This book surprised and intrigued me! I’d never heard of Nella Larsen (1891-1964). The title Passing refers to racial identity and presentation. Some people with African blood look “white”, and hence can choose to “pass” and live as white in America.
Larsen was a multiracial child raised in a Danish immigrant family in Chicago. Her mother was born in Denmark and emigrated to the US. Larsen’s father was a mixed race immigrant from the Danish West Indies (now US Virgin Islands) who died (or disappeared) soon after his daughter’s birth. Her mother then married another Danish immigrant and had a second daughter. From 1895 to 1898, the family lived in Denmark, then they returned to Chicago.
Nella Larsen had no conventional “place” in American society. White people considered her a Negro (hence of low class), but she had little in common with the African Americans (mostly descendants of the formerly enslaved) who began moving North around 1915. Larsen attended Fisk University briefly. At age 23, she took up nursing. Later, she participated in the Harlem Renaissance (aka the Negro Awakening) which emerged in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. In addition to working as a nurse and a librarian, Larsen published two novels. The first, Quicksand, was largely autobiographical.
Passing features three African American women who look white, who can “pass” as white if they choose. Irene marries a successful (but discontented) Black medical doctor. In contemporary terms, Irene identifies as African American. (Larsen says Negro.) Clare hides her racial background, opportunistically marries a (racist) white man and lives simultaneously in material splendor, fear and ambivalence. Gertrude, a minor character, marries a white man who knew her from childhood, and accepted her background without question.
For these women, “passing” is a freighted decision. Children are a big issue. Who will a child resemble? Clare has one daughter, who looks white. She declares she could not possibly risk another pregnancy. Irene calmly announces to her friends that one of her two sons is “dark”. The ideas of “tainted” blood and genetic unpredictability are strong. Gertrude has twins, but refuses to consider the idea of conceiving another child, despite her husband’s total acceptance of her identity.
What about the men? Irene’s husband wants to move to Brazil, to get away from American racism. Irene wants “security” above all and argues against leaving New York. Clare’s husband is a sketchily drawn stereotype, hateful and extremely angry. We don’t meet Gertrude’s husband. He is described as the successful owner of a grocery store.
Another big issue for these three women is the idea of “going back”. If you pass as white, must you surrender all ties to your black family and friends and culture?
Clare is savagely ambivalent, repeatedly asking Irene and her husband to take her with them to Harlem when her husband is out of town. Irene considers this incredibly reckless and dangerous, and, indeed, Clare’s bigoted husband learns of her background and tragedy ensues. I did not foresee the ending.
Much more is explored in this book. Highly recommended!