Jazz Age January, hosted by Leah at Books Speak Volumes, is in full swing. Last year, I read some great books for the event (most notably, The Paris Wife and A Moveable Feast). This year, I decided to start with a writer of the Harlem Renaissance: Nella Larson. I had the choice between Quicksand and Passing and decided to go with the latter. “Passing” basically means being African-American and pretending to be white. As I understand it, “passing” implies that it is done for selfish reasons. And there are some selfish people in this story! It took me a little while to connect with the book, but once I had gotten into it, I could hardly stop reading.
The two main characters are both African-American women. Irene Redfield has a comfortable life in Harlem with her husband, a prominent doctor, and two young sons. Her skin is light enough to pass, and at times, when it is convenient for her, she takes advantage of that. Clare Kendry, a childhood friend who was forced to leave her black neighborhood when she was young, has broken all ties to the African-American community and is hiding her true identity from everyone, including her wealthy and racist husband.
Irene, who is the focus of the story, has a complicated relationship with Clare. She is annoyed by Clare’s insistence to insert herself into Irene’s apparently happy life and terrified by the possible consequences of Clare’s excursions into Harlem. She admires Clare’s beauty and her guts to completely hide her African-American roots, but also fears them. Clare, on the other hand, becomes more and more enthralled by the community she cut herself off from and is desperately trying to find a way back. Clare tells Irene in no uncertain terms that if she wants something, she is willing to go to any lengths to get it. Irene has no doubt that Clare means that, which further scares her.
Even without the “issue of race,” the toxic relationship between the two women would have made for a fascinating story. But, of course, race is at the very heart of it. It permeates every single aspect of life, and at times, I found it quite shocking to read about it: two women talking about how paranoid they had been during their pregnancies for fear that their children’s skin might turn out darker than desired; Irene nonchalantly discussing why white women who come to Harlem for entertainment seem to prefer to dance with African-American men; and Clare willingly accepting that her husband calls her “Nig” as a joke, because “she seems to turn darker with age.”
In the end, both women have to make difficult choices, but the result of these choices is quite dramatic, and it is questionable whether there will ever be peace of mind again.
“Sitting alone in the quiet living room in the pleasant firelight, Irene Redfield wished, for the first time in her life that she had not been born a Negro. For the first time she suffered and rebelled because she was unable to disregard the burden of race.”
Overall, this book offers a good picture of the 1920s in general, and the African-American experience in particular. It is very well written, though at times it is hard to read. I believe that books have to be read in their historical context, but at times the language in this book made me a little uncomfortable. I wish I knew whether Larsen intended it that way, or whether this is because of the day and age in which I am reading. It is definitely food for thought.