A Novel Set in Baltimore...

by Lisa McChristian

by Patricia Jones
New York, NY: Avon Books, 1999
Paperback, 384 pages, $12.50

     Baltimore’s black society comes under the microscope in Patricia Jones’ first novel, Passing, an intricate tale of family values and secrets.
       “Passing” refers to creamy-skinned African-Americans who use their light skin tone to cross into the white world. Privileged and possessing the complexion just right for passing, the Giles family prides themselves on the accomplishments of their black ancestors and would never think of denying who they really were—but they can “pass.”
       Eulelie Giles is the proud matriarch of one of this elite and sophisticated black family. From High Tea to ladies’ social clubs, Eulelie has worked hard to place herself at the top of the social ladder. She worships her light skin like a sacred treasure and instills in her four adult step-children the importance of distinguishing the difference between acceptable and unacceptable blacks. With a dictator-like authority she controls their lives, dismissing friends if they are too dark or too poor.
      When her step-son Gil announces plans to marry Sandra, a dark-skinned girl from the wrong side of the city, Eulelie watches her world crumble around her.
       Observing from the sidelines is Lila Giles. She wants to remain loyal to the woman who raised her, but is tired of her sheltered privileged life. In Sandra she sees the woman she wants to be, a woman who fights the outside world for acknowledgement and defends herself to Eulelie for respect.
       This book is an unusual combination of drama and suspense. The words make you feel like you are listening to a real family argument. As you turn the page you anticipate who will have the next life-altering secret revealed. The characters are realistic, torn between keeping up appearances or being true to themselves. Lila is a fantastic heroine, flawed and completely human. You can feel her division. Raised to judge others by skin pigment and monetary value, Lila yearns to fall in love with someone for who he is, and not because her mother will approve.
       Part of the fun of reading this novel was identifying with the location. Jones grew up in Baltimore. Her descriptions of Cherry Hill and Lexington Market really connect you to the story. You know she has walked the streets and taken part in real Baltimore living.
      Jones, a former editor of Black Enterprise magazine, has had her work published in Ms., Essence, Family Circle, and Woman’s Day. She lives in New York with her husband and daughter.

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This story was published on September 1, 1999.