“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.