When trying to pick a book to read for the GIC book club in February, I had a ridiculously difficult time finding a book about a black female protagonist. (I ended up getting some advice from a Twitter stranger, though it ended up being awesome.) The book I settled on was FLYGIRL by Sherri L. Smith – a compromise, as it wasn’t a sci-fi or fantasy book but a historical fiction about WWII.
As I began to read the novel, I found I related incredibly well with the protagonist, Ida Mae, whose fair skin allows her to pass as a white woman in order to fly military planes. Throughout the book, Ida is struggling with her identity and with the social ramifications of pretending to be white.
Being white-passing is a very curious phenomenon. Like Ida Mae, I’m a person of mixed racial descent, and also like Ida Mae, my skin tone is significantly more fair than that of one of my parents. Because of my appearance, I’ve been told I “look white” – also very like Ida Mae. But unlike Ida Mae, who had to teach herself to speak “like a white woman,” my manner of speech is pretty typical of a person who grew up in the middle-class Midwest. Because of that, I grew up hearing comments like “You talk like you’re white” and “You don’t sound like you’re Asian.”
Close to the beginning of FLYGIRL, Ida gets on a bus and asks a black gentleman with a newspaper about what he’s reading, and she seems sad but not fully surprised when he starts to stand and apologize to her; he has assumed she was a white woman and that she wanted to sit in his seat. There’s a distinct sensation of alienation in the story, and it’s one that’s uncomfortably familiar for me.
As Ida experiences in the book, being mixed-race, racially ambiguous, or white-passing can be a strange and very depressing experience. She seems to not quite fit in with other blacks, yet while she fits in with the white girls in the WASP training program, she lives in constant fear of their rejection, and she’s privy to more than one unpleasant remark towards the people she considers her own. She marvels at how much better she’s treated as a white woman, but can hardly contain her guilt over it.
Ida’s guilt – and the uncomfortably familiar scenarios of being privy to incredible racism – hits home for me in ways that some people probably can’t quite relate to, though I’ve met plenty of people who could: friends who have been told “I don’t even see you as black,” and others whose light skin tones make them privy to racist and xenophobic remarks because “you look white.”
After struggling on an emotional level to read FLYGIRL, I find this book incredibly important – not only because of its beautiful writing and different perspective on the World War II era in the United States, but because the issues it addresses through Ida’s experiences and struggles are ones that people in the US continue to face today, and increasing compassionate understanding is important to a more peaceful and kind society.