Passing: A Classic Case of Shame and Tragedy

By Siahyonkron Nyanseor

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
August 11, 2007


“Passing: A Classic Case of Shame and Tragedy”, is a fictional story about a unique place called the Afrikan Republic of Dukor, whose citizens were somehow confused about their identity. The events narrated here took place throughout the 1960s and up to the 1990s, during which becoming civilized was a common practice then. Yet, I am told this practice exists today in Dukor. The characters in this story consist of a 10 year old female named Josephine Brown (Glaybomah Jangjay), Kwiimah, Josephine’s natural mother, Willie Mae Brown (age 12), the natural daughter of John and Mary Brown of the Rocktown suburb of Freedomville in the Capital of Dukor; Abraham George Jefferson, MD, who from age 5 was adopted by Rev. James and Mother Marian Ann Jefferson, missionaries from the United States stationed in the Compound Number 1 District of Grand Bassaw County in the African Republic of Dukor.

Although this is a fictional story, I believe if not most, some readers of this story will be able to relate to this tragedy. And while there may be some resemblance to names, persons, places and events, they should be considered as purely coincidental and must be treated as such.

“Passing: A Classic Case of Shame and Tragedy” reminds me of the movie – “Imitation of Life”, a 1959 adaptation of Fannie Hurst's novel of the same title. The movie that has become a classic, is about two widows - one white, Beatrice Pullman (Claudette Colbert), and one black, Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) decided to pool together their creativity and resources to go into business by opening a waffle shop. Their endeavor turned into a financial success; thereafter, they opened several chains of coffee shops that sold their unique product line - Delilah's waffle recipe and Bea's maple sugar-candy hearts. The duo soon realized the mixed blessings their success brought them had complicated their relationships with their own daughters. Feeling neglected, Bea's daughter, Suzie, rebelled against her mother. Eventually, she attempted to steal her mother’s fiancé away, while Delilah's daughter, Sarah Jean, a beautiful high yellow mulatto girl, tried passing for white, and in the process, completely disconnected herself from her race, including her natural mother.

As a teenager, Sarah Jean’s obsession to pass as white became more intense; she began dating a white boy, who beat her severely after he learned she was black. Soon after, Sarah Jane began sneaking out at night to perform in a flimsy nightclub posing as a white female. One night when her mother showed-up to fine her, she was fired. Sarah Jane’s subsequent refusal to acknowledge her mother’s love and affection for her, took physical toll on the older woman. Lora, her mother’s business partner who at the time was on a trip to Italy returned to find out that Sarah Jane had run away from home. Lora had Steve; her fiancé hired a detective to find Sarah Jean. The detective located Sarah Jane in California, living as a white lady under a pseudo name. The rejection had Annie so depressed; she became extremely sick. The illness was so intense that her frail body was wearing away, which increased her sadness to the point that she decided to fly to California to see her daughter one last time to say goodbye. After the California trip, Annie became bedridden; Lora and Suzie both took care of her.

Meanwhile, the issue regarding Suzie’s crush on Steve, her mother’s fiancé was brought to Lora’s attention by Annie. Suzie, on the other hand, found out that Steve and her mother had planned to get marry. Suzie confronted her mother of her planned wedding to Steve. The answer she got was not pleasing; she felt hurt, and decided to go away to school in Denver, Colorado to forget about Steve. As soon as she left for Denver, Annie who was seriously sick died, apparently ‘of a broken heart’. Based on Annie’s last wishes, she was given a lavish funeral, which was held in a large mega church, complete with a parade-like procession with a horse-drawn hearse, and Mahalia Jackson, the gospel star, was in attendance to sing “Trouble of the World”. Before the procession started, the regretful Sarah Jean appeared, ran through the crowd, threw herself upon her mother’s casket, began to ask for forgiveness for all the trouble she had put her mother through.

