The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe tells the story of Anita Hemmings, a student who passes as white to attend Vassar in the 1980s.
In some ways, this story was very foreign to me. Anita is light-skinned enough to be seen as a white woman, but subject to racism and segregation if her real identity is known. I understand that institutionalized, formalized, codified racism is a terrible and true part of our American history. Every American school kid learns about separate schools or drinking fountains for Whites and Coloreds, and about how not-equal “separate but equal” segregation really was, but the whole concept of a skin color racism when that skin color can’t be identified was confusing to me.
This novel takes place as universities are beginning to allow black students, but only some universities and only a couple students at a time, and many of their white classmates are not pleased to share classes and facilities. Vassar is not integrated, thought, so Anita begins passing to attend a Massachusetts prep school, and with a previous registration as a white student, her fair skin, and her impressive academics, she’s accepted to Vassar, where she can never let the truth out.
Throughout the novel, I empathized with Anita as she tries to blend with her wealthier and more privileged classmates. While keeping up with her rigorous classes, and taking advantage of Vassar life, she does her best to reference the same names and places her classmates do, and pretends to live the same life they have outside of school.
Because of her deception, casual college scenes are fraught with tension. Anita bumps into a classmate in Boston, and scrambles to invent an excuse why her friend shouldn’t make a polite call on her at home. Her Vassar roommate notices Anita’s handsome brother, and more than one Harvard man pursues Anita. As her worlds get closer and awkward questions come up, I really felt the tension and cognitive dissonance of Anita’s double identity, and hoped she could keep it up until she had her diploma in hand.
At the end of the book, I discovered that this story is based on an actual person and on true events, which made the blatant racism more disturbing, and also made Anita’s choice of romantic match make more sense I’d ‘shipped Anita with a certain college beau, someone who had his own secret identity, but naturally the author brought her together with the man who married the historical Anita.