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Passing
by Nella Larsen
Modern Library, $14.00, 192pp
Published: May 2002

It's fair to say right up front that this is so far down the list of the sort of books I'd seek out that I'd probably never have read it had it not arrived alongside a couple of others I was more interested in. That's because it's part of the Modern Library 'Torchbearers' series which seeks to showcase the work of generations of unknown female writers "who wrote on their own terms, with boldness, creativity, and a spirit of resistance." I leapt at the Francis Stevens science fiction novel, written in 1919, as she was a notable writer of weird fiction, and I didn't hesitate to also grab 'American Indian Stories' by Zitkála-Šá, because that promised to open me up to a new cultural experience. And hey, if those two are worthy, then why would this third book in the series not be?

And, the more I thought about it, as it languished in my TBR shelves, the more intriguing it got. It was a novel first published in 1929 by an African American author, Nella Larsen, and what put me off the most is not its racial background but that it's told within period society. I've always preferred a story to feature interesting people, whether they be criminals, the oppressed or simply Joe Average on the street who finds himself out of his element. My experience with novels set in society are that they feature the least interesting characters of all, everyone hiding behind a mask to fit in with the particular norm of their era that isn't worth fitting in with.

But, this mask, a peculiarly African American mask, is one that feels surreal, almost science fictional, and that's the concept of the title. Passing is the process by which a black person can pretend to be white, which is a simple concept but a truly deep one once you think about the ramifications that it brings. For one, it's one way. As is highlighted here, many blacks pass for white but whites can't pass for black. For another, it subverts the whole fabric of western society, which was fundamentally built on white privilege. And for three, what does it really say about race?

After all, in the America of the twenties, segregation was so routine that it was a given. Blacks were not merely less educated but less worthy, an inferior race not long out of slavery and automatically looked down upon. Maybe they could function as servants. It's important to realise here that black wasn't a colour but a race, meaning that, if you had a single black person in your ancestry, within at least a few generations, then you were legally black too, even if your colour was just as pale pink as me. There were even words for the degrees: a quadroon had one African grandparent, an octoroon had one African ancestor within three generations and a hexadecaroon had one within four.

But, if you're going to base your worldview on blacks being inferior in every conceivable way, how can they pass for white? If they can do everything you can do, if not better, then how can they be an inferior person? Outside the States, Alexander Dumas, père, author of 'The Three Musketeers', was a quadroon, and his son, Alexandre Dumas, fils, was an octoroon, even though he looked white, and a bastard to boot. What would their careers have been, had they been born in the United States? Can anything make mockery of racism, so inherently built on a bedrock of easily identified delineation, more ruthlessly than the notion that it's impossible to tell which side someone's on? It's replicants all over again, except those passing wouldn't fail the Voight-Kampff test.

Here, the story is told by an African American lady from Chicago, who has become part of society in Harlem, the wife of a doctor, and it revolves around a childhood friend, who is passing. The former is Irene Redfield, a good woman with a good husband, who turns out to be rather sympathetic, for a society lady inherently concerned about what everyone thinks about her. The latter is Clare Kendry, whom she hasn't seen since childhood until she bumps into her by accident on the roof of a Chicago hotel. While Rene is a little stodgy, stuck in her role in society but generally happy about it, Clare's a wildcard at heart. If Irene is a carefully maintained ornamental pool, Clare is a rock thrown into it from a great height and the inevitably tragic story revolves around the ripples.

Neatly, for someone who only wrote two novels in her life, this being the second, Larsen layers this one a little deeper than just a black woman passing. Clare hasn't just married a white man, and for his money, I should add; she's married a racist, even for his time. The most powerful scene anywhere in this book isn't the tragic climax, which is somewhat inevitable, but an earlier one in which Clare convinces Rene to come and see her at home. Neither Rene nor Gertrude Martin, another childhood friend also there at the time, are passing, but their complexions are pale enough that, when Clare's husband, Jack Bellew, walks in, he assumes they're all white and they don't tell him otherwise.

And that's because, in a magnificent holy-crap moment, his first words are to greet his wife: "Hello, Nig". Clare enjoys their shock and bids him explain, which he does joyously:

"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."

Oh yes, indeed. And, while the ladies maintain their decorum, as good society ladies must, escaping this surreal scene as soon as is politely possible, naturally it resonates throughout the novel. What is Clare doing? Is there an element of self-destruction here? Certainly, her story arc pertains to her core problem that she's passed so successfully that she's lost connection to her roots and wants, as an entitled society lady tends to, to effectively have her cake and eat it too. She'll continue to pass at home but visit Rene in Harlem more and more frequently and inject herself into black society as she does so. The end is never in doubt, just when it's going to show up.

I liked this novel a lot, which surprised me. Society is a crucial part of this, and it's fair to equate a black woman passing as white with pretty much any member of society, white or black, pretending to be better than they are, according to whatever crazy rules happen to be in play. However, society takes a back seat to cultural identity. This doesn't just explore the concept of passing, it highlights both how beneficial it can be to a black lady and how damaging it can be to their identity. Clare has married into money, so she's comfortable financially but adrift culturally, her very ability to pass a means of losing herself. She's also far from comfortable mentally, given that she's constantly afraid that she'll get pregnant and give her racist husband a black baby. Ah, the tangled webs we weave...

The themes in play were certainly what I enjoyed the most, this unfolding as a science fiction novel in disguise, even if it wasn't remotely written with that intent. Larsen was an African American lady who was not passing but was of mixed race, her father Afro-Caribbean from the West Indies and her mother Nordic from Denmark. She grew up in Chicago, then a predominantly white city, and moved to a white neighbourhood after her father died and her mother married again, this time to a white man, a fellow Dane, prompting Nella, the apparent black child of two white parents, to experience plenty of discrcimination because of the colour of her skin. It's easy to see parts of her life here.

However, I enjoyed the writing too. Larsen was part of the New Negro movement and has been seen as the premier novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. I like her turns of phrase, such as Clare's ability for "conversational weightlifting". I like her grounding in history, this reading easily and smoothly but namedropping the Rhinelander Case and aspects of Harlem society. The copious notes highlight how I knew more about this than I thought but less than I should. And I like her ambigious ending, which is all the more powerful for leaving us guessing as to where blame should lie.

Larsen's other novel is 'Quicksand', a more autobiographical work of fiction that could easily have been combined with 'Passing' in a reasonably slim volume (as I believe it has), but appropriate was not in this particular edition, because of the importance of 'Passing' in the context of the series. I see that there are other books beyond the three I've read. I haven't looked into what they are, but I would be open to reading any of them now, having enjoyed this one while expecting not to. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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