The Afrikan Republic of Dukor
As you read “Passing: A Classic Case of Shame and Tragedy”, you will see how this story is similar to the “Imitation of Life”. However, this story is a sequel to “The Troubled Liberia: A Liberian Tragedy” that I wrote, which was published in the February 14, 2005 edition of The Perspective. Both stories tell of similar dilemma; their main characters were attempting to run away from their own shadows. “The Troubled Liberia: A Liberian Tragedy” is about two brothers (George F. Washington and Gbamokollie Yarkpawolo), had the same mother (Ma Korlu) and two separate fathers – one Kwii (Commission Joseph Jenkins Washington) and the other, native or a countryman as referred to by the so-called civilized element of Liberia (Kollie Yarkpawolo); “Passing: A Classic Case of Shame and Tragedy” in the Afrikan Republic, is about a native girl of Bassaw parents who, at the age of 10, was given as a ward to Willie Mae’s parents, John and Mary Brown to raise her as a civilized and Christian lady.

Mr. Brown, who migrated to the Republic of Dukor from Lome, Togo in the 1940s, changed the girl’s names in order for her to fit (assimilate} into the Dukorian society. Mr. Brown’s birth names, prior to his migration to Freedomville, Dukor were Tehteh Okatteh. After acquiring his new name, he became a true Dukorian by orientation and lifestyle. As for Mrs. Brown, she was the daughter of a prominent Americo-Dukorian male, Gabriel Wilson Johnson, Sr., and Hawa, a beautiful indigenous woman, the daughter of one of Wilson’s workers on his rubber farm in the Kpelleh country. Both John and Mary Brown were regarded as Americo-Dukorians in Rocktown, Freedomville.

In contrast, Dr. Abraham George Jefferson, MD was reared by Rev. James and Mother Marian Ann Jefferson; missionaries from the United States. The Jeffersons’ were of the Holy Ghost Christian Foundation (HGCF), which was located at Compound Number 1 District in Grand Bassaw County. HGCF had a Church and Christian Mission school. At the age of 5, the head missionary and his wife, Rev. James and Mother Marian Ann Jefferson took in Garyu, who was given the Christian names - Abraham George Jefferson. Both of Abraham’s parents were indigenous.

In the Afrikan Republic of Dukor, there was “the acceptance of the idea that Dukor (name substituted) was God’s creation and its success or failure was indeed predetermined by providence, first of all, created an atmosphere whereby the failures and blunders of the Dukorian (name substituted) rulers were easily attributed to God.” (Amos Beyan) In addition, “Christianity was part of the structures of dominance. Professing Christianity was like speaking formal English – it identified one as belonging to the dominant class.” (Paul Gifford)

In fact The Tenth Annual Report of the Colonization Society of America (name substituted) declares, “Every emigrant to Africa is a missionary carrying the credentials in the holy cause of civilization, religion, and free institutions.”

It was due to belief mentioned above that both Willie Mae and Josephine were raised in Rocktown. They were made to believe that African culture, including names, languages and tradition were inferior to Western and Christian practices, therefore, they were not to be emulated. Ironically, these Dukorians were convinced of their superiority to the African inhabitants even though they themselves had been enslaved by whites because of their perceived inferiority for being of African descent. Yet, they felt that it was their right and duty to “civilize” the African inhabitants in the Afrikan Republic of Dukor. Most of the children, including wards living in Freedomville and the 18 counties in Dukor were socialized on this belief.

At age 10, Glaybomah Jangjay was brought to Monrovia from Grand Bassaw County to live with Willie Mae’s parents, John and Mary Brown. Upon her arrival the Browns changed her name Glaybomah to the “civilized name” – Josephine, and she was given their surname – Brown. The rationale was, names like Glaybomah Jangjay were not suited in a civilized or Christian environment. Hence, 10-year-old Glaybomah Jangjay was given a new identity; she became officially known as Josephine Brown, and the passing or civilizing process began.

The instructions Josephine received from the Browns were such that she was not allowed to speak her “native language” (Bassaw) in their home because she had to learn English and civilized behaviors. The Browns enrolled Josephine in Daniel Edward Howard (DEH) evening school, while their 12-year-old daughter, Willie Mae attended the Collage of Western Africa (CWA), a Methodist institution in the heart of Freedomville, which was a morning school. In addition to attending school in the evening, Josephine had household chores to perform, which began at 5:00 AM, lasted at times up to 10:00 PM at night.

Josephine became well socialized; acquired all of the civilized attributes, including the arrogance and air of superiority. Josephine had a neighbor about her age, who when she first came to live with the Browns was her playmate. His name was Garmonju; he was from same Bassaw background as Josephine. Garmonju spoke the same language as Josephine. At first, both of these kids communicated in their native language. However, after Josephine became obsessed with her Kwii ways, she refused to converse with Garmonju in Bassaw. But as fate would have it, both Josephine and Garmonju attended the same evening school – DEH, and were in the same grade and sessions (classes).

