Passing

In which I review Passing, Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about an African-American woman in 1920s New York, whose childhood friend lives a double life, passing as white and concealing her true racial identity.

What it’s about: Chicago/New York, the 1920s. Irene Redfield, a middle-class doctor’s wife with two young children, visits Chicago and re-encounters her former childhood friend Clare Kendry. Like Irene, Clare is of mixed race descent but is sufficiently light-skinned to “pass” as white. While Irene’s husband Brian, a dark-skinned Black American, knows of her ethnicity, Clare is married to a wealthy white banker, John Bellew, who assumes that she is also white. Irene is both repelled and fascinated by Clare’s ability to “pass” in white society, enduring her husband’s expressly racist comments and nicknaming her “Nig” because of her skin becoming dark in the summer. Irene returns to New York, determined to forget Clare, and tries to ignore Brian’s discontentment in their marriage. Clare comes to New York and visits Irene unannounced, expressing a desire to mix with more black people. Gradually Clare insinuates herself into Irene’s black social milieu and becomes friendly with Brian. Irene, fearful that Brian no longer loves her, begins to suspect him of having an affair with Clare. Irene has a chance meeting with John and briefly considers telling him Clare’s secret, but stops herself. Irene and Brian argue about whether to tell their children about the lynching of black men, and he expresses annoyance at her refusal to let him move the family to Brazil, away from the racism of America. The Redfields and Clare attend a party. Irene, convinced of the affair, determines not to expose Clare’s secret, for fear that a newly “freed” Clare elopes with Brian. John storms into the party, calling Clare a “damned dirty nigger”. Clare falls through an open window to her death. Irene is unable to recall whether Clare fell accidentally or committed suicide, or whether she pushed Clare to her death.

Why it’s a classic: Passing was Nella Larsen’s second novel, and established her as one of the rising stars of the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of Black writers, artists, musicians and intellectuals centring around New York in the late 1920s. Larsen was a friend and colleague of some of the chief architects of the movement, including W. E. B. Du Bois, whose advocacy for the modest self-advancement of Black life becomes embodied by Irene in Passing, and more radical voices like Langston Hughes, whose arguments for Black self-determination are echoed through the character of Brian.

Larsen was also friends with Carl van Vechten, one of the Harlem Renaissance’s most controversial figures – a white middle class photographer, writer and journalist who was accused of appropriating and exoticising Black culture to feed his own celebrity. van Vechten’s novel Nigger Heaven caused a scandal on its publication in 1926, for its brazen use of the N-word and its sensationalist, somewhat stereotyped depiction of Black culture and sexuality. Larsen was one of van Vechten’s strongest advocates, and seems to have admired and shared in his love of scandal: she briefly considered calling Passing “Nig” in homage to van Vechten, until their mutual publishers talked her out of it. Passing is dedicated to van Vechten and his wife Fania, who are the models for Hugh and Bianca Wentworth, Irene’s celebrity friends who take an interest in Clare.

Despite the favourable reviews of her work, Larsen never made it big in her own lifetime. After the collapse of her marriage and a damaging accusation of plagiarism, Larsen more or less disappeared from literary life, cutting off contact with van Vechten and her former friends. She spent the rest of her life working as a nurse in a hospital on the Lower East Side in New York, dying in 1964, just as the Black civil rights movement was in full swing.

Her work was rediscovered in the 1970s by a new generation of Black writers, including Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. Passing is now viewed as something of a lost classic, praised for its portrayal of the complex intersection between race, gender and class, and its insights into internalised racism and what’s now called “colourism” – the favouring within Black communities of light over dark-skinned bodies. It’s also become something of a lesbian classic, due to the intense and highly sexualised rendering of Irene and Clare’s relationship. Passing has been made into a film by the English actress Rebecca Hall (whose mother, the American opera singer Maria Ewing, is of European and African-American heritage), due for release later in 2021. In a year in which Prince Harry and Meghan Markle accused a member of the British Royal family of querying the colour of their future child’s skin, Passing is a story that feels, depressingly, more relevant than ever.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet of narcissuses, jonquils and hyacinths, like the fluttering dress of green chiffon that the grown-up Clare wears in her first meeting with Irene. Passing is a deceptively simple book – at just 120 pages, it’s more a novella – but like many slim volumes, it achieves its effects with remarkable efficiency, and leaves a deeper emotional impact than many books twice its length.

For the first two of its three sections, Passing drifts along in a familiar and almost banal way – a soap opera-ish story about the push-pull relationship of two former friends and now rivals, each of them nursing a dirty little secret. We see the story through the constricted (and, as we discover, unreliable) eyes of Irene, a woman whose respectable unremarkable life is affronted when she encounters Clare, a woman “stepping always on the edge of danger“, who hides in plain sight and gets away with it. We’re encouraged, initially anyway, to see and judge Clare as Irene does: “a girl that she had known, who had done this rather dangerous and… abhorrent thing successfully and had announced herself well satisfied.” We’re also made aware, via Irene’s meeting with Clare’s vile husband, of just how precarious Clare’s life of comfort is, and how much danger she’s in.

