|Mariah Carey might have "passed" if she had lived a century ago.|
by Nella Larsen
Penguin Twentieth Century Classics Edition 1997
Introduction by Thadious M. Davis
The phenomenon of "passing" originally used specifically to describe when a "Black" American was accepted as a "White" American by other white people, has expanded to resonant in minority communities of all sorts, notably in the LGBT community where "passing" can refer to LGBT people passing as straight. In a world of bi-raciality and wide spread interracial relationships, the original black-for-white meaning may have lost some of its power, but the larger concept remains interesting and relevant.
Larsen herself was someone who could "pass" but generally chose not to. Passing the novel is about two women: Irene Redfield- a light skinned African American married to a darker skinned African American, and Clare Kendry- an even lighter skinned African American married to a white dude who doens't know she is black. Redfield and Kendry rekindle their acquaintance in New York City after a decade apart, a decade in which Kendry has managed to pass over to the white world (through her white Aunts) and marry a man who is not only white, but also racist, a fact which becomes painfully, excruciatingly clear when Kendry's husband walks in on on Redfield, Kendry and another passing African American woman having tea and uses his term of endearment with Kendry. That term of endearment is "Nig." Which he jokingly tells Redfield is appropriate because Kendry keeps getting "darker and darker" so much that he thinks she may "turn into a nigger."
That one scene- excruciatingly painful and darkly funny at the same time, is a highlight of Passing, though there is a conversation between Redfield and Kendry about the perils of a lighter skinned woman having a dark baby because "the dark is liable to pop out" unexpectedly, that is close in terms of its ability to evoke disquietude in the reader.
Larsen, trail blazer that she was, does not comport with the "black and proud" ideology of the 60s onward. Her mixed-race, African American world is a place of shame and discomfort, and her books- and her life (Passing was her last novel and she spent 30 years as a nurse, living alone, after it was published and her marriage split up.) elegantly bring the reality of racist 20s America home to a modern reader. The ending of Passing: Kendry throws herself out a 20th story window when her husband walks in on her socializing with other African Americans- is a trifle melodramatic, but it does nothing to negate the power of the rest of the book. Well worth reading.