Josephine hardly kept in contact with her parents and brother, much more her relatives. She did not want to have anything to do with her Lappalonian mother; a reference to indigenous women who wore lappa as opposed to wearing skirt and blouse or Western attire. Josephine had a twin brother, who she never had any contact with since he was taken to the United States at the age of 5 by a missionary family. She could hardly remember his name.

After living with the Browns for several years, Josephine began to tell her schoolmates and friends that Mr. & Mrs. Brown were her natural parents, and that the Lappalonian (her mother) was the woman that babysat her when she was a child. From that point on, she refused to be identified with her ethnic group.

Garmonju being resentful of Josephine’s new behavior and nasty attitude confronted her one evening when Josephine’s natural mother came to visit her at school; he observed Josephine running and hiding from her mother. This is how the exchange between Garmonju and Josephine turned-out:

Josephine’s Natural Mother’s Visit

Garmonju: “Sister Josephine, who you hiding from?”

Josephine: “That that Lappalonian woman coming way yonder there!”

Garmonju: “But why you hiding from her?”

Josephine: “She always like to embarrass me!”

Garmonju: “Embarrassing you like how, Josephine?”

Josephine: “When she see plenty people around that’s when she like to talk that Bassaw dialect to me.”

Garmonju: “But Josephine, I thought you told us your Ma was civilized!”

Josephine: “Of course, my Ma wear dress. That Lappalonia is not my Ma!

The truth of the matter is, that the woman who took care of me when I was a baby.”

Garmonju: “But how come you resemble her?”

Josephine: “Excuse me yah, you must be joking; I don’t look anything like that Native Country Woman.”

Garmonju: “Josephine, why you’re trying so hard to pass?”

Josephine: “You man, excuse me, yah; do I look like someone passing?”

Garmonju: “But Josephine, the woman say in Bassaw you’re her daughter. ‘Or mon ni ju’ in Bassaw means you’re my daughter!”

Josephine: “My brother try hard yah, and take your trouble somewhere else.”

Garmonju: “Josephine, the thing you doing to that woman, her God will see you oh.”

Josephine: “Let her God see me! I don’t know why you’re putting your mouth in my business. That’s how people get in trouble by putting their mouth where it do not belong.”

Garmonju: “My sister, cat really licked your face oh! You should be ashamed to disown your own born Ma. Where I come from only stupid people will do what you’re doing; and you have the nerve to say I am putting my mouth in your business. Many of you Dukorians like to copy everything from abroad at the expense of your own.”

Josephine: “What do you mean by that?”

Garmonju: “In America, they have blacks that engage in passing, too.”

Josephine: “Passing to be what?”

Garmonju: “Passing to be White, to be Native-American (Indian), to have little of that blood; as opposed to having African blood. That’s exactly the same thing you’re trying to do; passing to be the person you’re not, and will never become.”

Josephine: “My brother, you have a serious mental problem. You can’t mind your own business.”

Garmonju: “My sister, you’re the one with serious psychological problem. Going around here pretending to be some kind of Kwii; when the fact of the matter is, the people you’re calling your parents, took you from upcountry when you were a child to come stay with them here in Freedomville; and now you’re thinking high mighty of yourself; looking down on your own born Ma. By the way, if the Browns were your natural parents, how come you attend evening school, wear hand-me-down clothes, eat in the kitchen; live in the servant shack behind the main house, while their daughter that look just like them, wear new clothes; eat in the dining room and attend Morning School? Tell me, how come?”

Josephine: “Garmonju, you don’t know what you’re talking about. It looks like you’re going out of your mind. My brother, leave me alone, yah; let me go attend to my school business.”

Garmonju: “Josephine, my sister, one fine day your Ma’s God will surely pay you back for the way are treating your own born Ma; very soon one day and you will regret it.”

