BOOK MARATHON: BOOK 4b; PASSING by NELLA LARSEN
AUTHOR: Nella Larsen
FIRST PUBLISHED: 1929
PUBLISHER: Alfred A. Knopf
The book starts with Irene Redfield receiving a letter from her old friend, Clare. She is in Chicago and would love to meet Irene. Irene and Claire had lived in the same neighborhood in Harlem when young, until Clare’s father passed away. She was then taken to go live with her relatives. For years, Irene and Claire hadn’t seen each other. When the two friends meet, they catch up about everything, Irene’s life; her marriage, sons, brothers and all that had happened when Clare was away.
Irene can’t help but notice how Claire has changed. She wanted to know more about her life away, but wasn’t sure how to ask. “She wished to find out about this hazardous business of passing”, this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange. What, for example, one did about background, how one accounted for oneself. And how one felt when one came into contact with other Negroes.” She has ‘passed’. She imagines. Being a black woman, Clare was so different. Her lifestyle was not like that of a typical black woman. Clare had been married to a successful white man, who is also racist. This is with the many times he uses the word “Nig” on Clare, and other derogatory terms.
In this book, the author defines “Passing” as what happens when a black/mixed person acts like whites. To survive in a white dominated society, one picks white people tendencies, though still sticks with black roots. Clare had passed. She was able to visit areas where black people could not. These are places like the whites-only Drayton hotel in Chicago. Being a light skinned, her husband hadn’t known that Clare’s grandmother was a black. Clare wanted it to remain that way. Irene had also passed, but not as much as her friend. She had been married to a black doctor,and lived a better life than that of her parents. Though Clare passed as a white, she often yearned for her own people. This is seen with the many times she visits Irene.
The book ends on a rather sad note.Clare’s abrupt death. She had fallen off the window in the apartment they were in. This part is perplexing. Was it accidental? Did Irene push her or did she fall with the intent of committing suicide. The author didn’t make that part clear.
I like the plot. The author majorly dwells on the themes of identity, gender, marriage, friendship, betrayal, lies and deception and social status.
The book’s major theme is race. How black people identified in America during the Harlem Renaissance. A thought provoking read for anyone not aware of how some black people were insecure with their identity in the U.S in the 1920s. How some mixed people would wish to be known as a black, but still identify as a white person because of the privileges and rights white people had.