Nella Larsen's Passing takes as its epigram the famous lines from Countee Cullen's poem "Heritage," which was published in 1925:
One three centuries removedLike Jessie Redmon Fauset's Plum Bun, published in the same year, Larsen's novel is about an African-American woman who "passes" as white, and asks many of the same questions about race, class, family, and identity.
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
Nella Larsen (1891-1964) was the daughter of a black West Indian father and a white Danish mother. In 1929 she was awarded a Harmon Foundation award for her first novel, Quicksand, an autobiographical novel about a biracial woman. Later in 1929, she published Passing, and in 1930 became the first woman of color to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. But she never published another novel, and spent the rest of her career working as a nurse in New York City.
I'm reminded of the character in Plum Bun who's torn between wanting to be a poet and feeling the responsibility to be a respectable dentist. Jessie Redmon Fauset wrote four novels at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, then returned to high school teaching; Larsen wrote two novels and then became a nurse. There seems to be a conflict between the need for self-expression and the comfortable allure of middle-class respectability, between the riskiness of art and the security of a home and a steady paycheck. Larsen says of one her main characters in Passing: "[S]ecurity was the most important and desired thing in life... She wanted only to be tranquil."
How is is possible to be "tranquil," to be comfortable and secure, in a country where color is dangerous, where race is potentially explosive?
In Passing, Irene Redfield wants to hold onto her comfortable middle-class life in the midst of Harlem's black community. Her husband, Brian, wants to leave "this damned country" and his respectable middle-class career as a physician, and settle in multiracial Brazil. Irene is light-skinned, and occasionally passes as white "for convenience." On a visit to Chicago at the opening of the novel, she escapes the midsummer heat by slipping into a posh restaurant where, of course, blacks would not be allowed. In the restaurant she encounters a childhood friend she hasn't seen for years, Clare Kendry, who is also "passing." But Clare has made a life out of passing: she's married to a white man, a seething racist who obviously doesn't know his wife's secret. She's beautiful, daring, and self-centered. Irene is attracted to her and repelled by her. She represents both the possibility of freeing oneself from race, and the danger of losing it.
Irene and Clare both struggle between loyalty to family and loyalty to race—and, ultimately, loyalty to themselves and the things they hold most dear. "She was caught between two allegiances," Larsen says of Irene, "different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! That 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... It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a woman, as an individual, on one's own account, without having to suffer for the race as well. It was a brutality, and undeserved."
As critics have observed, Passing is structured around "binaries," around opposites or doubles: black and white, security and risk, New York and Chicago, Irene and Clare, hot and cold, summer and winter. Clare's presence in the novel begins among whites in a rooftop restaurant in Chicago and ends among blacks on the top floor of an apartment building in New York. The novel is carefully constructed, but written with such ease and simplicity that it almost hides its own complexities. The ending is famously ambiguous, highlighting the ambiguities of the entire novel. In the end, everything fades to black.
Brian Redfield's attitude—he calls America "this damn country"—reminds me of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's infamous "God damn America," and reminds me that this bitterness is rooted in a real history of brutality and injustice that may be difficult for those of us in white America to comprehend. To some of us, the promise of America has been its reality. To others, like Brian, that promise has never been fulfilled. Of Irene—biracial, middle-class—Larsen says: "She belonged in this land of rising towers. She was American. She grew from this soil, and she would not be uprooted." Angela, in Plum Bun, also longs for rootedness.
Can American soil become so fertile with the richness of race and culture that women like Irene and Angela, and Nella and Jessie, can spring from it without finding their growth stunted? In 1929, that was an unanswered question. Eighty years later, how far have we come toward finding the answer?