Nella Larsen’s novel Passing, published in 1929, is a short but powerful and provocative tale about race and racism. The two main characters, Irene and Clare, are childhood friends whose lives diverged in their teen years but intersect again as adults. Both women are fair skinned enough to pass as white. Clare has chosen to hide her past and her race from her wealthy white husband. Irene has married a successful black doctor and has a seemingly good life in Harlem. When their paths meet again, largely at Clare’s insistence, tensions rise as each woman tries to attain that which she most desires.
The novel is divided into three parts. In part one, adult Irene is back in her hometown Chicago visiting family and shopping. She runs into old childhood friend Clare, who disappeared from the neighborhood after her father’s death. Clare is fair haired and skinned with dark eyes, and in Irene’s opinion, a catlike way about her.
She was selfish, and cold, and hard. And yet she had, too, a strange capacity of transforming warmth and passion, verging sometimes almost on theatrical heroics.
Clare is enthusiastic to speak with Irene about the old neighborhood and to have Irene come visit her before leaving for New York. Irene eventually agrees to go to tea at Clare’s where she also reconnects with childhood friend Gertrude who, like Clare and Irene, is able to pass for white. When Clare’s husband comes home, he assumes the women are white and makes a number of deeply offensive racist comments. Clearly, he has no idea of his wife’s racial background. Irene is enraged at being put in such a position, but says nothing to give away Clare. Later, she questions why she behaved so and ponders the dilemma of defending the race versus defending oneself or one’s friend. Exposing Clare would have harmed Clare and her daughter. In part 2, two years have passed and Irene is feeling safe and secure in her life in Harlem. Husband Brian is a doctor, but unhappy. He has been restless to leave the US for Brazil, but Irene has prevented this from happening and believes that she has safeguarded Brian and their children in doing so. Irene keeps busy with her social engagements and volunteer work on behalf of the Negro Welfare League. Out of nowhere, a letter from Clare arrives indicating that she and her husband are in New York and that Clare would love to reconnect with Irene. She is missing “her people,” i.e. other people of color. Irene is resentful and disinclined to reply, but Clare is persistent and eventually just shows up one day. She insinuates herself into Irene’s life, with Irene once again resentful but somehow unable to stop it from happening. In part three, the tensions will explode.
The theme of “safety” crops up throughout the novel. Irene’s number one concern is for her family and their safety, which she believes can be ensured if they just keep living as they are in Harlem. Irene wants to preserve the status quo at all costs. Brian sees that they are not truly “safe” anywhere in the United States as people of color. When he reads to his sons about a lynching, Irene becomes very agitated and insists that he stop, that the children don’t need to hear about such things. Brian understands that they do indeed need to hear so that they can be prepared for the life they will have in this country. When Clare keeps coming to Harlem to hang out with Irene and her social circle, without her husband’s knowledge, Irene is distressed at Clare’s flirting with danger, jeopardizing her own and her child’s safety. Clare, for her part, scoffs at the idea of being “safe” and does not prioritize her child and family as Irene does. Irene sees Clare as selfish and unconcerned with the danger in which she can place others. Unlike Irene, Clare has not made “safety” her life’s goal. But should that be one’s goal? Is it even attainable for a person of color?
The white men in this novel are another point of interest, as they represent extremes in their attitudes toward race and yet are also both problematic in their actions. One extreme is Clare’s husband Jack, whose nickname for Clare is “Nig,” because she gets so tan in the summer. After enduring some bigoted remarks, Irene asks Jack if he dislikes Negroes and his answer is, “I don’t dislike them. I hate them.” From what he reads in the paper, they all rob and kill. At the other extreme is the character Hugh Wentworth, an esteemed writer and world traveler who is a friend of Irene’s in New York. He and other white intellectuals support the Negro Welfare League fundraiser, showing up to dance and observe. Irene and Hugh have an interesting discussion at the dance about whites being attracted to blacks and vice versa, and about passing. The conversation reminded me of current discussions about cultural appropriation, the “I have black friends” defense against charges of racism, and about whites not really having a clue as to what racism looks or feels like to the objects of it.
Naturally, the act of “passing” itself is central to the story, but that is not a topic on which I can speak with any authority or intelligence. A classroom or book group could certainly spend a lot of time discussing both Clare’s and Irene’s actions and opinions on it, as well as their actions in part three of the book. Passing is an engrossing story, very well written and hard to put down. It’s the kind of book that ought to be taught in classrooms, and its reissue is timely.
Side note: if you are reading on the Kindle, I recommend the edition linked above. There is another 99 cent edition but take it from me, it is rife with typos and annoying as hell to try to read.