(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“White Rat,” a first-person account by White Rat, a light-skinned African American man, begins in the present, then switches to the narrator’s experiences of “passing” as white, even when he does not want to, and then returns to the present.

When the story begins, Cousin Willie tells White Rat where he can find Maggie, who has run off with J. T.; and White Rat goes to get his wife. When they get home, Maggie kisses little Henry, her three-and-a-half-year-old clubfooted son, and fixes dinner. She says she is pregnant, and White Rat offers to give his last name to the child even though J. T. impregnated her, and tells her that no one has to know that the child is not his. She responds, “You know. I know.” White Rat and Maggie sleep in the same bed but do not have any physical contact.

In the next part of the story, White Rat recounts his experiences as a light-skinned African American. He explains that he got his nickname because his mother said that he looked like a white rat when he was born. When he attempts to call little Henry “White Rabbit” because of how he looked when he was born, Maggie objects, claiming that the boy might develop a “complex.” He then describes how people assume that he is white, which causes problems when he goes to black “joints.” He describes what happens as he and some of his friends are arrested and jailed for being drunk and disorderly. When they are locked up, the police, assuming that White Rat is white, put him in a cell with a white man, while the other African Americans are put in another cell. The police ignore White Rat’s protestations, but when he threatens his white cellmate, the police put him in a separate cell. When his grandmother Grandy...

(The entire section is 710 words.)