On Passing

Season 3, Episode 4

Belle da Costa Greene and Nella Larsen are two librarians of color, one who is white passing, and the other of mixed heritage who wrote famously about the phenomenon of passing in her novels. We're telling the stories of these women and asking what they can tell us about race in librarianship and in literature.

Want to learn more about the topics brought up in this episode? Check out the following links.

Check out the list of books recommended for this episode. 

Episode Transcript

“Miss Belle da Costa Green is fortyish with brown hair and wears horn-rimmed spectacles. ... My first impression of her was that she looked bloated, as if she had a touch of dropsy or perhaps drank too much although she’s not overly heavy and still not thin. … and her skin must be very swarthy for she wore white powder which made her look kind of speckled gray like the Negro you see pouring dusty cement into the mixers on building construction jobs."

Adwoa Adusei So, this is a description of Belle da Costa Greene, the inaugural director of the Pierpont Morgan Library, now the Morgan Library and Museum, a position she held for 43 years, up until her retirement in 1948.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Okay…. but what was that letter about? 

Adwoa Adusei Um, yeah. It was written by E. V. Maun, a bookseller, to the collector Morris Parish in 1934. Parish had sent Maun on a mission to discuss book acquisitions with Belle da Costa Greene. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Okay, so this is a conversation that was happening about Belle da Costa Greene in her professional capacity. Then, why did the letter spend so much time on her physical appearance?

Adwoa Adusei I mean, while I was reading this letter, that’s exactly what I wanted to find out. I wanted to dive in and figure out what was so fascinating about a woman librarian at the turn of the 20th century that warranted such scrutiny of her physical form. I mean, Belle da Costa Greene, as I mentioned, was the director of the Morgan library and this was a conversation about books. But the interesting thing is that the description written by Maun is not so out of the ordinary for press coverage of Greene at the time. Most of the press about her talked in equal parts about her prowess in the field of librarianship and it was also about what she looked like. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras There Is a lot there about what it’s like to be a professional woman at the turn of the 20th century, right. That kind of scrutiny on a woman’s dress and her body wasn’t too unusual, because there just were not that many professional women at the time. Actually, librarianship was one of the few fields, along with shop work, and sewing, and teaching, that offered respectable — and thus competitive — opportunities for women in the workplace. Those jobs were chances for these women to achieve some amount of freedom at the time. There’s this 1914 article published in Munsey’s Magazine that was profiling several prominent working women — architects, shop managers, artists — and it argued that these women defined the feminist movement. And Greene gets a whole section to herself. The author of the article wrote, “the sharpest of art collectors knew that they had found in Belle Greene a competitor who was worth their mettle. They were rubbing elbows with a captain of the real feminist movement.” 

Adwoa Adusei Um, I mean, whether or not she was a “captain of the real feminist movement," she had a really powerful job! She decided what her employer, JP Morgan, collected and archived, which in turn determined what scholars studied and what patrons had access to. 

 Krissa Corbett Cavouras All of this makes librarianship seem like the coolest job on the planet.

Adwoa Adusei Right? From what I read about da Costa Greene, she was not one to shy away from this kind of glamour. She was always fantastically dressed, and had portraits commissioned of her throughout her career. But, da Costa Greene has a different kind of legacy, as well. The daughter of Richard Theodore Greener, the first African American to graduate from Harvard University, Belle da Costa Greene was a Black woman passing for white while holding a position of authority and influence in early 20th century librarianship.

Portrait of Belle Greene, taken by Clarence White, circa 1910.
(The Morgan Library & Museum. ARC 2821)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Today on Borrowed we’re looking at race not just in America, but also in librarianship and literature.

Adwoa Adusei I’m Adwoa Adusei.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras, you’re listening to Borrowed, stories that start at the library.


Adwoa Adusei Krissa, you and I both studied librarianship nearly 100 years after da Costa Greene’s imprint on the field. Did you have any examples of librarians that you looked up to before or while you studied library science?

