Book Review: Passing by Nella Larsen

For a slim book of about 114 pages, Passing by Nella Larsen asks some very good questions. When I first read the novel for a class some years back, I read too quickly to fully appreciate it. It is worth noting that my reason for picking up the book for a second reading had much to do with Rachel Dolezal. The novel was one of the first things that came to mind upon hearing the Dolezal case. Though Passing is about the black individual passing for white, Larsen did envisioned the white person passing for black. Something many of us did not consider until it was "news."  Larsen's protagonist, Irene, talks about a white character, Dorothy Thompkins, who though somehow seemed Negro, was not. In that same conversation Irene said "It's easy for a Negro to 'pass' for white. But I don't think it would be so simple for a white person to 'pass' for coloured." The white man to whom Irene said this responded with, "never thought of that."to which she replies, "no, you wouldn't. Why should you?" In the heart of Passing  is the question of race: what is race? A friend recently said to me that there is no such thing as race. His point has merit since his studies has much to do with the evolving of humans. Is race then man-made? Like our man-made time and man-made countries? In this review of Passing, I will focus on the idea of race. Not to answer the question but to highlight some of the insightful questions Larsen raise in her novel.

My copy of Passing  is accompanied by a wonderful introduction by Thadious M. Davis and he starts off with good legal information on the history of blackness with the case of Homer A. Plessy. Plessy who was "seven-eights white and one-eighth black" argued that "for all legal purposes, [he] should be accorded all the rights and privileges of a white citizen." Because Plessy did look white, and was coming from a background that was white in its majority, his lawyers believed that "the justice system would recognize both Plessy's whiteness and the absurdity of separating him on the basis of so artificial a designation as his 'race.'" Davis goes on to say that "in the United States of the 1890s, however, racial categorization did not follow any clear logic for biracial individuals," and therefore "in its May 18, 1896 ruling in the now famous case, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court of the United States maintained the legitimacy of "separate but equal"...by an eight-to-one vote." Another 7/8th, if you will have it, but in this case the majority matter. This means that though Plessy looked white, though 7/8th of his ancestry was white and only 1/8th black, he was deemed black by the justice system. Here, race is obviously a decision by persons in power and it is neither scientific nor  logical.  I came across a video on YouTube (which I am unable to find again) on the evolution  of what we now call races. It talked about how we started off in certain parts of Africa and how migration brought about genetic manipulations for adaptation in new habitats. So if 7/8th white is considered black what stops the whole 8th from being black? Well, it is my belief that black culture is very accepting, but no one enjoys being made a fool of.

Before I lose you completely, a briefing on the book. As I have already mentioned, the protagonist is Irene Redfield who is of African and European ancestry but whose features are predominately Caucasian. She however identifies as Negro. Her husband is not only Negro but obviously so. And of her two sons, one could pass for white, while the other, like his father, could not. Then there is Clare Kendry who is of  similar background as Irene, with pale skin and blonde hair. Clare chooses to live as a white woman and is married to an incredibly racist white man. Irene runs into Clare at a hotel which did not entertain Negros. It was Clare who recognizes Irene. She stares at her intensely and for so long that Irene begins to worry, "could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro?" And her immediate answer to these thoughts is:

"Absurd! Impossible! White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means; finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot. They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a Gipsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro."

A few things in Irene's train of thought is worrisome. First is the obvious fact that she is not allowed in certain places because of her ancestry. If she actually looked Negro, she would not have been welcomed at the hotel. Secondly, though she is also white, she identifies only as black because to be white is to have no taint of blackness. So when she says "white people are so stupid about such things," one wonders what she means by it. In what ways can a group of people be deemed stupid about the set of unnatural rules they have made to govern the lives of a society? Are they stupid for not being able to recognize that which is unnatural as unnatural, or are they stupid in enforcing the unnatural as natural?

Irene and Clare knew each other when they were young. Their chance meeting in the hotel reunited them and gave Clare something she had been desiring, a reconnection with her Negro community. She claims she had missed it and longed for it. Irene on the other hand, was curious about how people like Clare 'passed,' and Clare addressed her curiosity with, "You'd be surprised, 'Rene, how much easier that is with white people than with us. Maybe because there are so many more of them, or maybe because they are secure and so don't have to bother." But how true is this? Rachel Dolezal passed for years, and she might have continued successfully had her parents not ousted her. And eventually Clare was discovered by her husband through her association with Irene. So exactly what is passing? The definition is clarified through Irene's thoughts when she goes to Clare's for tea and encounters also, Gertrude, another woman of white-black heritage and with white features. Irene finds herself thinking, "Great goodness! Two of them." And then; "though it couldn't be truthfully said that she [Gertrude] was 'passing.'" Her husband...had been in school with her and had been quite well aware, as had his family and most of his friends, that she was a Negro." This definition of the Negro is based on what it was in Harlem in the 1920s, the timeframe and setting for Passing. The same as the Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. And in many ways that definition of blackness is true to this day. Barack Obama, the current president of the United States is considered black, in other words, Negro and not white. Although he is half Caucasian.

Another point of interest is children. What happened to those who passed when the birth of their children exposed them? It brought to mind that South African movie Skin. Based on the true story of a black girl born to white Afrikaner parents in apartheid South Africa. Which revealed, to the horror of her father, that either himself or his wife is linked to an African ancestry.  Clare who knew of her ancestry and the sort of husband she had, talked about how afraid she was when she got pregnant. How much the fear that her child would come out black tormented her. So much so that she refused to go through the experience again. To this Irene reveled how it was with her boys. Irene's revelation which was meant to shame Clare and Gertrude only reinforced the fact that Clare indeed had every reason to worry. To smooth matters over, Clare says, "I do think that colored people––we––are too silly about certain things. After all, the thing's not important to Irene or hundreds of others...It's only deserters like me who have to be afraid of freaks of the nature." Clare has proved herself very bold and intelligent from the very first moment we encounter her in the novel. She has charm and beauty and she has a way with words. She knows how to work those around her to her advantage and with such subtlety that her cleverness often goes unnoticed. Here she takes blame to prevent Irene from calling her out. Later in the novel Irene would state, a few times, that Clare is not a very intelligent woman. But she is! And the fact that even Irene could not see so is proof of her cleverness.  Also the proof is obvious in her social skills when she has tea with Irene and Gertrude; her intuition about others; her ability to read, so well, those around her proves her wit. Irene, of course, became aware of Clare's intelligence, but only when it was too late. Some of the interesting differences between Irene and Clare is shown in how they address others and how they think of themselves. Clare knows herself and is accepting of who she is, Irene is not. Also Clare believes that anything can happen; life is a risk and she embraces it. Irene on the other hand, plays with illusions of security. These are some of the reasons why Clare can decide to be white even though her society tells her she is legally black.

Is race another form of religion? Larsen touches on the subject briefly with the mention of Claude Jones, a man they all knew, described as a "tall, lanky specimen who used to wear...[a] comical little mustache...like a thin streak of soot." To Clare's inquiry Gertrude laughs and narrates to the rest how Jones now identifies as a Jew; "A black Jew, he calls himself. He won't eat ham and goes to the synagogue on Saturday. He's got a beard now as well as a mustache. You'd die laughing if you saw him...Fred Says he's crazy and I guess he is. Oh, he's a scream all right, a regular scream!" Fred, by the way, is Gertrude's husband. It seems to me that Larson subtly challenges the notion of race with Jones character. Is one born a Jew or does one become a Jew? Is one born Negro or does one become Negro? Is race like religion? A practice? A belief? A code of conduct?  Is it, therefore, really laughable that Jones decides he is Jew? Does he have the right to be that which he feels he is? The use of the word 'crazy' to describe him is a good choice of word. Crazy or mad is that which we refer to those who do not fit the norm. And the norm is a standardize code of living. To be crazy is to disregard the norm. In which case one ought to consider AndrĂ© Breton's manifesto on Surrealism.

Passing  asks several good questions, like what does it mean to be a woman? How is motherhood perceived by different women? Larsen also makes note of marriage and self-identity. But at the center of the novel is the question of race. What does it mean to belong to a race? What are one's duties to their race and to themselves? Is it innate? Brian, Irene's husband said of Albert Hammond, a man who like Clare, gave up his blackness for whiteness; "he used to be for ever haunting Seventh Avenue, and Lenox Avenue, and the dancing places, until some 'shine' took a shot at him for casting an eye towards his 'sheba.'" Incidentally, Clare's ending is very similar to Hammond's. Irene asks "But why?" and Brian's answer, "If I knew that, I'd know what race is." And this, perhaps, is Larsen stance on race. One finishes the novel wondering if race is artificial. Is race like citizenship to our man-made countries with borders that are but the drawings of the powerful?

---
Jane

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