Passing by Nella Larsen

349929Jazz 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.

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31 comments

  1. What an intriguing plot that is! I am often fascinated (and disturbed too) by the American concept of “African American” which to me seems totally weird. I have met “white” black people and “black” white people and I’m not sure I can tell the difference or that it matters. We might understand the race question In the 1920s and it’s good that writers can write about such things, but we’re supposed to have moved on.

    • It is definitely a book worth reading. And yes, you are right, we are supposed to have moved on, but it hasn’t happened, as recent events in the US have shown. People talk about how one should be color-blind, but I have unfortunately met very few people who don’t automatically “group” others as African-American, Italian-American, Irish-American, Indian-American, etc. After living here for almost 20 years, sometimes that’s still a bit bewildering.

  2. I read Passing in a college course called “multi-ethnic women’s writing,” and gosh, I wish I still had the paper I wrote on it. I remember enjoying the story, being disturbed by the nonchalant racism and language (I think, to answer your question, that she wants us to feel this way about it) and being entirely shocked by the ending. I may just have to reread this one.

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one taken aback by the language and nonchalant racism. After thinking about the book for about a week now, I agree with you that it was meant to shock the reader.

  3. I’ve read and reviewed both Quicksand and Passing but I can’t remmeber which one I liked better.
    I had never even heard of “passing” before reading the book. It’s a very important book, I agree.

    • I definitely want to read Quicksand as well. Were you a bit shocked by some of the scenes and arguments the characters had? (For example, the conversation between Irene and the doctor during the ball in Harlem.) I am trying to figure out if I felt uncomfortable because Larsen wanted me to feel that way, or because I am reading this 80 years after publication.

      • I’m afraid I can’t remember that scene. I juts re-read my reviews and it seems I liked Quicksand more but found Passing more shokcing for several reasons.

  4. Oh where did my comment go…somewhere else apparently…
    That’s an intriguing book, I don’t remember reading anything similar and now that I think of it the closest I got was The Help but that one was based in the 60s, so a bit later than this.
    Thanks for the great review. And thanks for dropping by. 🙂

  5. You keep bringing such interesting books to my attention! This one sounds fantastic. I think it’s so valuable to have a book written about this time in our history by someone who lived it and felt it. And, you have asked a great question about the intentions of the author.

    • I am glad I can return the favor of bringing new books to your attention. 🙂
      This one went way beyond anything I have so far read from or about the 1920s, so I am very happy with this pick. I won’t soon forget it.

  6. Like Ali, I have a one-volume edition containing both Quicksand and Passing but I keep forgetting about it as it’s sitting on my kindle. Larsen sounds like an important writer who tackled some meaty issues. Great review.

    • It’s not an easy read, but I think an important one. I am planning to read Quicksand as well. I’m curious to hear what you have to say about it once you have read one or both of the books.

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