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Well… fictional or real? 

Adwoa Adusei Either. Both? 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras When I was in my late teens and early twenties I was a huge fan of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and Anthony Stewart Head’s character on that show, Rupert Giles, was the librarian at the high school in Sunnydale, and he had this meticulous, organized and obsessive mind that I think I really responded to before I knew I wanted to be a librarian. How about you, Adwoa? Did you have any librarian heros? 

Adwoa Adusei I had a few, yeah! In chronological order, I think I’d start with Katherine Hepburn’s character Bunny Watson in The Desk Set.

[Telephone ring]

Bunny Reference, Ms. Watson. 

Alice Bunny? Alice. Mr. Cutler’s on his way down to see you. 

Bunny He is? Thanks, Alice. Thanks a lot. He’s on his way down. Where’s my lipstick? Darn!

Adwoa Adusei [Laughs] Very feminist. Then, when I was in library school, I watched Party Girl, which is about Mary, a young girl played by Parker Posey, trying to figure out her life, and she falls in love with the library.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That scene where Mary is yelling at the patron about reshelving the books! I think that’s just formative cannon for library students.

Mary Why are we wasting our time with the Dewey decimal system when your system is much easier? We’ll just put the books anywhere! Hear that, everybody? We’ll just put the books any damn place we choose!

Krissa Corbett Cavouras [Laughs] That's a pretty amazing movie, and obviously, we do not yell at our patrons in a public library like that. But, Adwoa, I think our examples are pretty telling … because, you know, even though these are all fictional characters, it’s still just white people. And that actually largely sums up the profession over the last 100 years; it’s predominantly white. 

Adwoa Adusei Researching for this episode really made me think about whether or not I had many examples of librarians of color growing up and … the answer is no. I did not understand it as a field of study that I could actually pursue, partly because there were so few examples in pop culture that I could point to. And librarianship on the whole seemed like a huge gate-keeping to knowledge. It didn’t feel attainable, and thus it wasn’t attractive to me. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Mm-hm. They tend to portray librarians as these frumpy shushers in cardigans.

Adwoa Adusei Yeah, that’s definitely a big stereotype. I wish I had had Greene as a role model, you know, this glamorous, smart, ambitious Black woman. It may have convinced me to become a librarian sooner. But the truth is that she is not really widely well known, even today. And that’s pretty intentional on Greene’s part. She burned all of her personal correspondence before her death in 1950. And another reason we don’t know much about her today is that her identity, even while alive, was shrouded in mystery. We know that Belle’s mother, Genevieve Ida Fleet, separated from her father, Richard Theodore Greener, and at that point, Belle, her mother and siblings, changed their last name from Greener to Greene and accounted for their physical ethnic features by calling on Portuguese ancestry. From then on, Belle da Costa Greene passed as white in America at a time when being Black would have been a barrier in the field of librarianship. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Right, passing was not an uncommon phenomenon. Cultural economists at Northwestern University and the University of Southern California have estimated by using census records from 1880 through 1940 that between 7 and 10 percent of the Black male population were likely to have passed for white. We’re going to link to their research paper and other resources in our show notes. And, another thing to note about racial passing in America it that it was not a decision that people could just make on a whim. Choosing to pass meant involving the co-operation of other friends and family members, and it meant leaving behind an entire community and culture. Historian Allyson Hobbs wrote about that in her book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America. She said, "To write a history of passing is to write a history of loss.” And, what Hobbs is talking about is that this decision to pass as white tells us as much about the person who's making the choice as it does about race and society more broadly.

Daria Foner The phenomenon of passing was well known at the time, and it was a choice available to light skinned African Americans. 

Adwoa Adusei This is Daria Rose Foner, the research associate for the director at the Morgan Library and Museum, which is curating an exhibition of the life and legacy of Belle da Costa Greene. I spoke to her a few months ago, and she helped put Greene’s life in context.

