Dear Reader

The Masks Each Character Wears

Our May '23 author, Crystal Smith Paul, discusses how all the characters in the book pass as something and the benefits and struggles each face as a result.

May 26, 2023




Now that you’ve read Did You Hear About Kitty Karr?, imagine my surprise and glee when I stumbled upon the quote from 19th Century author E.R. Beadle, “Half of the work that is done in the world is to make things appear what they are not”. It became the epigraph in the early stages of writing this book because I felt it seamlessly described the tone and throughline while posing an important idea for contemplation.

In its broadest sense, passing refers to a person pretending to be something or someone they are not. This deception connects each plot within Did You Hear About Kitty Karr? and drives much of the characters’ actions as they work hard to conceal themselves. The narrative leads us to question whether deception, regardless of the reason, is worth it.

Nora was passing in her profession. Nathan is driven by the need to pass himself off as a creative genius. Lillian is passing, not only as White, but as her sister. Claire’s been passing under the radar of detection of her roots. Even Noele, is passing herself off as a regular post-grad contemplating law school.

While the complexities of racial passing are the central plotline, also explored are the ways in which Jim Crow and racial inequality causes some characters to, as Harlem Renaissance poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, “wear the mask” or “pass” themselves off as less or more (insert adjective) for safety and survival.

Racial passing and the notion of wearing the mask intersect in Blair House as the women use the pros and cons of each lifestyle to their benefit and, in some cases, detriment. Both operate under the assumption of perception; that if someone looks like/sounds like/acts like x then it must be x.

Those who are passing seem to have it all until alienation and tragedy strike. Later, the consequences of Kitty’s racial passing conflict with Nellie’s wearing of the mask as they struggle with the complexities of marriage and motherhood.

Passing [for something else] in relation to fame is an expected, even respected, concept. Many celebrities have described their alter-egos and the St. Johns’ are no different. When Did You Hear About Kitty Karr? opens, we learn Elise has been raised to wear the mask or, to hide her real self. She’s also been passing for ethnically ambiguous and by being mute on racial issues.

Hollywood and other societal constructs demand additional layers of passing. Kitty must pass herself off as just being Nathan’s assistant, then as just Sarah’s co-star. Sarah must pass herself off as whatever to land roles not originally written for Black actresses.

Beadle’s observation and the concept of passing is also a nod to conventional societal advice to, “Fake it til’ you make it.” Rebecca is described as literally stumbling upon her job as Elise’s publicist. Aaron, after a snap from a photographer’s lens with Elise, booked a pivotal acting job.

In Did You Hear About Kitty Karr?, everyone is passing for something. Removing the facades grants some of the characters peace while others remain hidden like their secrets. As readers, we’re, hopefully, left pondering the ways in which we’ve been passing in our own lives and whether the living of a lie can ever be forgiven.

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