In these opening sections, the moral framework appears to be clear and unambiguous. We see Irene struggling with what she sees as her duty to protect and defend Clare, bound by “the ties of race which, for all her repudiation of them, Clare had been unable to completely sever.” By her own admission, Clare’s position is selfish and indefensible: “Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away“, she confesses. It seems clear that Irene is the more honourable of the two women, despite her conservatism and slightly prissy respectability, complete with summer holidays at the Black resort Idlewild and her do-gooding charity work for the Negro Defence League.

But this reading doesn’t quite explain how deeply strange Irene and Clare’s relationship is, or the pervasive air of anxiety and desire that permeates the book. From its opening scene, we’re in the grip of Irene’s intense sensory experience of the world – “A brilliant day, hot, with a brutal staring sun pouring down rays that were like molten rain” – that she continues to resist even as she feels it so deeply. Irene’s experience of Clare, described as having for her “a fascination, strange and compelling, reads more astotal obsession, with a literal assault of the senses: Clare is “exquisite, golden, fragrant, flaunting“, her face “an ivory mask“, her “tempting mouth… a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin“, her “arresting eyes, slow and mesmeric… Negro eyes! mysterious and concealing”, “sparking like dark jewels“. Then there’s her personality – her laugh “like the ringing of a delicate bell“, the “seduction” of her smile, that seems to “transform” her vile husband, “to soften and mellow him, as the rays of the sun does a fruit.”

It’s easy in our post-Freudian age, and when confronted with such gorgeously purple prose, to assume that Irene has a repressed sexual attraction to Clare. While this is certainly a valid reading, it doesn’t fully convince or satisfy. To Irene, Clare is more a goddess than a woman, something to be worshipped, desired, possessed and consumed. While Passing never moves into the realm of Gothic fiction or the supernatural, it’s evident that Clare – or at least Irene’s view of her – is some kind of doppelgänger, the beautiful and sexually free woman that Irene desires to but cannot be. Clare has the effrontery to breach a cultural taboo and live a double life, and become the most desired and desirable woman in the room, which triggers as much rage in Irene as it does concern.

By the final third of the novel, a subtle but significant reversal has taken place, in which Irene is the character stepping on the edge of danger. We’re made aware of the sterility of Irene’s existence, and how much she represses in order to feel safe and secure. Her squeamishness about her sons learning about sex echoes the lack of passion in her own marriage, as Brian sleeps in the room next door. Likewise, her resistance to Brian telling her sons about lynching signals her refusal to acknowledge the ugly realities of being Black in a racist society. We realise at this point that Irene is passing too – not just as a white woman who can have an uninterrupted drink at a high-class hotel, but as a fully functioning human being. The fear that Irene professes to feel for Clare is revealed as a projection of her own continual state of anxiety: “Was she never to be free of it, that fear which crouched, always, deep down within her, stealing away the sense of security, the feeling of permanence, from the life which she had so admirably arranged for them all, and desired so ardently to remain as it was?”

Like many fearful people, Irene goes to some very dark places in her mind to make herself feel safe. Like the narrator in Wilde’s poem De Profundis, Irene must kill the thing she loves, to prevent Clare from being “free” and potentially available to Brian. The final scene is played at such a melodramatic pitch that it somewhat overshadows the story’s more sinister implications, which come only after we’ve finished the book. Whether Irene does actually push Clare out the window is to some extent irrelevant what’s important is that Irene thinks she did, or might have. We leave Irene in a state of physical and emotional collapse. While the threat of Clare has been removed, we sense that her nightmare and “stark craven fear” is far from over.

Passing is a truly remarkable piece of work, that despite its very specific 1920s setting, feels like it could have been written today. Larsen is remarkably frank about the brutalities of Black life, that lurk beneath its comfortable middle-class setting of tea parties, charity dances and drinks on roof terraces. Larsen realises that she doesn’t need to portray racist violence for its danger to still be felt. Instead she shows us what it feels like to live within a culture where you have internalised your own inferiority, and where it’s safer to present a glittering surface than live in one’ authentic skin.

I’m also deeply impressed by Larsen’s understanding of passing as an economic strategy in a world where money is everything. Clare’s motives for passing may have something to do with avoiding the stigma of being black, but she’s also escaping a desperately poor childhood and finding some financial security. “Money’s awfully nice to have,” she says to Irene. “In fact, all things considered, I think, ‘Rene, that it’s even worth the price.” Irene sniffs at Clare for having the effrontery to not only “have her cake and eat it too” but “nibble at the cakes of other folk as well“, but frankly, who can blame her, given the limited choices for Black women of her time?

While the sexual and racial politics are fascinating, and make Passing a very relevant read in our Black Lives Matter age, it’s as a study of warped human psychology and the fracturing of the self in extreme crisis that make it a truly important piece of work, and a classic that I’m very glad to have discovered.

Quotable Quote: “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. It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, on one’s own account, without having to suffer for the race as well.”

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