Daria Foner I mean, it's important to remember that America in 1905, the year she began at the Morgan, was a deeply racist and rigidly segregated society, with the system of Jim Crow, you know, firmly in place, even in the North, even in New York. And in the United States at that time, race was defined by the one drop rule. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So, for listeners who might not know about that phenomenon, the one drop rule basically made it so that anyone who had just one ancestor of African descent was determined to be Black in America. 

Daria Foner So there were tremendous barriers to advancement for Black men and women, barriers which lasted well into the 20th century. The combination of being a woman and Black would have made it doubly difficult for her to get a job of this caliber.

Adwoa Adusei According to Daria Foner, da Costa Greene’s legacy on the institution was tremendous.

Daria Foner She understood the institution to be a repository for scholars. And she really encouraged scholars to come and use the material there. But, you know, she also began the exhibition program, and also she really developed the Medieval and Renaissance manuscript collection, which is one of the cornerstones of the Morgan’s collection to this day.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras It’s amazing to think that, fundamentally, this collection, which scholars all over the world have come to rely on for almost 100 years was curated by someone who would not have been welcomed in the same way if her true biological identity was revealed.

Adwoa Adusei Belle da Costa Greene collected and bargained on behalf of the Library with unparalleled skill. Her tactics were disarming and daring.

Daria Foner There's a wonderful story that when the library of the British aristocrat Lord Amherst came up for sale in 1908 in London, Belle was determined to acquire his collection of works printed by William Caxton. So she wrote to Morgan, saying that this would make his collection “unique au monde,” unique in the world. And he authorized her to bid up to 32,000 pounds. Instead, though, she arranged a private deal with Lord Amherst: 25,000 pounds in cash, payable immediately, but it had to be done by private treaty in advance of the public auction. So she really totally out-foxed all of her competitors. And her coup, when it was discovered, the next day, the day of the auction, made newspaper headlines.


Adwoa Adusei Together with her prowess, it was Belle herself who became headline worthy: Whether eliciting rumors of affairs with J.P Morgan or garnering praise for her fashion choices, da Costa Greene famously quipped, “Just because I’m a Librarian, doesn’t mean I have to dress like one.”

Krissa Corbett Cavouras On the surface, it seems like women in general were under a microscope for their demeanor and decorum in professional fields. So, a person’s racial identity would really intensify that scrutiny.

Adwoa Adusei Absolutely. Although there was some speculation as to her ethnic origins, like in the letter I read at the beginning of the episode, in an odd way da Costa Greene maintained control of her image. She often posed for portraits, whether paintings or photographs, and there's still a sculpture of her on display at the Morgan. And, it's only professional correspondence that she kept for posterity. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So, this brings us to our other part of the episode, Adwoa. When it comes to taking control of her image, Belle has a lot in common with another librarian at the beginning of the 20th century. Although this woman was a librarian for a much shorter period of time, she left an indelible mark on American literature. Her name is Nella Larsen.


Adwoa Adusei So, I recognize Nella Larsen as the author of such Harlem Renaissance staples as Quicksand, which was published in 1928 and Passing, which was published in 1929, but I did not realize she was also a librarian.

Photo of Nella Larsen taken in the 1920s.
(Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division,
The New York Public Library. "Nella Larsen, author" New York Public Library Digital Collections.)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yes, for roughly five years, Larsen worked at the New York Public Library, including the Harlem Branch at 135th Street. After her time as a librarian, she had a fairly meteoric rise in the literary world and, unlike da Costa Greene, there wasn’t as much mystery about Larsen’s origins.

Bridgett Pride She was born to a West Indian father and a Danish mother. And what's most noted about her is that she was a very light complexion. And in a lot of her work, she talks about this notion of passing for white, which, when she was born in 1891, was a really big deal. So she really addresses this in a lot of her work.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s Bridgett Pride, a reference librarian for the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Books Division and also the Art and Artifacts Division of NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. We spoke to her about Nella Larsen and her time at NYPL, and it’s true that Larsen addresses the complicated nature of race and passing in her writing. 

