The Fiction of Nella Larsen Part II: Passing (1929) A Classic of Harlem Renaissance

Passing (1929) tackles the sensitive issue of black people who ‘pass’ for white. It also explores the desire of one woman for another – a new and daring theme for the writing of the time.

I just reviewed Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and since I liked it great deal I thought I will read and review her second novel Passing right away as well. Some details on her life can be found on the review of Quicksand.

As said, I liked Quicksand, the main character is so fascinating, still I was surprised how powerful Passing is. It’s an extraordinary story. I was hooked from the first sentence and found it extremely captivating, almost as gripping as a thriller.

Irene, a woman of mixed origins, gets a letter from another woman, Clare, with whom she grew up. The woman has a similar back ground only she has no parents. She isn’t only very light-skinned but her father was white. The two women had met in Chicago, a few years back, after having lost contact for twelve years. They met in an expensive tea room to which black people aren’t allowed. Irene is often ‘passing’ as she is very light-skinned. While she is sitting in the tea-room, enjoying her tea and the elegant surroundings, she notices another woman staring at her. The beautiful and elegant blond woman has alabaster toned skin and Irene is scared she might have found out until she realizes, she knows the woman. Irene always assumed that Clare has become a prostitute but as it seems she got married to a white man and is obviously “passing” for good. Clare invites Irene to her place to meet her husband and family and also invites another girl who also “passes” frequently.

What could have been a pleasant get-together turns into something that is hardly imaginable. Clare’s husband starts to talk about “niggers” and how much he despises them, that he would immediately leave his wife if he found out that she is “a nigger.” Picture this: there sits this condescending man, married to a woman of mixed origins, talking to her two friends of equally mixed origins and he doesn’t get. Not only does he not get, he would still leave her, if he found out although there seems to be nothing that indicates her being different in any way.

Irene doesn’t want to see Clare anymore after this. She is deeply humiliated and outraged. But Clare cannot let go. She wants to see her again. She wants to frequent “her people”. From a story about race, Passing develops into a novel of gender roles, jealousy, attraction and hatred. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but the development and the ending are quite unexpected and cruel.

Passing illustrates the complexity of notions of race even better than Quicksand.

“Yes, I understand what you mean. Yet lots of people ‘pass’ all the time.”

“Not on our side, Hugh. It’s easy for a Negro to ‘pass’ for white. But I don’t think it would be simple for a white person to ‘pass’ for colored.”

This is a highly interesting aspect and seems to indicate that African-American people are far more sensitive to race than white people, which makes the racism of white people all the more absurd. If they don’t get the difference, unless it is really obvious, what is the prejudice based on? The perception of African-Americans is much more nuanced. From my studies (I have an unfinished interdisciplinary Ph.D. on Haitian literature in my drawers) I know that in Haiti, for example, there are at least ten different expressions for skin-tones. Only a very few Haitians are just called “black”. Each skin-tone is linked to a specific social status. The lighter the better. (You could say that the suppressor’s or colonialist’s belief system has been fully internalized).

If I have to compare the novels, I think I liked Quicksand more as I found Helga Crane such a moving character.

It is sad that Nella Larsen didn’t write any other novels and I would like to know what really spurred that decision. Maybe she wanted to turn her back on her past. She had a troubled marriage and was writing during that marriage. Sometimes we cut off something that we really like just because it is tied to something unpleasant in our past.