Passing

PassingPassing by Nella Larsen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I discovered this slim volume while perusing UCLA’s list of African-American novels, a dangerous activity since usually I consider myself pretty well read–that is until I stumble across a list of great authors, half of which I’ve never even heard of. I’ve taught my high school students about the Harlem Renaissance for years, but until discovering Nella Larson, the only woman writer from that time period I was familiar with was Zora Neal Hurston and the only one of her books I’d read was Their Eyes Were Watching God (I now need to put Mules and Men on my reading list). So thank you UCLA English Department for pointing out my inadequacies. I will now work to remedy them. Seriously, though, Passing is a beautifully written, albeit disturbing, novel about what would now be considered the archaic practice of “passing,” when light skinned African-Americans would pass themselves off as white in order to have access to the privileges that white people enjoy as a matter of course. Larsen doesn’t just focus here on race, however. Through the characters Irene and Clare, Larsen spotlights cultural anxieties surrounding class, sexuality, and the often cruel world of female friendships and betrayals.

In Irene Redfield, Larson has created one of the more interesting and complicated protagonists in American Literature. Irene is just riddled with contradictions. She admits that she often “passes” when her darker husband and sons aren’t around and doesn’t mind doing so in order to enjoy things like theater tickets and the ability to enjoy tea on a fancy hotel rooftop without having people question her. She is also very much offended by Clare who doesn’t just “pass” for white sometimes, but who has totally passed over into white culture, even going so far as to marry a bigot who openly professes hating black people, doesn’t know his wife is black, and calls her “Nig” because her skin darkens in the sun. In fact, after ruminating on the afternoon when she had tea with Clare and her bigoted husband, Irene says, “The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folks as well” (51). But Irene does the same thing. She uses her light skin to her advantage when it suits her and then completely dismisses her husband who has legitimate concerns and frustrations about raising his sons in racist 1920’s America. He wants to leave and move to Brazil where presumably things are more progressive, but Irene won’t hear of it. She won’t even let her husband discuss recent lynchings and American race relations with their sons. So I don’t know what to do with her. Is Larsen trying to showcase the hypocrisy that seemed to be embedded in the upper-middle class black community in 1920’s Harlem? And most importantly (Spoiler Alert!) did she push Clare out that window or did Clare fall? Clare is the one who says “to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away” (81), but it seems to me that this is a more accurate description of Irene.

This book shows quite effectively how racial identity is so difficult to classify. What makes Clare African-American? She’s described as blonde and golden and often as pale, but she has black eyes. Is race physical and biological or is it cultural? Irene seems to be making the case that it’s cultural. At the Negro Culture League Dance she explains to Hugh Wentworth, a white character that Larsen apparently based off of a real life novelist, that you can’t tell someone’s race by “looking.” Then she goes on to describe how she knew that a famous white singer was definitely truly white after talking to her: “Not from anything she did or said or anything in her appearance–Just something” (77). So race is clearly more than skin deep in Irene’s mind. She also goes on to say, “It’s easy for a Negro to ‘pass’ for white. But I don’t think it would be so simple for a white person to ‘pass’ for coloured” (78). And why is that?

I couldn’t help but think about the Rachel Dolezal fiasco when I was reading this book. She was universally derided for lying about her race and essentially “passing” as African-American. She lied about it to her employers at the NAACP and apparently lied about it to most of the people in her life. But is what she was doing “passing” or “appropriating” and what is the real difference between the two? I think what Irene was getting at in the previous quote is that if you are a member of a minority race you inherently lack privilege or power and there is an awareness of your own lack of power even when you are trying to “pass.” It’s this lack of awareness that Irene notes in the white singer. It’s an ease and an entitlement. Conversely, if you’re white, you can’t just throw off your privilege. It’s bred into your very being. So even though Dolezal wants to identify as black, she will never be able to discard all the privileges that go with being white in America–no matter how hard she tries. At least that’s my admittedly white and privileged take on it.

This is definitely worth the read and I’m only bummed that I didn’t know about Nella Larsen until now. She provides a unique take on the Harlem Renaissance and it’s interesting to think that this book takes place a hop, skip, and a jump from the word of The Great Gatsby. It would be interesting to read those books together since they both deal with wealth and class. However, when Gatsby deals with race, it’s by its absence or by the racist remarks of characters like Tom Buchanan, who is totally John Bellow’s (Clare’s husband) doppelganger. And both novels deal with the elusive American Dream. Irene’s husband knows he is locked out of it and the only way Clare can attain it, much like Jay Gatsby, is by denying her past.

So many essays to assign, so little time…

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