When I was in my second year of university, one of the books on the syllabus was by an author called Nella Larsen. I had never heard of her and to this day I’ve never read anything else she’s written and, to be fair, her output wasn’t large. Larsen became the first African-American woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing, but she quickly disappeared from the literary scene that had so eagerly embraced her work, enlisting her as one of the figureheads of the Harlem Renaissance.
The novella that our tutor asked us to read was called Passing, published in 1929. Essentially the book details two women of African and European ancestry, Irene and Clare, who were childhood friends. Their lives took on different paths after the death of Clare’s father and they remain apart until a chance meeting many years later. The crux of the novella is the idea of ‘passing,’ in this instance referring to individuals with mixed ancestry who were able to pass themselves off as being white and navigate in white-only social groups at a time of fierce racial division. In their separation, Clare’s financial insecurity led her to marry a white man whose racist views are explicit. Clare has ‘passed’ herself and severed all ties with her previous community. Irene on the other hand only ‘passes’ to access the upper echelons of privilege, in the first chapter for instance, she seeks shade within an exclusively white hotel restaurant in order to escape the pelting heat outside.
Larsen presents a frank discussion of the social and economic advantages and disadvantages associated with racial passing in urban America during 1920’s, causing her to be the centre of rigorous debate between academics within American Universities. In her essay, Passing for What? Aspects of Identity in Nella Larsen’s Novel, Cheryl A Wall writes:
“Larsen draws characters who are by virtue of their appearance, education and social class, atypical in their extreme. Swiftly viewed, they resemble the tragic mulattoes of literary convention. On closer examination, thy become the means through which the author demonstrates the psychological costs of racism and sexism.”
It’s a book with immense staying power. Passing is underscored with a sense of foreboding, which ultimately pays off, leading the reader to understand that living inauthentically invites tragedy. To succumb to an identity that is not your own is to constantly feel a part of yourself has been severed.
Larsen grew up in a precarious situation. Born in 1891, Larsen was the daughter of a white Danish mother and a black West Indian father, her father left and her mother remarried a white Danish man. As a result, she grew up as a child of mixed ancestry within an otherwise white household. They lived in Chicago, before the Great migration where, between 1910 and 1970, 6 million African-Americans moved out of the Southern states to urban areas within the Northeast, Midwest and West states. Larsen grew up in an area where only 2% of the population was black. Her fascination with racial identity is unsurprising.
She’s siphoned the feelings of a being an outsider and deposited them within her literature. The threat of being ‘found out’ is frightening for Clare in Passing, but she remains defiant, constantly entering brave new territories which ultimately cause her demise. In the small details I know of her life, it seems that she continued to struggle with the issues she discussed in Passing. She retreated from the public eye after she was accused of plagiarism and divorced her husband. Some presume that she herself ‘passed.’
I found Passing a deeply troubling and moving account of how destructive repression can be. Larsen remains a fascinating figure, and if you’ve not read Passing, do.