During the 1920s, New York City became the destination for many African Americans. Their progression in its society led to the Harlem Renaissance in arts, politics and culture. Into this community Nella Larsen released her second novel, ‘Passing,’ the story of mixed-race Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Old childhood friends, the pair meet in a white restaurant on a hot summers day where it is revealed that Clare chose to secretly ‘pass’ for white. A controversial topic of focus, which received a mixed reception, with some accusing Larsen of promoting racial passing and notable figures such as W. E. B. Dubois declaring it was “one of the finest novels of the year.” After its feminist revival in the 1970s, its contemporary audience has highlighted elements of gender and sexuality, linking its themes to the “Queer Harlem” that also emerged during the Renaissance. Often included in the canon of African American female literature, the novel remains powerful and relevant when evaluating many major themes of Harlem society.
Passing is an ambiguous term that applies to various social transgressions, but primarily Larsen’s novel addresses racial passing. Larsen, as a mixed race woman, offers a perspective that “few purely Negro or white writers can hope to attain.” Consequently, her apparent ambiguous position is reflected in the character of Irene. She views Clare’s “breaking away” from the familiar black community into “another community” as not just “strange” but “not entirely friendly.” This expresses not only deep contemplation of the situation in which Clare has placed herself, but also reflects the engrained differences between the black and white communities at that time. This indeed makes it seem like Clare is part of a completely different society, and therefore would explain Irene’s confusion at their interaction, and her thinking that she may have been an acquaintance from Europe. However, Heidi Durrow suggests that Irene, and Larsen’s, ambiguity could be a contemporary construct due to the inability to “understand the problem of the colour line in the same way” as Larsen. Certainly, in ‘Beyond the Colour line’ (1929) Larsen is accused of making passing an admirable trait. Clare is said to be “a little too beautiful to be true,” and an “apotheosis of halfe-caste loveliness.” This view may be more suited to the Black Nationalism of Garvey’s UNIA, but the argument is problematic. Clare is described as beautiful with “bright lips” and radiant “happy eyes;” but this is arguably a representation of the fascination of her as an exotic object. However, the issue with Larsen’s portrayal of passing also highlights the problematic nature of Harlem’s “New Negro” and its roots in the individual’s perception of African American racial progression. Therefore, due to it not being a societal image of progression, some could see racial passing as problematic, and Larsen’s ambiguity could be misconstrued.
Nonetheless, the feminist revival of ‘Passing’ suggests, not only that Larsen was a credible female writer, but also that there was significance in how Larsen portrayed women. It is notable that the text focuses on the life of three middle class African American women, and that the novel only addresses the issue of female racial passing. When presented with a man who has transgressed slightly due to his choice to become a Jew, the women see this as a source of ridicule and hilarity. Therefore, this would suggest that the common gender for racial passing would be female; which would conform to the strict gendered lines of 1920s American society with women being more dependent on men to determine their social situation. This is problematic, and it may highlight also an issue within the renaissance. Many of its leaders were men, with many females being entertainers rather than intellectuals. Also, although Irene is depicted as a strong female character within the community, she is somewhat polarised by the character of Gertrude. Gertrude chose not to actively pass and is often described as being quite “mammy”-like, with a “broad, fat” body and “stout legs in sleazy stockings.” This would suggest that the Harlem Renaissance, although viewed as liberating, could have also added to gender constraints. This would be further supported by the high commentary on prostitution in other popular novels such as Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928). However, this appears to be a view held by a contemporary reader, as a mentioning of gender does not tend to appear in the reviews of the book at its time of release. Therefore, it could be argued that the expectations of gender were so engrained during this time that it is only a prevalent issue to the contemporary reader.
Finally, a contemporary reading can identify the transgressive aspects of sexuality evident in the novel. This homosexual feeling is primarily between Clare and Irene, and is evident in Irene’s sensual descriptions of Clare. Irene takes care to describe Clare’s “wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin,” the contrasts of red and white indicate a presence of desire and lust. By describing Clare as ivory it not only indicates exoticness, but also value. Furthermore, Clare’s letter to Irene speaks of “longing to be with you again, as I have never longed for anything before.” The “ache and the pain” that Clare speaks of seems to mirror a love letter, not friendly correspondence. Although, this element of the book is easily overlooked, it seems that Larsen is also hinting at the other movement included in the Harlem Renaissance. “Queer Harlem” acknowledged that many African American artists and intellectuals were in fact also homosexuals, and that this was socially acceptable. However, the homosexual elements of the book are easily overlooked, it is not clearly stated that Clare and Irene are just not really good friends. Leaving the situation to the discretion of the reader reveals more about Larsen as an ambiguous person. Nonetheless, it is commonly perceived by the contemporary reader that this novel, and the Renaissance’s primary struggle for racial equality, is paralleled to the homosexual struggle for equality that continues today.
Larsen’s conclusion to the novel as described in ‘Beyond the Color Line’ as “utterly unconvincing.” The death or murder of Clare arouses suspicion and shock, questioning Larsen’s ability to offer an active solution to the Renaissance’s social issues. It could be that Larsen could not envisage a solution, as she was merely a documenter of this progressive time in African American history. Nonetheless, Passing’s ability to transgress not only social issues, but time, appear to be one of the endearing strengths of the novel as it remains a staple aspect of the American Female literary cannon and Harlem Renaissance study.
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