by DON HOLMES
Nella Larsen, Passing. Introduction by Darryl Pinckney & Illustrations by Maggie Lily (Restless Books, 2018), pp. 174
It was 1928 when Nella Larsen burst onto the scene during the boom of the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic period in which black creatives showcased experimental literature, and music throughout the world. In her first novel, Quicksand, Larsen mapped her own experiences through a fictional character, Helga Crane, who searches for community and a space to feel at home. Helga, like Larsen herself, was the mixed-race daughter of a black father and white mother. A year later, Larsen published Passing, her second and last novel. Unlike Quicksand’s autobiographical bent, Passing follows Clare Kendry, a light-skinned black woman, in her choice to pass for white; we the readers witness this choice through the often-fragmented thoughts of Irene Redfield, the novel’s protagonist. Passing is a sophisticated work of fiction that reveals the psychological trauma of race-making practices in the United States. It is through Larsen’s formula of respectability politics coupled with the moral responsibility of being true to one’s self and others that Passing complicates narrative experimentation, fragmenting the human image as one chastised in both social and private spaces. And thankfully, Restless Books has republished this masterpiece through their Restless Classics project, with a new introduction from Darryl Pinckney and with art from Maggie Lily.
Passing opens with Irene dreading the contents of a letter sent to her from a childhood friend, Clare Kendry. Irene frowns “more from perplexity than from annoyance” at the thought of reconnecting with Clare, which foreshadows the contentious reacquaintance of the pair.
After twelve years of no communication, Irene ran into Clare while treating herself to afternoon tea at the Drayton Hotel. As Irene sips warm tea “an attractive-looking woman […] with those dark, almost black, eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of skin” begins to stare intently at her. The well-mannered woman with an outstretched white hand greets Irene as Clare, an old friend, passing for white. At first, both women seem to share striking similarities in their decision to pass for white. But as the novel progresses, we find out that while Irene passes for white on occasion, perhaps to get a table at an exclusive tea shop, Clare passes more deeply into white society and marries a white man, John Bellew, who notoriously hates black people. Their friendship, if one can call it that, is further complicated during a tea outing in which Irene meets Bellew. The cantankerous man enters the room greeting his wife with a racial epithet: “Hello, Nig.” This moment sets off a firestorm inviting Irene to question Clare’s decision not to inform her husband of her racial genealogy. Irene says that Clare’s actions are dangerous because of the hate Bellew bears for black folk. After this event, we see Irene’s growing disdain for Clare as she hopes to rid herself of her childhood friend. Irene descends into a fragmented reality, one in which she questions whether or not to out Clare as mixed-race, or, worse, whether or not to kill her. The novel closes with Bellew’s discovery of Clare’s racial background. In the final pages, it is apparent that Clare has fallen to her death from a Harlem high-rise building. But it is not clear whether Irene pushes Clare, whether Clare commits suicide, or whether this fatal fall is, in fact, an accident.
Darryl Pinckney thoroughly situates the novel in the history of American literature. His introduction, aptly titled “Nella Larsen and the Story of Passing,” provides readers with the literary history of passing. Pinckney is careful to distance his review from a white perspective on passing, and rightfully so. From the late-nineteenth century to the time of Larsen, white authors often wrote salacious narratives that victimized white men who, unknowingly, married light-skinned black women. Instead, Pinckney focuses the introduction’s opening lines on Passing’s popularity because, in his words, “the theme of passing had been an obsession of American popular literature.” But for Larsen, and for other black writers like Charles Chesnutt and James Weldon Johnson, passing was more than a literary trope. Passing was a social and political reality Larsen explored through her novel in an attempt to reconcile the pain wrought through her mixed race-ancestry. As Pinckney points out, “the white suitor is given up not in the name of racial purity but for the sake of black pride.” In the case of Clare Kendry, for instance, the narrator frames her being “outed” as a black woman as “unaware of any danger or uncaring,” suggesting an ulterior motive in Clare’s decision to pass for white and an unhinging sense of anger in Irene. Pinckney does well to connect a wider history of passing in literature to the actual life of Nella Larsen, whose work was always attuned to this premise.
