I knew that this was a story I had to write. How could a white man who traced his ancestry back to some of the earliest settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and farther still to several signers of the Magna Carta, represent himself as a black man? And how could no one discover his astonishing double game? I decided to write this book in order to figure this out for myself.

I faced a number of challenges in writing this book. First, I had to deal with the inequities in the historical records. I sought to make Clarence and Ada equally vivid characters in the story. Because of his race, education, social class, and professional career, King – who became the first director of the United States Geological survey – left behind a rich paper trail. Copeland, however, left behind almost nothing. Born into slavery near West Point, Georgia, she left behind few records to document her life. Second, I had to cope with the fact that King sought to keep his family life a secret. He destroyed the letters Ada wrote to him, left behind no written documents that would betray his masquerade, and took care never to be photographed with his wife.

Many times, I yearned for the freedom of a novelist who can imagine – with splendid omniscience – just what her characters are really thinking. What did Ada really believe about her husband? How did King justify to himself his deceit? But I am an historian. I live and die by my footnotes. I hope my story flows with some of the narrative drama of a good novel. But it is nonfiction, and I have been very careful to signal to my readers where I am on solid historical ground, and where I am employing informed historical speculation to fill in the gaps.

Suggested topics to keep in mind

What features of late nineteenth-century culture made it possible for King to have a secret double life that went undetected for thirteen years? Would such a deception be possible in the present day?

How could King represent himself as a “black” man when he had no African ancestry at all? What does the disjuncture between his physical appearance and his racial self-identification say about the meaning of race in American life?

What did Ada Todd really believe about her husband? Should we imagine her a woman easily deceived? A practical person? A woman acting on the best information she had available to her?

Discussion Board

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