“And mingled with her disbelief and resentment was another feeling, a question. Why hadn’t she spoken that day? Why, in the face of Bellew’s ignorant hate and aversion, had she concealed her own origin? Why had she allowed him to make his assertions and express his misconceptions undisputed? Why, simply because of Clare Kendry, who had exposed her to such torment, had she failed to take up the defence of the race to which she belonged?”
Nella Larsen’s Passing might be short, but it packs a wallop. Published in 1929, this book feels entirely modern. On a hot summer day, two women meet by chance in a hotel in downtown Chicago. As it turns out, they knew each other as children. And as adults, they have something in common: a secret. Both of them are black, and both of them are passing as white–at least in the moment. Irene Redfield lives with her black husband and two sons in Harlem; Claire Kendry has married a white man and produced a daughter. The moment in the hotel reignites their friendship, albeit for Irene, only momentarily. For Claire, however, the meeting reignites a desire–or maybe the better word would be opportunity–for her to regain admission to a world she willingly left behind.
“The truth was, she was curious. There were things that she wanted to ask Clare Kendry. She wished to find out about this hazardous business of ‘passing,’ this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chances in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly. What, for example, one did about background, how one accounted for oneself. And how one felt when one came into contact with other Negroes. But she couldn’t. She was unable to think of a single question that in its context or its phrasing was not too frankly curious, if not actually impertinent.”
It’s an interesting conundrum. Irene passes only occasionally; Claire has fully entered the white world. Her husband, his family–even her own daughter–have no idea she’s black. Yet Claire longs to belong to both worlds, or so she tells Irene when she shows up uninvited at Irene’s home in Harlem, after Irene ignores her letters and calls. Irene relents and reluctantly lets Claire into her world, a decision she’ll ultimately regret.
There’s a bit of what I want to call a romance trope here: the beautiful woman, the childhood friend who ostensibly wishes for reconnection, who crashes and pillages the protagonist’s life, seducing husbands and friends alike. (I’m reminded ever so slightly of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, which investigates that sort of female relationship so well.) Only here, it rises far above the level of romance because what Claire wants is…well, everything. She wants to have it both ways, her white life and her black life, risk be damned whether it’s to herself, her daughter, or anyone else.
“She was generally liked. She was so friendly and responsive, and so ready to press the sweet food of flattery on all. Nor did she object to appearing a bit pathetic and ill-used, so that people could feel sorry for her. And, no matter how often she came among them, she still remained someone apart, a little mysterious and strange, someone to wonder about and to admire and to pity.”
An interesting choice on Larsen’s part is telling the story from Irene’s point of view and never letting us into Claire’s head. From a psychological perspective, Claire almost comes across as someone with borderline personality disorder. But what would living in a society where, to be completely free, one must decide to relinquish a fundamental part of one’s self–what would that do to a person? Even as Irene is drawn to Claire, she sees her as selfish and reckless. And Irene is a person for whom stability, a certain status quo, are of utmost importance to her identity, not just as a black person, but as a woman. Because of this, the book raises more questions than it answers, and all of them are still relevant today. How far does one have to go in terms of passing to be accepted into white society? Is wanting to be accepted in white society being a traitor to your own race? Is it possible to live in two worlds? What if you’re a person who is subjugated by society not only because of your race but also because of your sex? And what if that subjugation, that playing by the rules, is the only way you know how to hold your world together?
This little 150-page book offers layers and layers to explore, primarily about race and cultural appropriation (there’s a thread here about whites coming to Harlem for the culture–the music, the clubs–that highlights a debate still relevant today) but also about friendship and marriage. Weeks later, I find myself still thinking about it. I haven’t seen Tessa Thompson’s adaptation on Netflix, so I may watch that first, but Passing is a book I plan to return to again.
3 thoughts on “Passing, by Nella Larsen”
Wonderful review of such a thought-provoking book!
Thanks, Laila! Hope all is well with you!
I’ve seen this book flying through every book tubers posts… loved by all, but at the same time, some feel bothered and uncomfortable with it. I myself am not sure if I could read it for those same reasons. However, after reading your wonderful blog post, I may give it a go. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I hope to be seeing more of your posts soon!
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