Through Irene and Clare, Larsen tests the complicated decision to pass completely into white society versus the decision to pass only for this or that opportunity. Pinckney explores this contrast in his brief although complete biography of Larsen. Rather than detailing the reasons mixed-raced people chose to pass in the first place, Pinckney allows us to consider the societal repercussions of passing. In Larsen’s lifetime, passing was seen as an offense to most black people; and those who ingratiated themselves completely into white society, if found out, would be ostracized from both sides of this slippery paradigm. In Passing we see this double-edged ostracization. On one hand, Irene passes to get a better seat at the Drayton hotel—readers could find this opportunistic risk as more brave than daunting—but does not lose the sensibility of her blackness. While in Clare’s case, the woman seems to forgo her black identity for a more permanent place within white society. But in Larsen’s reality, and as Pinckney reminds us, “because of her low birth and mixed-race parentage, and because she did not have a college degree, Larsen was alienated from the life of the black middle class, with its emphasis on school and family ties.” With this in mind, through Passing we find bits and pieces of Larsen’s fragmented reality—one-part Clare and one-part Irene. Passing, according to Pickney, is coming up through the drudges of American society: “No black character in American fiction has ever been portrayed as passing in order to live among poor white trash.” As such, Pinckney asks us to consider other political and social markers of oppression, such as class, economics, sexuality, and education, as compounding reasons to pass within the upper echelons of society: “[Irene] wished to find out about this hazardous business of ‘passing,’ 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.”
Literary scholars have long commented on Larsen’s Passing as a novel consumed with attending to how black folk passed into white society. Pinckney challenges this assertion in his summary of the text: “Passing is an unusual novel of urban manners, because the focus is not on how the passer is doing among whites, but rather on how black people who know this secret about someone behave toward that person in social situations.” Pinckney makes plain that Passing has much more to do with societal expectations for black women, their movements, and their bodies than it does with a careful appeasement of the Harlem Renaissance elite. Following in the footsteps of those like Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston, Larsen’s Passing is not fixated on nice people or avoiding stereotypes—to point to the aims of Langston Hughes (cf. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”). Instead, she created endearing characters that portray real-life experiences that many within Harlem’s elite, or those with far less acceptable statuses, may have faced. Passing, as a novel, but also as a phenomenon, is as relevant today as it was when mixed-race people saw passing into white society as a possibility for a somewhat better life. In the twenty-first century, many have “passed” for something or someone that they are not, inspired by copious hours filing through social media or viewings of the wealthy on television. The media of entertainment have changed, yes, but the desire to live a better life has remained the same.
Rendering 1920s Harlem in black and white, Maggie Lily stuns readers with illustrations that seemingly tear through the pages. That is, the prints are carefully placed to correspond to specific moments in the novel. The images are chaotic, busy pieces that chronicle the constant anxiety that Irene feels when learning of Clare’s decision to pass completely for white. The first depiction imagines Irene and Clare sitting at the Drayton Hotel. While Clare knows Irene’s identity, Irene is mesmerized by the “white” woman staring at her. The illustration has a line that rips through the Drayton Hotel’s tea room, perhaps a representation of Clare’s passing into white society while Irene looks on with a plain, expressionless white face with no features, eyes or a mouth. Seemingly, the creatures in this print are blank canvases that rely on the uncompressing rift between Clare and Irene, a foreshadowing of the remaining illustrations. The final print is the grandest: it is dark and gives us a sensation of coldness. This coldness maintains the mystery of Clare’s fall from the Harlem building as the moon casts dim light down on Irene and her friends circling the corpse. But I also note how careful Lily is to illustrate Clare’s fall from grace; or, in other words, her deadly fall from both white and black upscale societies. A careful reading of Larsen’s prized novel paired with Lily’s prints makes the content present, not a gaze back in time. Readers, I am sure, will leave this novel wondering about contemporary moments of passing, be they related to education, sexuality, race, or economics.
This reprinting of Passing is a welcome delight, especially as scholars are increasingly turning their attention back to Larsen’s body of work. Just as this novel cemented Nella Larsen as the most celebrated novelist of her generation in 1929, present-day readers will find comfort in the novel’s complex narrative that challenges the idea of race itself. For instance, in a scene in which Irene and her husband, Brian, discuss the objective of passing, Irene lists the choice as something that “excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it.” Brian believes that it has more to do with the “instinct of the race to survive and expand,” but Irene objects to a biological argument for a race’s survival: “Rot! Everything can’t be explained by some general biological phrase.” Such a comment reveals how reason or reasons to pass may not be so conclusive. Even further, we are able to see how Passing is not simply fixated on its eponym but rather engaged in a full-bodied critique of American racial practices. Passing was the marvel of any given literary circle when it debuted. I hope it continues to teach us about our collective history and about how the obsession to categorize people based on distinguishable features, like skin tone and hair, does more harm than good.