Friday, May 27, 2011


As I write this post I realize that I have only blogged about one female African American author, and I don't think that's sufficient.  I want to consciously review diverse and interesting literature just as I want to read a variety of work.  And please, don't hesitate to recommend authors of backgrounds and nationalities that I have so far overlooked.  So today I want to talk a little bit about Passing by Nella Larsen.

In my opinion, Passing is one of the somewhat hidden gems of the Harlem Renaissance.  The protagonist of this story is a fair skinned, African American woman named Irene.  Her foil is the equally important Clare, who also has light skin.  Both of these women have discovered that because of their light skin tone, they can actually "pass" as white.  Irene takes advantage of this from time to time, but Clare has made a decision to permanently present herself this way, even marrying a racist white man and hiding the truth completely.  When these women reunite at a chance encounter, their lives are torn in the comparisons they make.  Irene is swept up in Clare's glamor, and Clare discovers an intense longing to reconnect with her people.

Irene is precisely the kind of character who fascinates me in fiction.  I have followed a number of characters who struggle with their identities, but Irene's internal division is so powerful that it is represented externally as well.  She can literally choose how she wants to present herself - as a black woman or a white woman - and it shapes the way others interact with her.  The presence of Clare brings an enormous amount of insecurity to Irene, as she questions her own physical and emotional value.  With time, Irene's life revolves almost completely around the various pretending she does, which is not limited to pretending to be white in restaurants.  Instead, she must constantly pretend that she likes Clare as a friend and that her marriage is healthy and stable.  Her marriage is likewise a source of great stress and pain, as it crumbles into a detached coldness.  Unable to reconcile the various definitions of herself, Irene is likewise unable to connect to her husband, and the emotional distance between them becomes increasingly great.

In the second half of the novel, things spin rapidly out of control.  By the end, Irene is so frazzled that she falls into great, self-destructive tragedy.  When I first finished reading this, I explored the idea that perhaps Irene had developed Delusional Disorder, as the division she created in her life tore so deeply that it penetrated her mind.  I theorized that the things she believed were happening might actually have a logical explanation from someone else's perspective.  This is cerainly not a view that scholars have yet adopted, but I found it to be an intersting interpretation.  Regardless of the validity of this idea, the key themes of the story are issues concerning one's foundation of self as an African American and as a woman.

I read some bloggers who felt that some of the poignancy of the story has faded since people don't try to pass as white anymore.  As a white woman myself, I am certainly not the best person to make a statement about this, but I do want to share some of my thoughhts.  I have heard some African American friends be accused of "acting white" because they are invested in academics or participate in certain social activities.  It bothers me that academic and similar success is still often equated with whiteness.  I think it's important to cherish unique aspects of indvidual culture, but it becomes a problem if it creates significant obstacles for a person striving to live his or her best life.  I guess I just want to encourage people to stay conscious of the barriers we still put up among races, even though they are taking different forms.  Ok, I'll step off my soap box now, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts about any of this if you would like to share.

1 comment:

bibliophiliac said...

I agree with you that Passing is a neglected classic. For such a slim volume, it is really powerful, and packed with timely issues. Think about some of the political conversations surrounding the race of our President, and you will probably agree that skin color, race, and *passing* (one way or another) are still potent topics for our time. Thanks for a great post.