Monday, May 7, 2012

Book Review: Passing by Nella Larsen

Passing is a thought-provoking short novel originally written in 1929, and Nella Larsen is today considered to be one of the premier novelists to come out of the Harlem Renaissance. The story follows two biracial women who can both “pass” as white despite being legally Black (h/t Plessy v Ferguson.) The main protagonist, Irene Redfield, is an olive-skinned woman who has chosen to remain part of the Black community; she is married to a darker-skinned (“copper” is the descriptor) man, and one of her two sons is dark-skinned as well. The second lead character is Clare Kendry, an old childhood friend of Irene’s; the two reconnect on a hot afternoon when Irene passes as white to gain entry to an upscale Chicago hotel. Clare, described as pale and fair-haired,  has married a wealthy white man and passes as white full-time.

Years later, now living in Harlem, Irene receives a letter from Clare, who is feeling isolated from her Black heritage. Her racist husband has no idea of her racial background, and as such, she has been unable to stay connected to her past for fear of revealing herself. While he travels, Clare hopes to see Irene and other members of the Black community in Harlem and revisit her roots. Irene has reservations about Clare’s re-integration into the community, but Clare’s persistence eventually sees her into the many social events that Irene is involved in.

As one might expect, the social commentary in this novel is insightful and important. In addition to exploring the biracial experience from several angles, Larsen has also decided to focus on the middle-class Black experience, which is an often ignored segment of society even today. Therefore, in addition to racial themes, there are also implications about class privilege as well. I think this is an important book for pretty much anyone to read. The specific racism discussed is that of a very early-20th century overt nature, but the themes of “passing” and feeling “othered” by both racial groups of a biracial person’s background are still very relevant today.

It’s a short book, and very well-written: Larsen’s language is rich and engrossing. I read it in a few hours and definitely recommend it. It’s a very small time investment for such a poignant story.

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