- What: Passing
- Who: Nella Larsen
- Pages: 120 pages
- Genre: Classic literature
- Published: 1929
- The lit: of 5 flames
The year 2020, as awful as it was, did have a few silver linings. Growth was a big one, especially because I finally acknowledged my own racism. I’ll be on this journey for the rest of my life as I learn something every day, but in the past year, I’ve done a lot of listening and learning to become a true ally. Of the many things I’ve learned, one thing sticks out in particular, mainly because I’m ashamed I’d never heard of this and never thought about its impact before: the concept of passing, where a Black person with light skin tones consciously passes as a white person.
I first learned about this in the novel Three-Fifths written by John Vercher, and when I interviewed him, he spoke about the topic as his main character — passing as white — struggles with his mixed identity. Passing is also a core theme in The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett‘s second novel, which took the literary community by storm last year and was one of my favorite books in 2020.
In reading and researching both of these books and in speaking with Vercher, there was one book that continuously came up: Passing by Nella Larsen. It’s the original book about the passing literary canon, and it allowed this topic to be pursued in scholarly settings, as well as pop culture. To say it’s had an impact is an understatement. So I finally did my due diligence and bought this classic novella. With its themes and its setting among the Harlem Renaissance, Passing provides an extraordinary look into a life so few understand — including the main character herself.
Irene Redfield leads a comfortable life. Her husband is a prominent physician, they have two young children, and they live in Harlem in the midst of its cultural renaissance. Her life turns upside down, though, while on a trip to her hometown Chicago suburb. During a shopping trip in downtown Chicago, she runs into her childhood friend Clare Kendry who she hasn’t seen since they were teenagers. The last time she saw her, Clare acknowledged her blackness, but once she disappeared, there were rumors she had started passing as white and leading a completely different lifestyle.
Clare invites Irene for tea the following afternoon. Irene hesitates to commit, but Clare has a pull that Irene cannot resist. She agrees to meet Clare and her husband who Irene soon realizes is clueless about his wife’s Black heritage. Irene feels the need to stick up for the Black community while at tea with this racist man, but she also feels obligated to protect her old friend even if she can’t explain why.
Clare’s magnetism will continue drawing in Irene years later when Clare once again insists on meeting up in New York City where she now lives. Once Clare witnesses the profound energy of her former community, she vows to never leave it, agreeing to a double life that her husband and circle of friends — and Irene’s friends — can never discover. Clare’s duplicitous actions spark anxiety in Irene who fears the consequences of Clare’s secrets coming undone, as well as possible envy toward her friend who gets the best of both worlds.
Irene’s conflicting feelings toward Clare create so much tension in this book, which you can feel from the moment she runs into her in Chicago. She constantly feels a need to defend her race against someone who is exploiting it while never experiencing the pain of being Black in America. In all her adult life, Clare has never faced discrimination, yet she yearns to embrace Black culture, which is exploding at this time in Harlem. Simultaneously, Irene wants to protect her friend because she knows if Clare’s secrets are told, Clare’s whole life will implode, and she can’t bear to witness that happening to her friend. Ultimately, the latter feeling wins out, but the constant tension pushes along the plot until the very end.
The interesting thing about Passing‘s plot compared to Three-Fifths and The Vanishing Half is that the characters from the latter two seem to be on the run from their heritage and have really struggled with their identity. Clare Kendry, on the other hand, seems to enjoy the risks and finds humor in the situation. Brit Bennett mentions these differences in her New York Times essay about passing.
“When I started writing my own novel, The Vanishing Half, about passing, I imagined my passing character as a sort of fugitive, always hunted, always hiding … The brilliance of Passing, to me, is that Larsen reverses the game of cat-and-mouse. Clare hunts, not hides. She reveals, rather than being discovered. From the moment they reunite on the roof, Clare inserts herself into Irene’s life, pursuing the Black world she has purportedly left behind. She invites herself to Irene’s home, introduces herself to Irene’s husband, crashes Irene’s social engagements in Harlem and charms Irene’s friends. She does, in other words, exactly what a passing character should not do.”Brit Bennett in the New York Times
I was surprised at Clare’s behavior because I had my own expectations about what a passing character should be. That’s partly because I read Vercher’s and Bennett’s novels first; my expectations for the original literary passing character aligned with their main characters. I also now know that my expectation was steeped in my own racism. I had a one-dimensional view of this type of character, and it couldn’t be anything else. To me, Clare Kendry was having her cake and eating it too, which I initially and shamefully found inappropriate and which made her polarizing to me. Not only did Passing allow for deep character study (who doesn’t love polarizing characters?), but it also forced deep self-reflection about how I viewed its main characters — and how I view all characters and my expectations of them.
I also spent time reflecting on Irene’s character in response to my preconceived notions. Before reading this book, I’d read how sexuality and homoeroticism were also themes in it. I was surprised while reading it that not once did I sense those motifs. Yes, Irene is somewhat obsessed with Clare, but I think that stems from Clare’s charisma and also a little from Irene’s own jealousy, which I surprisingly hadn’t read about in my research.
Irene lives in complacency and with anxiety. It seems she and her husband once loved each other, and he certainly has a good name, which is good for Irene. But she constantly worries he will leave her and their two children for a place less racist than America or even for another woman who doesn’t live with so much control — someone reminiscent of Clare. Further, Irene isn’t new to passing herself. She has passed as white in the past but claims she only does so for convenience on occasion. It’s preposterous to live your entire life this way, according to her. Meeting Clare shows Irene that not only is passing possible but so is living life to the fullest. So does she have sound judgments of Clare, or are they steeped in jealousy? Does she secretly harbor sexual feelings for Clare like the critics claim, or is envy the feeling at play?
Once again, my preconceived notions affected my reactions to and relationships with a main character. Even though I didn’t see what scholars and critics see, I still enjoyed speculating on the internal turmoil the characters felt and deciphering how they would act on that turmoil. I found these internal and ambiguous conflicts just as fascinating as perhaps the more explicit one of Irene protecting her race versus protecting her friend.
While it’s considered a novella because it only has 120 pages, the conflict, intriguing and complex characters, and the tension (oh, the tension!) reflect something that takes up much more space. It’s no wonder this book had such a profound effect not just during the Harlem Renaissance but also on literature as a whole.