Adwoa Adusei That’s right. Larsen’s second novel, Passing, is about two Black women of mixed race, one of whom passes as white even unbeknownst to her vocally racist white husband. The two women re-connect later in life, and racial dynamics play a big role in the unfolding tragic events in the novel. Larsen grapples directly with the concept of passing in the book. She calls passing “breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly.”

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Larsen was really one of the first women authors to write so openly about passing. And, she broke barriers in other ways, too. Here’s Bridgett Pride again.

Bridgett Pride She's one of the very first Black librarians within the New York Public Library. And it was really special that she was placed at the 135th Street branch library because that library primarily served the Black and brown community of Harlem. And so it was amazing that she, as even a light skinned Black woman, was the librarian for that community. She was able to kind of rep her people and be that friendly face of a race woman working in that institution. So, I kind of love that about her. [Laughs]

Adwoa Adusei Larsen is clearly another pioneer, whom I certainly would have welcomed as a non-fictional representative when I studied library science. So, it’s a bit surprising that little is known about her in this time period. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras I was surprised, too! But, like Belle da Costa Greene, Larsen left very few personal papers behind when she died. And it’s interesting, also similar to Belle da Costa Greene, Larsen had a lot of pictures taken of herself in her lifetime, showing her in the thick of things during the Harlem Renaissance There are photographs in the Schomburg of her with poet Langston Hughes, and tt was actually photographer Carl Van Bakhtin famous for capturing the Harlem Renaissance who introduced her to publisher Alfred Knoph, who then helped launch her literary career. 

Adwoa Adusei Yeah, in my mind I think of Larsen as a sort of this literary figure that rubbed shoulders with Black Harlem Renaissance elites, and it never occurred to me to question how she might identify racially, because her literature is often described as loosely autobiographical. And she was also married to a prominent African American physicist, Elmer Imes, and so the two of them together would have been like this Black power couple, I thought.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras In fact, we don’t know for sure how Larsen racially identified, but we can only infer that she did acknowledge the liminal spaces her identities occupied. Larsen’s application into library school in 1922 caused a bit of stir because she was the first African-American woman to apply to NYPL’s partnership program through Columbia University. The linguistics professor Barbara Hochman discovered her application in Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Archives. Larsen’s own contemporaries sort of filled in blanks for Larsen’s identity: on her application where Nella has written down her family history, the word “Negro” had been clearly written in someone else’s handwriting under the name of Nella’s father. And, Larsen’s application stands out in other ways: Larsen’s list of ten recently read books would have stood out because it was the only one to include a Black author. It had W.E.B. Du Bois’s Dark Water, and it was also heavily populated with non-fiction works that questioned the transitory nature of nationhood, of gender roles, and to an extent, of race. A Southern alumnus of the program even wrote in to denounce Larsen’s acceptance.

Adwoa Adusei It’s interesting to think of all the stir a mere application could cause, when literally a few miles away Belle da Costa Greene was becoming the Morgan’s first director.  The juxtaposition is striking, and I think it speaks to what it meant to have mobility as a Black professional woman at the turn of the 20th century. Namely, it was really hard, and that passing, as we’ve been describing it, was far from cut and dry, that these two librarians could have such similar and yet dissimilar experiences in the field. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras In 1930, Larsen was then the first African American woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction writing, but never finished the third novel she was working on. By the 1930s, after allegations of plagiarism, Larsen returned to nursing rather than to librarianship and literature. She worked the rest of her life as a nurse, in Brooklyn, and she's buried in Cypress hills cemetery. So, it’s a striking choice for someone who was so successful as a writer, and I wondered about why Larsen made that switch. So, we put that question to Bridgitt Pride. Here’s what she had to say.

