A Deeper Look into Nella Larsen’s Passing

“Irene had to Clare Kendry a duty. She was bound to her by those very ties of race, which, for all her repudiation of them, Clare had been unable to completely sever. And it wasn’t, as Irene knew, that Clare cared at all about the race or what was to become of it… she only belonged to it.”

— Nella Larsen, Passing

Passing, written by Nella Larsen in 1929, follows the reconnection of childhood friends, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Both women are light-skinned enough to pass for white, but Irene chooses to live in Harlem within the black community while Clare rejects her black heritage completely. Their reunion proves explosive as each woman reckons with the consequences of her choice under the judgmental, jealous gaze of the other. The novel makes a provocative study of loyalty, alienation, and ambition on the fringes of racial identity — a story the author knew well.

Nella Larsen was born in 1891 to a Danish immigrant mother and an Afro-Carribean father in Chicago. She worked there as a nurse before moving to New York City, where she began to write. She became active in the Harlem Renaissance, publishing several short stories and two novels: Quicksand in 1928, followed by Passing. Larsen quickly earned the admiration of fellow writers and received the first Guggenheim Fellowship ever awarded to a black woman. But by the end of the 1930’s, she had left Harlem and disappeared entirely from the literary scene.

Like Larsen, the female protagonists of her novels struggled to navigate the liminal space between black and white. Although the issue of “passing” is no longer as salient as it once was, her treatment of multiracial identity — for better or worse — still invites contemporary discussions. Whether you believe Larsen stumbles into the pitfalls of the “tragic mulatto” archetype or achieves a meaningful critique of privilege, Passing is a riveting and frequently uncomfortable exploration of the attempt to transcend race.

Most fascinating to me was how differently Clare and Irene react to the white privilege conferred to them by their ostensibly white skin.

Clare actively capitalizes on it, and leaves her blackness entirely behind to construct a life as a white woman, complete with a racist, white husband. While Irene’s relationship to privilege manifests more insidiously.

She claims she only passes “for the sake of convenience,” but her personal code quickly reveals itself to be a distinction without a difference. Her privilege also allows her to disengage from the ugly realities of racism. She doesn’t understand why her husband, Brian, who cannot pass for white, wants to emigrate from America with their two young sons or why he speaks to the children about lynching and other violent institutions of oppression.

Irene enjoys participating in the culture of the black community, but not the political or social consciousness. And, as much as she accuses Clare of lurking behind an “ivory mask,” she is unable, or unwilling, to recognize how her light-skin tone impacts her experience of America.

The hypocrisies bound up in these women point to Larsen’s interest in the idiosyncrasies of racial categorization — how mixed race identity reveals the constructedness of these divisions while simultaneously affirming their tenacity.

But the modern day resonances of Passing aren’t just restricted to white privilege. The novel’s preoccupation with the ability to “tell” someone’s race has a contemporary parallel in racial profiling. The repeated fetishization of blackness by white characters rings of cultural appropriation.

Passing also provides some food for thought with regard to the rising multiracial population in America. But as the book cautions, multiracial is not post-racial. Rather, these demographic changes necessitate that we demand more substantive action in the fight against racial injustice and think even more critically about the racial definitions to which we ascribe. It requires that we ask harder questions of each other and ourselves — like Larsen and her complicated, problematic protagonists.

When Irene asks Brian why people who pass for white — like Clare — sooner or later try to return to the community that they disowned (often at the risk of their careers, their relationships, and even their lives), Brian responds: “‘If I knew that, I’d know what race was.’”

By design, Passing poses more questions than answers. Larsen weaves almost an entire story of contradictions and loose ends for us to sort through — and in doing so, examines her own assumptions, ambivalences, and biases.

Clara Malley is an Editorial and Community Intern for The Fullest based in NYC. Find her at @claramalley on Instagram or say hi at clara@thefullest.com.

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