Tag Archives: Harlem Renaissance

Passing by Nella Larsen

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Quicksand, the 1928 novella by the American writer Nella Larsen, born in Chicago in the 1890s to a white Danish mother and a black West Indian father. The novella – which was inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – tells the story of a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world. In Passing (1929), Larsen takes these themes a step further by exploring the emotional, moral and societal implications of the act of ‘passing’, whereby a light-skinned mixed-race woman passes as white in a society divided by race. It’s a superb book, fully deserving of its status as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance.

Central to Passing is a fascinating yet complex relationship between two middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, who had known one another at school but then lost touch as their lives diverged. Both women are black but sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, depending on their personal attitudes and circumstances – and it is here that the differences between the two women begin to emerge. While Irene lives almost exclusively as a black woman, ‘passing’ only when necessary to gain access to theatres or hotels, Clare seems to have wholly entered white society while concealing her true racial background. Moreover, Clare is playing a particularly high-stakes game, having married an outspoken white supremacist, the banking agent John Bellew, without revealing her ancestry.  

Irene and her black husband – a doctor named Brian Redfield – live in Harlem, New York, with their two sons, Brian Junior and Ted. At first, their marriage appears stable and conventional, but longstanding tensions begin to emerge as the novella unfolds. Earlier in their relationship, Brian wanted to move the family to Brazil, where racial differences were less problematic than in the US. Irene, however, was opposed to this idea, favouring the quality of life available to them in New York instead. Consequently, the couple remained in the US, a decision that Brian clearly regrets, often giving rise to a discernible sense of restlessness on his part.

Clare, on the other hand, spends much of her time travelling between New York and Europe, accompanying her husband, John, while he carries out his work. It’s a glamorous, comfortable life, albeit one tinged with the fear of exposure should her ancestry be discovered.

One day, when Clare unexpectedly spots Irene in a hotel tea room, she cannot resist coming over for a chat, giving us a masterful scene to observe. With her glamorous clothes and chic blond hair, Clare is virtually unrecognisable to Irene, who at first is concerned that she is about to be ejected from the tea room by an indignant white lady, somehow alert to her biracial status. During this chance encounter, Clare shares with Irene the details of her new life, how she is effectively passing as a white woman with all the attendant risks this entails.

By the end of the meeting, Irene vows that she will not see Clare again, despite the latter’s insistence that they must reconnect. In truth, Irene has been reminded of the air of selfishness surrounding Clare, a harshness that remains unsuppressed; and yet, there is warmth and passion in Clare’s character too, an allure that seems hard to resist. Moreover, Irene is curious to learn more about this perilous business of passing, which involves taking one’s chances in another sector of society with all its inherent privileges and risks. Consequently – and somewhat against her better judgement – Irene resumes her friendship with Clare, continuing to meet her when the two women are back in New York.

In some respects, Clare feels constrained by the abhorrent views of her husband and the implicit restrictions he places on her life, despite its financial comforts. As such, Irene represents an opportunity for Clare to gain access to the vibrant black community of Harlem she longs to re-enter. It’s a situation Irene observes for herself when she meets John Bellew in person, hearing his hated for ‘Negroes’ expressed in all its venom. (Bellew, at this point, is entirely unaware of the black heritage of the three women in his company – Clare, Irene, and another of their high-school friends, Gertrude).

It was, Irene, thought, unbelievable and astonishing that four people could sit so unruffled, so ostensibly friendly, while they were in reality seething with anger, mortification, shame. But no, on second thought she was forced to amend her opinion. John Bellew, most certainly, was as undisturbed within as without. So, perhaps, was Gertrude Martin. At least she hadn’t the mortification and shame that Clare Kendry must be feeling, or, in such full measure, the rage and rebellion that she, Irene, was repressing. (p. 174)

As a result of these interactions with Clare, Irene begins to question her loyalty to her own race, finding herself somewhat uncertain and insecure – not just with her racial identity but in other aspects of life too, particularly her marriage to Brian, which Clare also seems intent on infiltrating. 

She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her. Whatever steps she took, or if she took none at all, something would be crushed. A person or the race. (p. 225)

[…] when she examined her feeling of annoyance, Irene admitted, a shade reluctantly, that it arose from the feeling of being outnumbered, a sense of aloneness, in her adherence to her own class and kind; not merely in this great thing of marriage, but in the whole pattern of her life as well. (p. 166)

What makes this story particularly compelling is the depth and complexity of the characters Larsen has created here, leading to a relationship that is both intricate and layered. While Clare can appear sophisticated and alluring on the surface, she harbours a manipulative streak at heart, a wilful seam of selfishness that drives her desires.

Clare, it seemed, still retained her ability to secure the thing that she wanted in the face of any opposition, and in utter disregard of the convenience and desire of others. About her there was some quality, hard and persistent, with the strength and endurance of rock, that would not be beaten or ignored. She couldn’t, Irene thought, have had an entirely serene life. Not with that dark secret for ever crouching in the background of her consciousness. And yet she hadn’t the air of a woman whose life had been touched by uncertainty or suffering. (p. 201)

Irene, however, appears outwardly caring and respectable, seemingly prioritising the security of her family over other personal aspirations. But Clare’s shameless audacity in passing as white, while also wishing to re-enter black society, reveals Irene’s jealousy and disapproval of Clare. As Irene so neatly puts it here, 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.’

Consequently, Passing is just as much an exploration of the complexities of female friendships as it is of race, touching on themes of desire, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, victory and victimhood along the way. As the novella builds to a dramatic conclusion, the subtlety and precision of Larsen’s writing come to the fore. While at first, there seems to be a degree of ambiguity about the ending, close reading points to a clear interpretation of the crucial final scene, which I won’t go into here for fear of spoilers – save to say, it’s an outcome the reader is unlikely to forget.

As many of you will know, there is a film adaptation of this outstanding novella on the way, due to open in UK cinemas on 27th October with a Netflix streaming release to follow on 10th November. Rather appropriately, the film has been shot in crystalline black and white, with Ruth Negga as Clare and Tessa Thompson as Irene. I, for one, can’t wait to see it…

My edition of Passing is published (together with Quicksand) by Serpent’s Tail; my thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for a reading copy.