“Passing” was practiced by some light skinned African-Americans during the early part of the twentieth century. It forms the basis of Nella Larsen's classic, Passing.
Nella Larsen (1891-1964) was an American novelist, of mixed race parentage. Her father was Afro-Caribbean and her mother a Danish immigrant. Larsen published two novels during her lifetime, Quicksand(1928) and Passing (1929). A plagiarism controversy in 1930, surrounding one of her short stories, “Sanctuary”, sapped Larsen of all literary creativity. She never published fiction again.
At a Chicago restaurant Irene Redfield runs into an old childhood friend she hasn’t seen in many years, Clare Kendry. Clare is described as stunningly beautiful, almost dangerously so. She has done well for herself, marrying a white man, Jack. There are serious problems for Clare, though, as she hasn’t told her husband – a racist – that she is actually black. If he were to find out, who knows what he would do?
Irene is also married to a white man, a doctor, who knows she is not white, although she will often “pass” for the sake of convenience – at restaurants and the theatre. Irene doesn’t want for material comforts. She has two maids, a nice house and lives elegantly. The revived friendship with Clare, however, is bringing her problems she doesn’t need. Clare keeps popping up, insisting she wants to accompany Irene on trips to Harlem as she misses the people of her own race. Irene sees this as dangerous. What if Clare’s husband, Jack, were to find out?
Clare’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and Irene does all she can to avoid her. Things come to a tragic head, however, at a New York party.
Passing tackles key American questions of race, status and class. Both women wish to be financially secure and respected, and the only true route to achieving such status is by “passing” as white. Yet this carries an enormous psychological toll. Both women suffer great anguish and discomfort. This is highlighted in the scene where Irene meets Clare’s husband, Jack, and must hold her tongue while he spouts all types of racist nonsense. Although we learn one sharp lesson from this, explicitly stated in the text: black people know more about whites than they know about them. They know how ignorant and short sighted whites are, unable to even pick up clues that would alert them to the fact these women are “passing”.
There are a few minor drawbacks with the text. Larsen writes in a stilted and self-conscious prose that can sometimes appear a little dated. Some sections can demand extra attention to figure out what is going on. That said, Passingis undoubtedly an important literary work and cultural document. It reveals the enormous stress and burden that race imposes on African-American citizens and the peril involved in negotiating that dangerous world of prejudice.
Passing, by Nella Larsen. Published by Restless Classics. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba