Filmmaker Captures Her Family’s Secret Racial Identity
Ten years ago, Robin Cloud made a call to her long lost cousins in Nebraska with a number that she had found in the White Pages online. Her cousins had been passing as White their whole lives and were completely unaware they were Black.
“They had been told they were Italian, and sometimes if the children questioned their mother Willa Mae, her response would be: ‘We’re Bohemian,’” explained Cloud.
For Robin’s Nebraskan cousins ,Willa Mae Lane, the matriarch of the family, created this fabrication and decided her family would pass as white. Passing is when a person classified as a member of one racial group but is accepted as a member of a racial group other than their own.
“She and her husband left [Harlem] so they could survive and have a better quality of life, to free themselves from racism, to obtain work, and to obtain better housing,” said Cloud.
“In my opinion, usually passing was something that allowed light skin black people to elevate their status and survive and make careers where they couldn’t get jobs,” said Cloud. “I don’t think that anyone did it wanting to leave their family and reject their family members, I mean maybe. But I think it’s more about survival.”
A filmmaker, director, comedian and writer, Robin decided to document this huge identity reveal of her newly found family members with her new documentary, “Passing: A Family in Black and White,” which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
“Passing: A Family in Black and White” was produced by Topic, which is associated with First Look Media. Seeking a platform to produce her project was a process, as a larger production company she approached stated: “People in middle America don’t want to look at a lesbian with an afro.”
Still, she persisted and found the right home for her film after she was introduced to Mona Panchal at Topic. “I found the perfect partnership for this story to be told.”
Telling her family’s story, started by finding Willa Mae Lane’s name and number online. Willa Mae was in her 90s and living in an adult care home. When Cloud initially contacted her, all her phone calls were being forwarded to her daughter, Becky Jo.
“Hey, I’m your cousin Robin. I don’t know if you’ve heard of me, probably not, but we’re related and this is how we are related,” recalled Cloud of her first conversation with Becky Jo.
“She was like, ‘Oh my, God. What?!” continued Cloud. “The first thing she said after I told her that she was, in fact, black was ‘that explains why I have to straighten my hair.’ I laughed and she was like, ‘I wonder if my father knew?’ and I said, “Yeah, your dad was also black!”
Cloud believes Willa Mae wanted to leave racial and economic oppression in Harlem where she resided. She went on to say that: “[Especially in the South at that time] a black man or woman’s position in society was extremely restricted to picking cotton, breaking corn, housekeeping and sometimes they were allowed to teach.”
She believes that people of color still seek to pass today for the same reasons that they had during slavery and the Jim Crow period. “As for today, I think the reasons could be the same, sadly I don’t think America has changed very much for black and brown people.”
The Nebraskan members of Cloud’s family believed they were white or “bohemian” because they were never told any different.
“I believe it’s the power of parental control,” explained Cloud. “When you’re little and your parents tell you who you are, you generally believe them. You have no cause to challenge them. And I would say that the parents came up with their story and they really stuck to it. Willa Mae was left as a widow with seven children after her husband died in the late 60s, but rather than going back to be with her family, she kept up with the lie and stayed in Nebraska.”
Despite the racial facade she created for her children, Willa Mae would secretly go back home and see her sister and go to the Ragin & Watson family reunions without telling her children, according to Cloud. “[This] is the part that always gets me. We even have photos of her at the reunion.”
The rest of the family knew about this long-standing secret for many years, but everyone wanted to respect Willa Mae’s wishes and not make contact. It wasn’t until Robin came along that all would be changed forever.
Cloud’s other films include “Out Again,” which was part of the 2017 Refinery29 Shatterbox Anthology. She is currently taking the AFI directing workshop, after a very competitive selection process and was one of the eight women chosen for this highly sought after program.
She is now developing a new film called “2 dollars,” a queer workplace comedy.