Blurring the Lines of Race and Identity in Passing (Part I)


In this unit, we will be reading Nella Larsen’s rediscovered 1929 novella, Passing. As you read the text I want you to focus on the way it expresses the complexities of race, gender, and social class. As part of the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen saw a rapid change in the culture and community of African Americans and her novella is an illuminating insight into the history of the formation of an urban, middle class, African-American identity. In this story, Larsen poses several ethical questions about race, gender, and social class as they related to the rapid changes taking place in the African-American community in the early 20th century. In particular, I would like you to focus on the following questions raised in her story:

1. How do we define race and what does it mean to be “black” or “white”?

2. What does it mean to be bi-racial (in Larsen’s era, the term was “mulatto”) and how does this affect how people think of themselves?

3. Is race just about appearance?

4. Do we have a duty to protect people from our identity group (race, gender, nationality, sexuality, etc) even if they aren’t a positive member of the community?

5. Is it okay to “pass” for someone we are not? What if you are passing to avoid harm? Is that excusable?

6. To what degree do we get to define our own identities and to what degree are we at the mercy of other people’s definitions? 

Nella Larsen’s Biography

(Photo via the Yale Archives)

Nella Larsen’s (1891-1965) own personal background bears a striking resemblance to the lives of the two main characters of Passing; Irene and Clare. Much like Clare, Larsen was notoriously secretive about her background and possibly misrepresented elements of her upbringing. Biographers have thus had to dig deeply into the archives to uncover the real Nella Larsen. The University of Minnesota’s Laurie Dickinson writes the following on Larsen’s background and career: 

The details of Nella Larsen’s life, which she herself obscured in biographical statements, have been painstakingly reconstructed by her biographer, Thadious M. Davis. She was born in Chicago in 1891 to a Danish mother, Mary Hanson Walker, and an African-American father, Peter Walker. Her parents separated shortly after her birth and her mother married the white Peter Larson, from whom Nella took her surname. (Davis speculates that Walker and Larson might, in fact, be the same person–a possibility that does much to explain the secrecy with which she guarded her history. ) Larsen grew up in Chicago and attended the public schools there before Peter Larson enrolled her in Fisk University’s Normal School in 1907, an event that marked her permanent alienation from her birth family. Between 1912 and 1915, Larsen trained as a nurse in New York and, upon her graduation, went down to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to work as head nurse at John Andrew Memorial Hospital and Nurse Training School. By 1916, however, Larsen returned to New York and took a nursing post there. Here she met Elmer Imes, a physicist, whom she married in 1919, and began her acquaintances with people influential in the burgeoning Harlem arts movement–what would later be known as the Harlem Renaissance.

It was in this environment that Nella Larsen Imes’ interest in literature began to blossom. Her first publications were two articles about Danish games, published in the Brownies’ Book, a children’s magazine edited by Jessie Redmon Fauset. In 1921 Larsen left her nursing position and took a job at the New York Public Library’s 135th Street branch in Harlem and attended library school at Columbia University. She continued at the NYPL until 1926 and worked at honing her writing skills, writing several pieces of short fiction which she published, some under the pseudonym Allen Semi (her married name reversed). She was also at work on her first novel, Quicksand, which would be published in 1928 to some critical acclaim.

Shortly after the publication of Larsen’s second and last novel, she published the story “Sanctuary” which concerns a man who, after shooting someone, seeks refuge in the home of a friend’s mother, not realizing that it is the friend who he has shot and killed. The power of this story paled when it was revealed that it bore too striking a resemblance to another story to be passed off as coincidence. In 1930, Larsen won a Guggenheim Fellowship (the first African-American woman to receive this award) and traveled to Europe to work on her next novel, which was subsequently rejected by Knopf Publishers. In 1933 she divorced Imes, who had been carrying on an affair for some time, and by 1934 she had retreated into obscurity. In fact, Larsen would live another thirty years as Nella Larsen Imes, a nurse living and working in Brooklyn, with no contact with her Harlem friends. Though there is evidence that she worked on up to two other novels, she would not publish another word.

