“When Duke Ellington and his band toured the segregated South in the early 1930s, they encountered racism wherever they went. A gorgeous Black performer also traveled with the band—Frederika “Fredi” Washington. Lithe and light-skinned, she was pale enough to “pass” as white in the color-obsessed South, and during the tour she took advantage of her skin color to slip into whites-only ice cream parlors and buy ice cream for the entire band.
Washington may have used her skin color to procure cool treats on the road, but she refused to use it for economic or social gain. During a time of harsh segregation and overwhelming bias against African Americans, she embraced her heritage. And while other actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age like Merle Oberon (who was Anglo-Indian) and Rita Hayworth (who was Spanish-American) hid their features as the price of admission to white Hollywood, Washington refused to hide behind her light skin.”
Racial “passing” allowed Black Americans to sidestep racism faced by Black people and claim the privilege of whiteness in public spaces. The practice, writes historian Robert Fikes, Jr., was “seen by many African Americans as a way of outwitting the system of oppression and making laughable fools of those who countenanced notions of white racial purity and supremacy.” But it also alienated people from others of their culture. A Black woman who passed might be considered white, but she ran the constant risk of losing her privilege once it was discovered she was really Black—and of being shunned by Black people once they learned she was claiming whiteness.
Instead of turning her back on her race, Washington reveled in it. She immersed herself in the growing Harlem Renaissance, during which her neighborhood turned into a cultural oasis and a hotbed of African-Americans artistic production. Already a talented singer and dancer, she became a chorus girl, then an actress, traveling to Europe and starring in stage productions in New York.
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