Passing

Nella Larsen
Rutgers University Press, 1986

UnknownOh, so many things our little brains think about. There are endless ways to justify our actions, question another’s, and paint our memories. The pitiable protagonist, though she wants to be noble, is Irene Redfield who believes herself faced with saving her children from life, her husband from adventure, race secrets, and she is assuring her own security.

This succinct, precisely written novella by a Black woman is about Irene’s thinking and justification in helping a childhood friend “pass” as White. Passing was put on my reading list by Maxine, my only friend who took a college Black literature class. A successful career woman, Maxine was intrigued by the lingering questions of how often and how people attempt to “pass” in the business and social worlds–in other words the fracturing of our own personalities and repudiation of personal history to attain a goal. On top of all that, this one hundred page read covers Irene’s security driven justification to “pass” on her responsibility to the needs and desires of others so she can maintain her own security.

This book has a lot to say in direct, every-paragraph-has-a-purpose-writing. In the first three pages which made up chapter one, the reader is plunged into the mystery of a letter Irene doesn’t want to open. She experiences a memory of the calculating, cat-like, yet graciously warm Clare who was her childhood friend who had the drunken father brought home dead, Clare’s disappearance, and in the finally opened letter, a reference to “That time in Chicago,” that flared resentment and humiliation in Irene.

imagesThis is serious chick lit set in Harlem during the Renaissance of the 1920s. These are the parties The Great Gatsby and Nick Carraway, his storyteller, would have visited. The women wore beautiful frocks, smoked cigarettes with a flourish, and gave society parties without the modern day illusion of women’s liberation, or gender and race fairness. Passing is the gritty, not-at-all-pretty, inner life of a woman faced with real decisions about her uninspired marriage, loyalty to her race, and raising two young boys in a society that lynches their fathers and uncles and drives their mothers and aunts into situations they cannot control to change life forever.

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6 Responses to Passing

  1. An enticing review for a spectacular read. Sigh. I will add this title to my teetering and weaving list of others. 😀

  2. Tess, thanks for coming. I hope your busy brain receives a rest from reading during your upcoming trip. At least this book is a short read.

  3. I wonder how much “passing” continues to happen, or whether slightly more open times have made it a thing of the past? –Curt

    • That’s an interesting question Curt. There may be more of it than imagined.

      • I suspect we have reached a positive point when passing no longer seems desirable.

      • I believe you’re right. In the discussion I was involved in with this book that was the overall feeling regarding ethnicity and race. What was more interesting was people’s experience and/or observation of trying to “pass” when credentials, education, money resources, social contacts, or even sexual orientation, etc. were the gates people tried to crash or not to their benefit.

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