Bridgett Pride I'm wondering if it has anything to do with being launched into the Depression where, like, people don't have the time or the energy to put into passing or like navigating spaces that may be hostile to them. Did it become too dangerous to continue to have these conversations about passing? Was this too much, like, information where folks started to question and really, like, scrutinize how people were looking and showing up in spaces to try to figure out if someone really had the background that they said they did?


Adwoa Adusei This kind of reminds me of something that Daria Foner, the researcher at the Morgan, and I discussed about reserving judgement about those that chose the path of passing. And what Bridgett brings up forces us to also look at these women as products of their age, fighting for access to resources, and knowing that the scrutiny of their positions or merits were likely to stop on the surface level: looking at race alone.  

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So, why are we having this conversation now, right? For me, making this episode brings to attention the inequalities of cultural institutions in America, which include libraries. This story is a story that we’re dealing with today, still: the inaccessibility of resources to certain people. In the case of libraries, specifically that means access to books and information and reading. But at the heart of these women’s stories are these conversations about race and society.

Adwoa Adusei That’s right, their experiences with passing and social mobility center around two tools: a love of books and a love of reading, tools which they used to negotiate their place in society. To some of our listeners this might sound like a familiar subject, one which we discussed in a previous episodes about race and librarians of color in this century.

An African-American staff member at Brooklyn Public Library
with young patrons at Brownsville Library, when it re-opened in 1963.
(Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras In an earlier episode we did this season, "Marching Onward," we spoke with two Black librarians at BPL, Iman Powe-Maynard and Vivian Parham, about the professional challenges that they face because of race: microaggressions that question their ability based on nothing but assumptions. We can see in the success of da Costa Greene and Larsen’s thoroughly modern take on race rigidity, that this phenomenon of passing perfectly underscores the idea that race is a social construct. 

Adwoa Adusei And, if race is socially constructed, then scholars, artists, writers, and apparently librarians, have tried to unpack that construction for decades: from pre-Civil War America to 21st century America, social perception of race has not only been about genetics but has also has been distilled down to what you wear, how you speak, and who can vouch for you.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Allyson Hobbs, who we mentioned earlier, she noted that before the Civil War, in order for a racially ambiguous, that is to say a fair skinned enslaved person to pass into freedom, they would temporarily adopt codes of acting or dressing that others would perceive as only possible if you were genteel, a genteel white person. And she describes as “passing through whiteness” in order to pass to freedom. And, these larger cities where freed Blacks were professional artisans and tradesmen, the opportunities for an enslaved-person to literally refashion themselves to freedom by adopting that profession meant that racial ambiguity was more than just skin-deep.

Adwoa Adusei Today, we might call what Krissa has just described as code switching. A recent virtual panel series called “Conversations from the Heart” was organized by the New York Caucus of Black Librarians, and colleagues got together to have a candid conversation about race and code switching in the workplace. Panelists spoke of the types of tools that Black and BIPOC librarians have to develop and utilize that their white colleagues might never have to think of. Among the panelists was BPL's own regional librarian Taina Evans, and she joins us now to tell us a little bit more about the panel and her own experience as a Black librarian. Hi, Taina!

Taina Evans Hi!

Adwoa Adusei So first we wanted to ask, when you heard about the panel, what were some of your interests? Why did you want to be a part of this panel specifically? 

Taina Evans So I had my idea of what code-switching was, coming as a Latina, Afro-Latina woman, struggling with my role as a Spanish speaking librarian. But I look African-American, you know, and constantly being asked, you don't look you don't look Spanish, you know. What is that supposed to mean? No one no one is like born thinking that the way that they speak have a certain look to it. I just feel like my personal experience, sometimes I had to code switch between, you know, being a Latina woman and also being a professional, and that I don't sound like a Afro-Latina woman, I don't sound like I have an accent ... it's just kind of weird. You know, again, just a personal reflection, like, you know, were my colleagues accepting of who I am and the promotions that I receive because of how I showed up in the workplace? Or was it because I fit in into, you know, a certain culture? 

