Passing, Nella Larsen

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Passing, Nella Larsen, Rutgers University Press, 1998 (c1929), ISBN 0-8135-1170-4, 246pp.

For a novel written in 1929, I found this wonderfully modern, written in such a subtlety of style that I have to compare it to my favorite author, Jonathan Carroll. And you should know by now that when I compare something to Carroll, I truly have discovered something that I feel is wonderful.

Passing is about mulatto women in the 1920s who were light-skinned enough that they could “pass” as white in society, but were bound to the black community through their family. The novel puts two such women in conflict: Irene, the narrator, passes occasionally, especially when she wants to “treat” herself, but is married to a dark man who could never pass and whose children are not as light- skinned as she. While passing on a shopping trip in Chicago, she runs into an school friend, Clare, who left the school that they both attended in Harlem after her father, the school janitor, died. She went to live with her aunts, who were white. Clare passes as white full-time now; in fact, she is married to a man who is a bigot, who refers to her as “nig” because:

when we were first married, she was as white as…a lily. But I declare she’s gettin’ darker and darker. I tell her if she don’t look out, she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger.

Clare’s secret, she reveals, is getting harder and harder for her to keep–she nearly died, she said, when she was having her child, a girl that she was afraid would give evidence of her race, and she is afraid to have another. Clare envies Irene, who passes when she wants to, but also can live “comfortably” in the black world. And what Clare wants, Clare gets.

This is tough stuff, full of questions about what does it mean to be black, to be white, and to be somewhere in-between. The story is told by a narrator, yet it is also told by Irene, who may or may not be the narrator. There are things that Irene doesn’t quite admit to, that you must pick up from the text surrounding her, and then there’s the ending, where you have to piece together what exactly happened. I loved it for its understated way in which the true conflict is only implied until it explodes.

[Finished March 1999]

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