Last week I reviewed Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, promising that I’d write about Passing in a separate post. The novellas were written the late 1920s and have recently been reissued in a single volume. Both explore race and identity but while Quicksand is widely considered to be autobiographical there’s no suggestion that Passing is. It’s a powerful, thought-provoking book which explores the pain and dislocation of pretending to be what you aren’t and its awful consequences.
It begins with the memory of a chance meeting in a smart Chicago hotel. Two light-skinned women recognise each other – both are ‘passing’ in this bastion of white society but for one of them it’s a matter of convenience and mild titillation at her deception – for the other it’s the habit of a lifetime. Irene Redfield is a comfortably off middle class woman married to a doctor and visiting family in Chicago. Brought up by her father’s family when she was orphaned, Clare Kendry is the child of a white father – the janitor of the building in which both women spent their early years – and a black mother. Clare is married to a wealthy white man who has no idea of her parentage but she longs to move in black society. Irene wants to extricate herself from this deception but it seems that Clare’s need is too great. She will not be rebuffed, contacting Irene on her return to New York, determined to find a place for herself in Harlem society. As the novella progresses the dreadful consequences of Clare’s deception and her desperate need for kinship become increasingly apparent.
Told from Irene’s point of view, Passing explores identity, race and the overpowering need to belong in exquisite prose. Irene’s disquiet and eventual pain at Clare’s deception are vividly conveyed. The scene in which she meets Clare’s bigotted husband, unknowingly sharing his drawing-room with three black women, one of them his wife, is a darkly comic, excruciating triumph. As Passing works its way to its shocking conclusion, we’re privy to snapshots of Harlem society, glimpses into life as a black person in early twentieth-century America and the undeniable pull of racial identity in a society strictly divided along racial lines. While Quicksand is a sobering novella, Passing is gut-wrenching – an astonishingly brave book to have written in the 1920s. Bravo, Serpent’s Tail for reissuing these two gems.