Passing – Review

“She was caught between 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.

…Nothing, she imagined, was ever more completely sardonic.

Some books you need to be in the right space mentally to properly digest. For me, Passing by Nella Larsen, is one of those books. Passing in the context of this book refers to a Black person concealing their black ancestry and living as a white person, especially in the face of the racial segregation that existed in the United States.

Irene, a light-skinned Black woman, bumps into an old friend, Clare, who has lived on the other side of the color line, ‘passing’ as a white woman. Irene initially self conscious, wonders why this ‘white woman’ is staring at her so fiercely; has she given away her true identity and been recognized as a black woman in a place she’s not supposed to be in simply for the color of her skin? Imagine her surprise when she discovers it’s Clare, and the two have tea together and catch up on old times somewhat.

As a Black woman, I’ve long been fascinated with the diversity in our culture. But I’ve also been exposed to the long time prejudices within my own race. This book allowed me to examine for a while, the origins of such ideas and at the same time, consider themes such as allegiance to race, culture, self, family. I always want to understand more about the history of black people in American society, especially at a time when we weren’t considered equal and the prevalence of such injustice during a time when laws made it legal.

Larsen allows Clare and Irene to mirror in each other the chasm of race, loyalty, gender. What woman, especially a Black woman, had any opportunities to be more than what her ancestors were, a maid and housewife? Or like Clare, if I cross over, there is no need to limit the potential for what life could be, as long as I stay ‘white’. Clare, married to a racist white man, seems to have a sort of longing for what she’s left behind, and her chance encounter with Irene seems to awaken that. But Clare won’t be suppressed by anyone, not her husband or her well meaning and respectable friend Irene.

Irene chooses to live as a Black woman but will occasionally pass when convenient, like when she goes to the Drayton (white only hotel) for tea and runs into Clare, who she didn’t recognize at first. Irene is the picture of conformity and decorum but unlike Clare, has learned to repress her feelings and emotions to a point, one that simmers underneath the surface when it comes to how she feels about passing and why it’s condoned by many of her race. Why does she feel this way, especially since she can ‘pass for convenience to obtain things should would not otherwise as a Black woman in a world of discrimination and deeply ingrained prejudice.

There is so much to this book I feel I can’t possibly articulate how much it gave me to think about. I’m looking forward to reading Larsen’s, Quicksand.

Published by booksbythecup

Lover of good books and tea

14 thoughts on “Passing – Review

  1. As a non-American white person I came at this from an entirely different perspective, but found it just as thought-provoking as you did. I only became aware of the concept of ‘passing’ through another book, Philip Roth’s The Human Stain – have you read it? I found it equally powerful, although it gives the male perspective, whereas I thought Passing said as much about gender as race.

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    1. Oh, tell me more! What did you take from Passing? This is a book I’d revisit again.

      The Human Stain sounds like one I’ll have to pick that one up from my library, I’ve never heard of it before! Have you heard of One Drop, by Bliss Broyard, a non-fiction book about her father’s passing, something he kept from his family until a few months before his death? I’ve been meaning to read for years and I think it’s one I need to read soon.

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  2. I was going to say, I hope you read Quicksand. I like it better of the two novellas. The main character exists as every trope of a back woman at the time: educated and uplifting her race, as a maid/companion, as an “exotic” beauty, as a preacher’s woman. Watching her NOT fit into each of these categories is fascinating, and you get a brief history of black women in America. If you’re interested in reading more books about women of color, I have several recommendations (I studied African American history and literature in college and later taught similar classes to college freshman).

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    1. I’m going to put it in my must read stack for 2019. Please share the recommendations or if you have the on your blog and I’ve missed them please point me in the right direction. I have some favorite authors (J. California Cooper is one) but am always interested in reading more.

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      1. Here are African American authors you can find on Grab the Lapels. If you get on a computer and go to my site, there is a search bar on the upper right. You can type in the names there:
        April Sinclair
        Zora Neale Hurston
        Janet Mock
        Assata
        Octavia Butler
        Anne Moody
        Danielle Evans
        D. Bryant Simmons
        Elaine Richardson
        Leesa Cross-Smith
        Suzan Lori-Parks
        Melba Joyce Boyd

        Not on my blog, I would recommend:
        Paul Laurence Dunbar
        Malcolm X
        James Baldwin
        George S. Schuyler
        Walter Mosley
        Ta-Nehisi Coates
        Richard Wright
        Alice Walker
        Lorraine Hansberry
        ZZ Packer
        Ralph Ellison
        Ernest J. Gaines
        Toni Morrison (I liked Bluest Eye)
        Ntozake Shange
        Langston Hughes
        I’d also recommend this play by Amiri Baraka: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VRoOAmtHsQ
        It’s really intense and says a lot about what white individuals (btw, I’m white) think they can get away with, even in public, pushing until the black man stands up for himself.

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      2. Thanks so many of these are favorites and I’ve read them (especially not on your blog) -we’ve talked about Hurston, Malcolm X is a no-brainer that I need to take my time with reading this year. Hughes has always been a favorite and I went through a Mosley phase a few years ago, Fortunate Son and Man in My Basement are ones I remember off the top of my head. Coates was an end of year read for me last year

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  3. Now I want to read these two novellas. Your review is introspective and thoughtful. I am reading Homegoing right now and one of the characters passed for white while his partner didn’t, and it ended up breaking up their relationship. Have you read Homegoing? The book is about so much more, but it was interesting because I just read that chapter earlier today. So happy to have found your blog. ♥️

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    1. Quicksand is going on my must read list for 2019! I have read Homegoing, I reread it this year and I remember those characters, the book is one I really enjoyed so I’ll look forward to your thoughts and review on it. I’m glad to have found yours too!! ♥️😉

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