Shame and Tragedy
Within a span of twenty five years, Josephine had graduated from high school and college, and was now enrolled in nursing school at the famous JFK Memorial College, an extension of the University of Dukor (DU). There she met and fell in love with Professor Abraham George Jefferson, MD, Dean of Medicine at the College. Dean Jefferson had some things in common with Josephine; they were from the same Compound Number 1 District where the Holy Ghost Christian Foundation mission and church were located. Dean Jefferson left there at the age of 5 to go to the United States, while at age 10, Josephine went to live in the Rocktown section of Freedomville with the Browns.

Unlike Josephine, who did not want to have anything to do with her natural parents and relatives, Dr. Jefferson wanted to find his relatives; and made several attempts to locate his twin sister as well - from whom he was separated when he left for the States. Now that his adopted and natural parents were all dead, he wanted to unite with his twin sister. But the 14 years brutal civil wars had devastated the entire country and most of the citizens had relocated, including the people in Compound Number 1 Distract of Grand Bassaw County where Dean Jefferson’s families and relatives resided. Yet, he made several trips there attempting to locate some of his relatives, especially, his twin sister. But all of his efforts were to no avail.

Josephine on the other hand, had tried to erase from her memory everything about her natural parents; but the memories of being born a twin, in the place called Compound Number 1, and the nickname “Tennen”, given to her at birth by her natural parents kept lingering in her mind. The more she tried to forget about her past, it kept haunting her, especially since she started dating Dean Jefferson, who was consumed with the thought of finding his twin sister. But up until this time, Josephine had not told her lover that she too was born a twin and that her twin brother’s nickname was “Cenn” (also spelled as Senn). In fact, she told her boyfriend that she was born in Freedomville at the Maternity Center, a Center that did not exist in 1947, year she was born. Furthermore, she never mentioned to him that she too was born a twin, and was originally from Compound Number 1 District of Grand Bassaw County. All she talked about were her adopted parents, John and Mary Brown and their daughter Marian Ann, to whom she referred as her natural sister. The Browns were among the people that were massacred when the military raided the premises of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church with automatic weapons. Displaced and frightened Dukorians inside the church’s sanctuary and classrooms, seeking safety and shelter were senselessly murdered. Josephine’s sister Marian Ann managed to escape. Presently, she lived in Buduburam Refugee Camp in Ghana with her two children, John Brown, III and Mary Brown.

As their relationship progressed, Josephine kept having edgy feelings that there was something awfully wrong about her and Dean Jefferson’s relationship. The thought of having the same birthday, July 26, 1947 and similar nickname - Senn as her twin brother kept worrying her. On the other hand, she had to concentrate on the upcoming Presidential and Legislative Elections in which the society was bitterly divided on ethnic lines. She was very confused! In the past, it used to be Americo-Dukorians vs. African Dukorians. Now, political parties were formed on the basis of counties and tribal affiliation. Josephine was having difficulties because the present reality was that those in the past who considered themselves proper Kwii were finding tribes to belong to, or affiliate with; and Josephine did not want to be left out.

By now Josephine was three months pregnant for Dean Jefferson and was confused as hell, searching for clues or answers to her dilemma; and while surfing on the world wide net, she came across Prof Ali Mazrui’s brilliant presentation: “The Challenge of Pluralism”. The presentation was made in Paris at UNESCO’s headquarters. According to Prof Mazrui, “ethnically dual societies faced more risks of polarization. …Civil wars often leave deeper scars, are often more indiscriminate and ruthless than are inter-state conflicts short of either a world war or a nuclear war. …As we grapple with new levels of conflicts in Africa, from Kinshasa to Kismayu, Maputo to Monrovia, we ought to try and identify which socio-political situations are more conflict – prone; if pluralism is to be diverted away from divisiveness towards more creative formation, certain positive values need to be identified, cultivated and institutionally consolidated …including respect for diversity, expansion of tolerance, optimization of choice and pluralization of power”.

The presentation made a profound impact on Josephine, especially, the passage about “respect for diversity”. As a result, Josephine joined the political party from Grand Bassaw – the People’s Democratic Party of Gbazon (PDPG). At this point, she began to research her background as well as the reason she and her twin brother were given the names: “Cenn” and “Tennen”. At the party headquarters; she was introduced to a Griot who served as an advisor to the candidates of the PDPG. After narrating her story to the Griot, the Griot told her that it was a tradition as well as a practice to name a child of the event surrounding his or her birth. Sundaemah, for example was a name given to a girl child born on Sunday. Since you were born July 26, 1947, the centennial celebration of Duckor, and your mother gave birth to a twin, one of which was a boy and the other being you, a girl; the boy was born first, so your parents named your brother “Cenn” (or Senn) and named you “Tennen”, which derived from the word centennial, meaning you and your brother were born when Dukor was 100 years from the time it was declared an independent republic. That’s how you and your twin brother got the nicknames “Cenn” and “Tennen”.

