Passing by Nella Larsen

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Paperback, Penguin Classics, 122 pages

Published April 24th 2003 by Penguin (first published 1929)

“It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. Why shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.”

In roughly 120, some odd pages, is a story that will remain with me forever; a story that I plan to reread so that I never forget this particular residual of slavery; colorism. Written into the Jim Crow law was a plan to keep people of African descent divided - the lighter slaves were preferred over the darker slaves. This form of psychological destruction was written as a long term plan in order for whites at the time maintain superiority over African Americans by making certain to plant a seed of inter-cultural self hatred.


Irene Redfield, the novel's protagonist, is a woman with an enviable life. She and her husband, Brian, a prominent physician, share a comfortable Harlem town house with their sons. Her work arranging charity balls that gather Harlem's elite creates a sense of purpose and respectability for Irene. But her hold on this world begins to slip the day she encounters Clare Kendry, a childhood friend with whom she had lost touch. Clare—light-skinned, beautiful, and charming—tells Irene how, after her father's death, she left behind the black neighborhood of her adolescence and began passing for white, hiding her true identity from everyone, including her racist husband. As Clare begins inserting herself into Irene's life, Irene is thrown into a panic, terrified of the consequences of Clare's dangerous behavior. And when Clare witnesses the vibrancy and energy of the community she left behind, her burning desire to come back threatens to shatter her careful deception.

A law written for slave masters would prove ironclad before, during and through the civil rights era. This ideology is still present even today. The aforementioned quote speaks directly to this. People often protect and revere, what should not be protected and revered, when it benefits them. This story takes place during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, a pivotal time for African Americans. As a way to get ahead and separate herself from the societal struggles that plague her African American counterparts, Clare, a light skinned African American woman who is completely washing her hands of the fact that she is in fact “black”. She is living her seemingly “privileged” life by “passing” as a white woman with her husband who happens to be a hardcore white supremacist. How much self loathing does person have to have to marry someone who hates their heritage? He doesn’t know.

“Lies, injustice, and hypocrisy are a part of every ordinary community. Most people achieve a sort of protective immunity, a kind of callousness, toward them. If they didn’t, they couldn’t endure.”

Her childhood friend, Irene, who is also the narrator of this story and also of lighter skin, is on the other end of the spectrum. Although she lives in a middle to upper class African American neighborhood in a loveless and pointless marriage, she is in tune with the all of the social political problems her people face no matter the socio-economic status. This aspect of Irene’s life brings her fulfillment. As their relationship progresses, Irene begins to struggle with her sexuality as well and her feelings for Clare. Clare, who often enraged me with her blatant self hatred, is a manipulator.

“The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.”

She keeps Irene just close enough not to lose touch with her “blackness”, but would never truly immerse herself. The connection they have is based on emotional voids that both of them have being married and completely unhappy. What I love most about this story is how beautifully written it is. Larsen’s prose is short, but impactful. The narrative is a theoretical infrastructure of how deep an inferiority complex can be under the umbrella of hatred and racism. Both Clare and Irene are trying to figure out who they are and what their place is in society?? This may be a completely out of the box thought, but I really felt that Clare’s need to completely forget her heritage and marry a white supremacist was actually a warped form of escapism. The hatred projected by her husband made her feel increasingly disconnected from her reality. It helped her to continue to live a lie.

This book reflects, in grand detail, the grave affects of postcolonialism. Prepare to be jarred and surprised and educated as well!! This is also being adapted into a film which I can’t wait to see!!

Rating: 5/5