Friday, February 1, 2013

Effie Graham, The Passin’-On Party (1912)

This short comic novel about African Americans in Kansas is one of a kind. Steeped in familiar racial stereotypes, it is also a sly portrayal of social pretensions on all sides of presumed color lines. Finally, it bestows a quiet dignity on its subjects. In her foreword, Graham calls her book “a story of a people, one time slaves and bondsmen, now free-tongued freeholders in a western land.”

At the center of the story is a “colored” couple, Aunt June and Uncle Jerry Ferguson. As a way of showing both their poverty and their industriousness, their house is described as a “hand-made” hodge-podge of used and discarded materials. Even the house number, 004&, comes from the side of an old railroad car.

Plot. Aunt June, her health in decline, is suffering from an attack of rheumatism. Believing her life to be about to wrap up, she expresses the wish for a “passin’-on” party, that is, a reception, like white folks have. At such a function, guests are greeted by the host and “passed on” to the next person in the receiving line and then on to the refreshments.

Topeka, Kansas, c1891
Three young white folks of the town, Dorothy, Nina, and Grace, decide to arrange such an affair, to lift the old woman’s spirits. A fourth, Ralph, shows up from the newspaper to take an announcement for the society pages. Aunt June specifies that on the date of the event, black folks are welcome early and late in the day and white folks in between. Blacks, she reasons, will be on their way to or coming home from work. Given a more convenient time of day for themselves, the whites won’t have to mix with the blacks.

Aunt June and Uncle Jerry
Blacks and whites. And thus we meet a cross section of the town’s population—segregated by color. Though mostly an affable gathering of folks, bits of prejudice and systemic bias have their way of leaking through into the conversation.

The black women talk about doing laundry, ironing in white people’s basements, scrubbing spittoons, and performing other menial tasks. Their talk is salted with gossip. An employee of the grocery store is encouraged to sing a song—but not a hymn. He holds forth with “Silver Threads Among the Gold.” Another guest, a policeman, sets a plate nearby for a collection, salting it with a few silver coins.

The town mayor is the first white person to call. The mother of a crippled boy comes at the insistence of her son, who gets a hello from June whenever he passes by the house. June remembers her as being willing once to sit by her on the bus, while the other white women remained standing.

The evening gathering
At the end of the day come the “true sons and daughters of Africa.” Field workers, they are “the happiest toilers under the sun,” says the narrator, who directs this comment to any who would “blame or ridicule” them as lowly laborers. Among the evening’s guests are three generations of black folk. Oldest are the work-hardened former slaves and after them the embittered survivors of Reconstruction. The youngest are “the product of the white man’s kindly meant, but somewhat misfit, educational policy.”

A well-spoken student, Solomon, is scolded by a preacher, Brother Marcus, for putting more faith in book learning than old-time religion. When Solomon speaks harshly of white people, June reminds him that her passin’-on party was organized by whites. Well, Solomon reminds her, times have changed. She won’t debate that, but warns his generation not to get “sassy an’ wicked in yo’ hearts.”

Uncle Jerry and the party organizers
Women. Aunt June is a model of pride, dignity, and womanhood, the possessor of intelligence gained from a life dedicated to hard work. Something of a matriarch, she dominates her husband, who is exiled to the chicken house for the day. One early reviewer summed her up as the stereotypical “mammy.”

In the final scenes, she is matched against the preacher, Brother Marcus, who is free with his own opinions. She yields to him, even as he counsels a scrubwoman to stick with her husband, even though he has given her a black eye. Another woman, who sides with him, speaks of devotedly following her husband all her married life and right on to heaven.

Nina and Ralph
Romance. The story is not without a pair of young lovers. Ralph’s presence as a party organizer is partly a wish to make up for a prank played on June and Jerry when he was in high school. Another reason is to restore an acquaintance with the Judge’s daughter, Nina. She seems pleased by his attentions.

The two of them remain with June throughout the day and are present for the gathering in the evening. After the rest of the guests are gone, Aunt June gives them her blessing, and before they leave she hands Ralph one of her copybooks as a keepsake.

Wrapping up. In its portrayal of social class and race, Graham’s book is obviously meant to show readers what a white-dominated world might look like from a black perspective. While slavery and the South are remembered in the novel, the story is set in a western location, and the attitude is definitely western. Kansas may have been “bloody” in the Civil War years, but that is history. Even while there are still color lines, the spirit of western egalitarianism prevails.

Effie Graham, whose dates are unknown, was head of the mathematics department at Topeka High School. Born and educated in Ohio, she was a public speaker and magazine writer and also, apparently, an active advocate of women’s suffrage. Her second novel, Aunt Liza’s Praisin’ Gate (1916), is another comic story about African Americans.

The Passin’-On Party is currently available online at google books and Internet Archive and for kindle and the nook. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.


Photo credits:
Author’s photo, Kansas Women in Literature
Photo of Topeka, Wikimedia Commons
Illustrations from the novel by Dorothy Dulin

Coming up: Saturday music, Bobby Darin


  1. The author must have been obsessed with the racial problem and was trying to show reality for other white folks.

    1. Oscar, I can't tell at all what her motivation was, except in a teacherly way to broaden the perspective of the readers while entertaining them.

  2. I'll have to read this. I wonder if her choice of a "comic" approach made her observations more palatable (or possibly slid them under the radar) to many of her readers.

    Writing something more pointed might have been too risky.

    1. I think she's slipping quite a bit under the radar.

  3. Ron, this seems like a delightful book to read in spite of its social and racial context which seems mild on the face of it. Thanks for the fine review.

  4. Never heard of this one but sounds like something I should probably read.