Just like her fictional character Clare, Larsen felt alienated by her mixed race heritage and this was probably one of the reasons she was evasive about her upbringing. As her biographer George Hutchinson writes:

Since she was always evasive about the details of her past life, it seems clear that she was ashamed of her lowly origins in the vice district of Chicago, ashamed in a special way, for she dreaded that people would think her the daughter of a white prostitute. Yet, just as important, as a member of a white immigrant family, she had no entrée into the world of the blues or of the black church. If she could never be white like her mother and sister, neither could she ever be black in quite the same way that Langston Hughes and his characters were black. Hers was a netherworld, unrecognizable historically and too painful to dredge up.(

After controversy over whether or not she plagiarized portions of her 1930 story “Sanctuary”, Larsen stopped writing completely and lived the rest of her life as a nurse, dying in obscurity in 1965. For decades, her novels were ignored and forgotten until literary scholars began to discover her in the late 80s and early 90s. For researchers interested in race, sexuality, and class identity in the early 20th century, Larsen’s novels filled a void by voicing the experience of mixed race people. Larsen’s work has now become more popular than ever and she is taught in many high schools and universities.


Understanding Passing

(A "Passing" Game from Ebony Magazine)

(A “Passing” Game from Ebony Magazine)

What exactly is “Passing”? Simply put, it was the process of light-skinned African-American people or mixed race people “passing” themselves off as white. These light-skinned African-Americans decided to escape the racism that they faced in the early part of the 20th century by pretending to be white and living among white society. This was a hotly controversial practice because not only did it means having to abandon one’s family, but it also meant abandoning the African-American community and those too dark to “pass”. Many alleged that those who passed were ashamed of their race, and instead of fighting for their rights as African-Americans, they side with and aid their oppressor.

For more history on this phenomenon, check out this recent NPR story, “A Chosen Exile” (I will cover this on the quiz)

In the novel, it is Clare Kendry who is passing. Through a dialogue with her long lost childhood friend, Irene Redfield, Clare discusses her mixed race heritage and living with her white ants as a girl. Her experience humanizes and complicates the idea of passing, She has had a difficult life, and she did indeed grow up with white family members, so what would be wrong with identifying as white? As the novel progresses, Larsen explores whether or not Clare’s choice to pass herself off as white is due to an ingrained sense of racism, whether or not she as a duty to help other African-Americans, and whether or not what she is doing is ethical for her family. As Irene and Clare reconnect for the first time in years on pages 43-45, Clare explains her passing:

“But you’ve never answered my question. Tell me, honestly, haven’t you ever thought of ‘passing’ ?” 

Irene answered promptly: “No. Why should I?” And so disdainful was her voice and manner that Clare’s face flushed and her eyes glinted. Irene hastened to add: “You see,Clare, I’ve everything I want. Except, perhaps, a little more money.” 

At that Clare laughed, her spark of anger vanished as quickly as it had appeared. “Of course,” she declared, “that’s what everybody wants, just a little more money, even the people who have it. And I must say I don’t blame them. Money’s awfully nice to have. In fact, all things considered, I think, ‘Rene, that it’s even worth the price.” 

Irene could only shrug her shoulders. Her reason partly agreed, her instinct wholly rebelled. And she could not say why. And though conscious that if she didn’t hurry away, she was going to be late to dinner, she still lingered. It was as if the woman sitting on the other side of the table, a girl that she had known, who had done this rather dangerous and, to Irene Redfield, abhorrent thing successfully and had announced herself well satisfied, had for her a fascination, strange and compelling. 

Clare Kendry was still leaning back in the tall chair, her sloping shoulders against the carved top. She sat with an air of indifferent assurance, as if arranged for, desired. About her clung that dim suggestion of polite insolence with which a few women are born and which some acquire with the coming of riches or importance. 

Clare, it gave Irene a little prick of satisfaction to recall, hadn’t got that by passing herself off as white. She herself had always had it. 

Just as she’d always had that pale gold hair, which, unsheared still, was drawn loosely back from a broad brow, partly hidden by the small close hat. Her lips, painted a brilliant geranium-red, were sweet and sensitive and a little obstinate. A tempting mouth. The face across the forehead and cheeks was a trifle too wide, but the ivory skin had a peculiar soft lustre. And the eyes were magnificent! dark, sometimes absolutely black, always luminous, and set in long, black lashes. Arresting eyes, slow and mesmeric, and with, for all their warmth, something withdrawn and secret abouthem.

