Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Nella Larsen
Copyright 1929 and 2002
The 2002 edition reviewed here includes an introduction by Thadious Davis, the author’s biographer

If I had to review Passing in only one word, that word would be Wow! It’s a small book of only 160 pages – and that’s with the addition of a lengthy introduction, an excellent list for further reading, and extensive footnotes to the original 1929 text – but Passing has a huge impact.

Its succinct title conveys the main theme of Passing, but the story is multi-layered and the characters are complex. It’s about the nuances of skin color within race, loyalty to race and country, and the willingness of some to give up personal identity to join the haves rather than risk being among the have-nots. In other senses of the word, the title may refer to the willingness to let racist remarks pass to protect a friend, and in the end, it may even refer to a common euphemism for death, passing away

The focus is on two women of African heritage whose pale skin allows them to choose their own racial identity. Clare Kendry Bellew is married to a white banker and lives with him as a white woman in Europe . Clare’s husband is virulently racist and has no idea that Clare is anything but what she appears to be. Irene Westover Redfield is married to a physician and lives in Harlem , where she enjoys playing an active role in the Harlem Renaissance. Her husband’s dark skin would keep Irene from living as a white woman, a life she says she doesn’t want anyway, but when she’s alone and in need of a cab or a cool drink in a nice café, she takes advantage of her pale skin to gain access, no questions asked.

Both Clare and Irene grew up in Chicago , where they were childhood friends, but they have had no contact with each other for more than a decade when the book opens. They have a chance encounter in a landmark Chicago hotel while Irene is in town to visit her father and Clare accompanies her husband on a business trip. Clare asks Irene to join her in her room for tea and invites a third friend from their childhood, Gertrude. Although she also has pale skin and is also married to a white man, Gertrude, unlike Clare, is not living as white. Gertrude’s husband has known her since they were children and is well aware of her race. The conversation those three pale-skinned women have over tea, and the exchange when Clare’s husband joins them, is a pivotal scene in the story.

As the women’s conversation turns to their families, Clare and Gertrude express their fear of pregnancy. When Clare confides, “I nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born for fear that she might be dark,” it’s understood that a dark child would expose her passing and end the life she’s living, so it’s Gertrude’s fear that is more telling. “Nobody wants a dark child,” Gertrude says, expressing her own aversion to dark skin, even though her white husband has assured her that their children’s skin color doesn’t matter to him. The remarks disturb Irene, whose husband and one of her two sons have dark skin, but her bad day turns to worse when Clare’s husband enters the room and makes his feelings on race clearly known.

Believing that his wife and her two friends are white, Clara’s husband appears to be very congenial, but his words are peppered with racial epithets, and he even playfully addresses Clare as Nig, explaining to her friends that he gave her the pet name for her darkening skin as she ages. The women ignore his remarks to protect Clare.

In the following years, Clare takes greater risks to spend more time with her own race. Irene’s husband is very unhappy and frequently talks of taking his sons and moving to Brazil to escapes the country he says he hates for its racism. Irene, who sees no racism, is only concerned that if she loses her husband she’ll lose her privileges as a doctor’s wife.

Numerous real-life landmarks, both in Chicago and New York , are used fictitiously throughout the novel, along with well-known personalities of the 1920s, and organizations such as The Urban League. The copious footnotes of this edition explain them all.

Passing was Nella Larson’s second novel. Her first, Quicksand, was published in 1928.
reviewed submitted by Margaret Harney

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