“But my child”, said the Griot; “You and boyfriend are really mixed-up big time; there seems to be something terribly wrong with your family history and his.”

“What do you mean?” asked Josephine.

“Let me give you a piece of advice and what I think has happened with you and him”, continued the Griot. “Several decades ago the Pan-Africanist, Marcus Garvey said to Negroes (now African Americans) in the African Diaspora that, ‘A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture are like trees without roots.’”

“So, then it means that…”

The Griot added, interrupting her, “it is a strong African belief that children are influenced by the meaning of their names, and that our creator does not make mistake to have a person born to a particular tribe or an individual’s place of birth, and the ethnic group to which he or she is born. These things are done far in advance to the likeness of the creator – who is referred to as Glapoh, God or Allah. Had you kept the names your parents gave you - Glaybomah ‘Tennen’ Jangjay and your boyfriend kept his – Garyu ‘Cenn’, the two of you would have avoided the shame and tragedy you find yourselves in at this moment”.

Josephine did not comprehend what the Griot said. So she went on to ask the Griot; “I don’t understand what you’re driving at”!

At that point the Griot who is also a Zoe said, “Josephine, I feel very sorry for you and your boyfriend; the man you called your boyfriend, for whom you have this belly is your own twin brother who has been trying to find you”.

Upon hearing the statement, Josephine fainted; when she was revived, she went to her house, urgently gathered her belongings, left town without letting anyone know, including her boyfriend about her whereabouts. As for poor Professor Abraham George Jefferson, he almost became crazy looking everywhere to locate his three-months-old pregnant girlfriend who happens to be the twin sister he has been looking for all along.

The presidential and legislative elections were finally held; Africa elected its first female president, along with senators and representatives; some of the same individuals that participated in the senseless 14 years civil wars; they had no clue what DEMOCRACY was about; the traumatized former child-soldiers were roaming the streets of Freedomville and the countryside, and the government had no plan to rehabilitate them. The last time we checked, the people were saying, nothing really changed; “it’s the same old 6 & 7”, and to put it bluntly, “old wine in new bottles”. For example, the Speaker was forced to resign; the government ordered the University to be closed after several students and members of the press were beating for protesting, and the press for covering the students’ protest; and the issue of ‘runaway’ corruption had become the talk around town, in both the Dukorian media and the Internet; the Auditor General was accused of washing the government’s dirty clothes in public, at the same time, the National Budget Director was at Harvard University doing a 4-week crash course in Budgeting, and there was an embarrassing incident of ‘John Palm Oil wasted on John’s rice at the National Port Authority between the Dukorian National Police and the Port Authority Securities for which a Commission had been established to investigate the matter.

However, on July 26, citizens of the ‘glorious land of liberty’, celebrated the country’s 160 years of independence, which was attended by foreign dignitaries, local bigshots as well as common citizens. And there were flowery speeches made; the occasion was climaxed with elaborate festivities; the people at the occasion eat well, while majority of the citizens went to bed on empty bellies; the ‘well-to-dos’ had fine time playing with their new play toys – little boys and girls, especially, 11 to 13 years old girls, to whom they refer as “IRON TITATES”, exploited them to their satisfactions.

Oh Almighty God, help the State, and all of us included for this is a paradox we have yet to fathom; may You Allah, Sno-Nyesoa have mercy upon us. Amen!

NOTE: “One of the great ironies of modern African history is that it took European colonialism to inform Africans that they were Africans. … This is clearer in the case of Black Africa than with regard to Arab African north of the Sahara, but even north Africa has been affected by this paradoxical role of Europe in fostering an African identity. To that extent, it is arguable that Europe not only created the African Diaspora by its ruthless export of millions of slaves to the western hemisphere; Europe also helped to invent Africa as we know it through the ruthless distortions of colonial rule”, wrote Prof Ali Mazrui in The Africans.

© 2007 by The Perspective

To Submit article for publication, go to the following URL: