“Passing,” as Nella Larsen explains, is “this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly.”
It is also the title of her novel about the struggle of Irene Redfield, a privileged black woman, with the attempts of a childhood acquaintance to insinuate herself into Irene’s adult life. Clare Kendry was steely, the daughter of a well-liked but drunken mulatto janitor and a black mother who died when she was small. In womanhood, Clare has become glamorous, wealthy--and white.
With her “ivory skin” and “pale gold hair,” Clare passes for the same reasons people still decide to pass: for opportunity, for adventure, for safety or for some combination of the three. At the time of her father’s death, her two (white) great-aunts insist upon it as they take her in as ward and housemaid. But she does not pass “all the way,” as the expression goes, until she elopes with John “Jack” Bellew, a white, wealthy and virulent racist, whom she never tells that she is three-quarters black.
Larsen supplies fresh ironies and subtle twists to what might at first seem to be another dated “Alas! The poor mulatto!” tale. And The Modern Library’s decision to reissue this 1929 work, now in paperback, provides a perfect opportunity to rethink the implications of a practice deployed as often today as it ever was, full-time, part-time, inadvertently or only-now-and-then. Passing happens in a range of situations beyond the classic black-for-white in which Larsen sets her story.
Itinerant passing, for convenience, access or entry, is one of Larsen’s themes. Take an innocuous present-day example: the nobody with nerve who makes restaurant reservations in the name of someone with sure-fire cachet. In Larsen’s story, the “olive-skinned” Irene slips into the dining room of a segregated hotel because a cabbie tells her it is the best place in Chicago for a cool drink on a hot day. Despite the “race loyalty” Irene both professes and lives, she also has no compunction about supporting a racist system in this way.
Looking beyond Larsen’s definition, we might ask if Irene is also passing when she postures as the “New Negro” paragon--doctor’s wife, mother, social do-gooder--even though she long ago spent her passion for these roles and cares only about maintaining her comfort level and position. Is it passing when Irene’s husband, Brian, presents himself as a dedicated Harlem physician and community stalwart while he burns to leave New York and bring up his sons in more tolerant Brazil? And what of this still familiar story: Brian, passing as attentive, faithful husband, even as he strays.
Clare shifts from full-time to part-time passer well into her life as a white person: The chance meeting with Irene triggers a yearning to reassociate with her root community. The year is 1927, after all, and Harlem is all the rage.
Jack, Clare’s husband, is gruff and common, clearly the class inferior of the sophisticated, well-spoken Harlem crowd to which the author introduces us. For Clare, enduring this vulgarian’s racial hostility is the price of economic security and social standing. “No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be,” he bellows in front of Irene and another white-looking black friend who mask their indignation with pleasantries and laughter. For Clare’s sake, they feel compelled to pass in his presence.
Clare makes brazen if passive strikes back at Jack’s verbal assaults. There are her almost taunting, repeated forays into Harlem, and, before them, the more “hellish” act of risking childbirth, knowing the baby’s appearance could well have meant her downfall.
Larsen herself was such a child and became estranged from her own mixed family (her mother was of Danish origin; her father, West Indian) when it opted for whiteness. There is a telling entry under her name in the Harry Ransom Center’s repository of copyright information: “Larsen had no children, left no identification of her extended family, and her only sibling, now deceased, denied knowledge of her existence.”
Born in 1891, Larsen worked as a nurse and then a librarian in Harlem, where she became a member of its Renaissance literati. But she abruptly stopped writing in 1930 and resumed her nursing career. She died in 1964. Her work, which had fallen into obscurity, was first reclaimed in the 1970s.
For Clare, as for many passers, the act eliminates deterrents to economic and social advancement, but passing can also be a means of avoiding harassment. In all cases, the passer knows or at least suspects that the group to which he or she seeks admittance or acceptance is either overtly or covertly intent on keeping the passer out.
At its most extreme, passing makes it possible to elude treachery or danger and can open the escape route to survival. Once out of harm’s way, passers often elect to stay with the new program, inevitably creating identity crises when the coming generations happen on their history. “I think that being a mother is the cruellest [sic] thing in the world,” Clare muses, as she and Irene contemplate what exposure of Clare’s ruse might mean, and we are left to speculate on what becomes of her daughter.
No matter what the purpose, passing always takes stealth and gumption, cunning, agility and a certain social conceit. A passer stays in character no matter what. Stared down in the segregated hotel dining room, Irene’s first reaction is to think her hat is on backwards or that her powder is streaked until that “small inner disturbance, odious and hatefully familiar” finally rises in her, though she does not give into it.
The option of passing is foreclosed to many of Larsen’s characters. It requires the face, skin color, body type, style and/or behavior that defy or confound easy profiling. With the props of appearance and talent, passers have the ability to step out of those identities dictated by genes, heritage, training, circumstance or happenstance. Irene scoffs at the folly of would-be phenotypers who think they can spot a black person by “the most ridiculous means, fingernails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth and other equally silly rot.” And yet, passers know, it is the absence of such markers that helps make their performances convincing.
Passers hide their origins. They need the complicity, the safe distance or death of those who knew them when. For part-timers, the equivalent would be keeping away people familiar with the passer’s secret life. Clare, having involved herself with the Harlem elite, knows the “race loyalty” of her friends old and new will keep them from outing her. It is part of their culture to protect her, for her daughter’s sake at least. As a rule, passers do not bring their past (or their present, in the case of gays who pass for straight at work) to the table.
Passing, therefore, takes guile. Keeping secrets, or at least avoiding certain disclosures, is a given in any passing story, and in traditional passing narratives, the unmasking of the passer, the exposure of the deception, is a moment of high drama. Shock, accusation, revulsion and/or violence on the part of the deceived are the reactions we expect. (Think Julie in “Showboat” or Sarah Jane in the Douglas Sirk film version of “Imitation of Life.” Remember the reaction of Fergus, who is passing as Jimmy in “The Crying Game,” when he learns the secret of Dil, who is passing too?) Larsen concocts such a moment for Clare.
The exposed passer is instantly subject to disgrace, loss of position, expulsion from the desired situation--sometimes even jail or death. The typical moral of the story is that passing, if not bad, is at least a really bad idea, and that life will punish the passer for breaking the rules.
And yet, the arc of the story in more contemporary passing tales, both true and fictive, makes room for a more complicated response. Today we tend to react against the institution, situation or environment that has made the deception necessary instead of to the deception itself.
In recent real-life stories, the deathbed medical examination that exposed as female the jazz musician Billy Tipton, a man-about-town in Spokane, brought a response of compassion more than anger from those who thought they knew the five-times-"married” saxophone player.
And in the case of Brandon Teena, who was raped and killed for living as a man, the subterfuge pales against the brutality of the young Nebraskan’s executioners and their gruesome exhibition of ignorance and hate. The compassion the Teena story evokes makes passing seem almost valiant, or at least not a priori bad. It is as sad a story as ever, just as in all the tragic mulatto tales of yore, especially when it results in so shockingly tragic an end.
Larsen’s Clare elicits no such compassion. She tells us without apology that she lacks “proper morals or sense of duty,” that she “would hurt anybody, throw anything away” to get what she wants. Yet her life and demise are no less tragic than Teena’s in one important way: an unjust system forced them to pass in order to live the lives they wanted to live.
In a review of “Passing” in The Crisis in 1929, W.E.B. DuBois prophesied that the whole business of black passing, though of great moral import at the time, was really “all a petty, silly matter of no real importance which another generation will comprehend with great difficulty.” Hasten the day.