Ah! Surely! They were Negro eyes! mysterious and concealing. And set in that ivory face under that bright hair, there was about 
them something exotic. 

Yes, Clare Kendry’s loveliness was absolute, beyond challenge, thanks to those eyes which her grandmother and later her mother and father had given her. Into those eyes there came a smile and over Irene the sense of being petted and caressed. She smiled back

As you read over this passage, consider whether or not you think Claire is justified in her passing. What is Irene’s response and why? Irene’s curiosity about Clare is ultimately what drives the rest of the novel. Even though she is somewhat repulsed by Clare, Irene nonetheless becomes more and more obsessed with her as she worms her way back into Irene’s life.

Once Irene reluctantly agrees to meet Clare again for tea and meet her husband, she realizes how complicated and dangerous the business of passing truly is. Here, Larsen introduces us to Clare’s husband:

He explained: “Well, you see, it’s like this. When we were first married, she was as white as-as-” well as white as a lily. But I declare she’s gettin’ darker and darker. I tell her if she don’t look out, she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger.” 

He roared with laughter. Clare’s ringing bell-like laugh joined his. Gertrude after another uneasy shift in her seat added hershrill one. Irene, who had been sitting with lips tightly compressed, cried out: “That’s good!” and gave way to gales of laughter. She laughed and laughed and laughed. Tears ran down her 
cheeks. Her sides ached. Her throat hurt. She laughed on and on and on, long after the others had subsided. Until, catching sight of Clare’s face, the need for a more quiet enjoyment of this priceless joke, and for caution, struck her. At once she stopped. 

Clare handed her husband his tea and laid her hand on his arm with an affectionate little gesture. Speaking with confidence as well as with amusement, she said: “My goodness, Jack! What difference would it make if, after all these years, you were to find out that I was one or two per cent coloured?” 

Bellew put out his hand in a repudiating fling, definite and final. “Oh, no. Nig,” he declared, “nothing like that with me. I know you’re no nigger, so it’s all right. You can get as black as you please as far as I’m concerned, since I know you’re no nigger. I draw the line at that. No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be.”

Here, we learn that John Bellew is a virulent racist. Although he doesn’t realize it, his cruel joking has uncovered the truth about his wife. It would be one thing if Clare were lying about her race to a reasonable man, but to be pulling this charade with a racist ups the possible consequences. The fact that Clare wants to renew acquaintances with her old African American friends (at least those like Irene who can pass) sets the scene for the drama that will unfold in the next two parts.


Tips for reading Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask”

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) is widely to be considered the first famous African American poet. The late 19th century marked the beginning of what was called the “Great Migration” in which the children and grandchildren of freed slaves began to move to the cities (often of the north) and work in industry instead of agriculture. Their sudden arrival was often met with violent backlash, and thus there was a renewal of racial tensions in this era.

Think about the idea of race when you read this poem. What is the mask an extended metaphor for? Think about the general purpose of masks. When do we use them and why? Once you have thought about this, list all of the ways he describes the mask and what it covers. Does this explain why “we” wear the mask?

Even though this poem is often considered to be about race, Dunbar purposefully wrote it in an ambiguous way so that it could apply to other subjects. Think about other reasons why “we wear the mask” and other situations this poem could be applied to. When do you “wear the mask” in your own life?

In terms of form, this poem is a rondeau, characterized by the following rules:

– 10 15 lines (15 in this poem’s case)

– 8 syllables in each line

– There are only two rhymes (lies/eyes and guile/smile)

– The opening words are repeated at the end of stanza 2 and 3

– The 15 line rondeau rhymes AABBA AABc AABAc

Just like Dylan Thomas’s villanelle, a rondeau is deceptively simple looking. A writer must come up with a list of rhyming words (or in Dunbar’s case, a slant rhyme with the word “subtleties) that do not sound forced, and a powerful repeated refrain, here, “We Wear the Mask”. List out all of the rhyming terms and consider what they all have in common. How do the commonalities in these rhymed words help to drive Dunbar’s point across?

Furthermore, think about how this “mask” can be applied to the characters of Clare and Irene in the story. How might “passing” be a type of mask that they wear? What are they trying to conceal and why? What kind of a mask do they choose and for which reasons?

About drdimock

Dr. Chase Dimock teaches Literature and Composition at Broward College
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