I think the panelists talked about The Souls of Black Folks, that W.E.B. DuBois wrote about this double consciousness, that you're always looking at oneself through the eyes of others and "measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." And this was written over 100 years ago, still like this double consciousness that still exists today. And, you know, and they're calling that code switching.

Adwoa Adusei Thank you so much, Taina, and also, thank you for reading the DuBois quote as well because this episode is about librarianship from one hundred years ago, where we have two black librarians, one who's white passing and the other one who, she's a part of the Harlem Renaissance. And so just it's been really interesting to see that even 100 years ago, like these were, this was an issue, you know. From the panel, do you think that either yourself or other panelists felt like there was something about librarianship specifically that made code switching necessary?

Taina Evans The panelists were kind of saying the librarians sometimes have to go between talking with their colleagues of how they interact with their patrons by adopting the language of the community. And so they go back and forth linguistically. Another thing that they, the panalists, kind of brought up was this feeling of self like, you know, is my job an affirming place where I can show up and don't necessarily have to code switch? You know, am I going to be judged if I don't code switch? Is the workplace culture truly accepting so that the person who was code switching will be in a perpetual state of questioning who they are and whether or not their colleagues are authentic because they appreciate how the individual showed up or they just are happy that they are able to fit in?

And really, I think we ended off with this concept of really trying to to be yourself as best as you can, and to challenge people to be a little bit more open minded, and I think that's what we can wish for in any of our institutions or any other place we work. Because, whether it's for our well-being, economic advancement or survival, you know, we all code switch as a strategy to navigate interactions, whether interracial interactions or we're really just trying to fit in. And so there's just like a larger implications of that.


Krissa Corbett Cavouras It isn’t a Borrowed episode without books! This time, Adwoa has actually put together a list of books that not only address passing, but also more metaphorical themes of social metamorphosis. 

Adwoa Adusei Yes! I find these subjects really captivating. The idea of "passing” through identities, whether it be via race, gender, or species, it bares a lot of literary fruit. The first book I want to mention is Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyememi. A young white girl named Boy Novak, who is raised by an abusive father in post-War New York City, and by 1950 she has run away from home to Massachusetts and then she marries into a notable family there. And, by the time she gives birth, she realizes that the family has been passing as white because her daughter is born Black. So it's a story about family and safety and communication or the lack thereof. I've heard it described as an even more magical re-telling of "Snow White," but I think Oyeyemi really beautifully distorts everything you thought you knew about how to tell a fair tale. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Mm, that sounds good. What else have you got?

Adwoa Adusei The second book is Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf. And, it's a satire, it's published in 1928, and it's like this time-traveling tale and gender-bending tale of a young, handsome nobleman in Elizabethan England, and then it twists through time over the next 300 years when Orlando sort of mystically is living the life of a woman. So it touches on things like fashion and propriety, but also property and creativity as they are tied to gender constructs.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras I love the idea of Virginia Woolf taking on any and all of that. What else have you got?

Adwoa Adusei And the third is Black No More by George Schuyler. It's another satire. It's the story of Max Disher, a Black man in Harlem, and the lengths he'll go to to participate in a new scientific procedure that changes Black people to white people after he's been rebuffed by a white woman on New Year's Eve. And as America comes to grip with its history of racism and that racism can no longer stand, we get to see what that means on a more personal level for Max, his friends, and his new family.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Everyone, that was Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf, and Black No More by George S. Schuyler. For these books and more on the theme, you can find a link in the episode’s show notes to Adwoa's list at B-K-L-Y-N Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts.


Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me, Krissa Corbett Cavouras, and Adwoa Adusei. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, B-K-L-Y-N Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts.

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is produced by Virginia Marshall and written by myself and Virginia Marshall, with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.  

Krissa Corbett Cavouras You can find information and links to several of the resources we mentioned in this episode, on our website.  

Adwoa Adusei To any future librarians out there: Remember, as Belle de Costa Greene put it: just because you’re a librarian doesn't mean you have to dress like one.