“I need to keep up the act that I have been keeping up successfully for three years. You are allowed to have your own identity. I have to create mine.” -The Gilded Years, Karin Tanabe
The moment you realize the book you’re reading has your mind spinning, your heart racing with the gravity of a secret that if found out, could change the course of the character’s life. The Gilded Years is a historical fiction account of a real woman named Anita Hemmings.
Anita has 2 identities, her true self among family and close friends, and her other, she’s carefully crafted, in order to attend Vassar College. Anita Hemmings was the first African American woman to attend and graduate from Vassar College in 1897 although the school didn’t admit students of color at that time. So how was this possible? Anita made the decision to pass and enroll as a white student to obtain the education she deserved. She used her fair skin to her advantage but not without challenges.
Anita’s decision is not uncommon, in fact, it’s a decision that allowed many fair skinned people to ‘pass’ as white to obtain services or advantages they would otherwise be denied. In 1897, her senior year at Vassar, Anita steps outside of her comfort zone when she befriends the wealthy and eccentric Lottie Taylor, her new roommate. As their friendship develops, the walls of anonymity Anita has built to protect her secret, weaken to some degree, as she’s invited into Lottie social circle. Anita’s brother, Frederick, reminds her often, to stay focused on her goal. Anita can’t risk her identity being compromised; she can’t afford to blur the lines between her two selves, there is too much at stake. This becomes increasingly difficult when Anita falls in love with the handsome Harvard man named Porter Hamilton.
Anita lived two separate lives that caused her much anxiety; imagining what she’d have access to, the life she could have, if she made the decision to cross the color line permanently. Anita created an identity that allowed her to attend the college of her choosing; a decision some encouraged and supported her in making, but a decision others judged her severely for–as a betrayal to her race and heritage.
One character in the book said, “I think only someone who has lived as we have can truly understand our positions.” By reading this book and others like it, I attempt to understand the decisions many fair skinned people of color made. But it also allows me to explore and difficult it must have been to do so.
I enjoyed this book for many reasons. Anita decided to pursue the education she wanted and deserved, using her fair skin to her advantage. Some may have judged her for ‘passing’ but the support she had from her family made a difference. I could imagine her feelings, the emotional and mental anxiety she must have experienced as she kept part of herself hidden from others. How difficult it must have been to be her complete self at a time in life when we are usually figuring out who we are and what we want to become. I could also imagine how she might have felt judged harshly by others in her community for her decision to cross the color line.
Attending Vassar College in the late 1890s was not an option for a woman of color since the school didn’t knowingly admit African American students until 1940. The narrative and history in this book felt authentic, like this could have been Anita’s life. I applaud Karin Tanabe for bringing Hemmings to my attention.
I have read a few books about racial passing; Passing by Nella Larsen and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson. I read a nonfiction book called, White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing by Gail Lukasik, PhD. Lukasik relates her journey of discovering her mother’s racial background, her mother’s decision to pass, during the time of racial segregation and discrimination. Lukasik’s mother asked her to keep this a secret until after her death. I have a few more books about this topic; have you read any of these books or have some you recommend?