By Lisa Page
As a kid, I heard that Carol Channing was Black (the word back then was negro). She was one of many celebrities rumored to pass, in Hollywood—a list that included Angie Dickenson, Dinah Shore, and others. These women had large brown eyes, full lips, and bleached blond hair. Looking white—being light-skinned—allowed many Americans to cross the color line into the mainstream, back in a time when that meant serious opportunity. But rumors are rumors.
Then Channing dropped a bomb and published a book where she admitted she had been passing since she was sixteen years old.
According to her 2002 memoir, Just Lucky I Guess: A Memoir of Sorts, Channing learned of her Black ancestry in 1937. She was on her way to Bennington College, to major in drama and dance, when her mother told her the story.
“I’m only telling you this because the Darwinian law shows that you could easily have a Black baby,” Channing said, quoting her mother. Her father, George Channing, was born in Augusta, Georgia, and his original name was Stucker. Census records from 1890 listed him as ‘colored.’ In a CNN interview with Larry King, Channing said those records were destroyed in a fire and couldn’t be verified. His mother moved him to Rhode Island for a better life.
George Channing became a newspaper editor and Christian Scientist, based in San Francisco who, in photographs, looks white. From all indications, his story rivals Anatole Broyard’s, who famously passed for white at the New York Times for many years. George Channing died in 1957, twenty years after his daughter learned he was Black.
“He wasn’t Black,” Channing exclaimed. “He was this color!” She pinched her own cheeks. Jet Magazine described him as a light-skinned man who used two different accents: one for the white world and a different one, at home, where he sang gospel music to his daughter.
When the story broke, Channing was in her eighties. Had she revealed the story earlier, she would never have had the career she had. No Black woman would have been cast as Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in the 1940s, let alone the role of Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! She wouldn’t have worn those Bob Mackie dresses on the Great White Way or been the subject of Al Hirschfeld cartoons, or made all those guest appearances on Password and I’ve Got A Secret and What’s My Line. Black celebrities, back then, were marginalized, at best.
But then, weirdly, Channing walked the story back.
“My mother and father had many disagreements,” she told talk show host Wendy Williams in 2010. Her mother may have decided “she would get even” with her father, by inventing the story. I remember how annoyed I was by this news. It was as if Channing chickened out.
“You look light-skinned,” Williams responded. “You have a thicker lip.” Williams went on to call her Soul Sister Number One.
“I don’t know if it’s true, but I hope it’s true,” said Channing. “I can sing and dance better than any white woman anywhere.”
The real passing story, here, is her father’s. Yet Channing is important. She’s the show business metaphor for racial ambiguity. Channing could “sing and dance better than any white woman anywhere” at a time when most of America thought she was white. She’s about our national obsession with the one drop rule.
Americans like stories like hers, because racial and ethnic passing is ubiquitous inside a culture known for self-invention.
But being Black is about more than biology, one drop rule be damned. Being Black is not just about singing and dancing, and shucking and jiving. Being Black goes beyond complexion—it’s a cultural thing. Think of Elizabeth Warren’s recent Indian ancestry revelation, for context. Her DNA backed up her story. But her cultural upbringing was never Native American. Without the culture, it’s just data.
“My grandfather was Nordic German and my grandmother was in the dark,” Channing told Larry King. “I got the greatest genes in show business.” She was always good with the punch line. I admire her for that.
About the Author
Lisa Page is co-editor of We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America. She teaches at George Washington University where she directs creative writing and is interim director of Africana Studies.