Passing by Nella Larsen (1929): An Introduction

Passing by Nella Larsen

Excerpted from the Introduction by Thadious M. Davis to the 1992 Penguin Books edition of Passing by Nella Larsen: In Passing (1929), Nella Larsen explores the cultural identity and psychological positioning of modern black individuals unmarked by difference from whites.

Locating her narrative within the liberating 1920s, the golden days of black cultural consciousness, she critiques a societal insistence on race as essential and fixed by representing racial fluidity inherent in Clare Kendry Bellew and Irene Westover Redfield, women who choose their racial identities.

In portraying Clare, who becomes white, and Irene, who passes occasionally, Larsen represents passing as a practical, emancipatory option, a means by which people of African descent could permeate what W.E.B. Du Bois themed “the veil of color caste.”

Larsen defines passing in a meeting between Clare and Irene as a simple but “hazardous business,” requiring “breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly.”

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Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen

Quicksand & Passing by Nella Larsen on Amazon
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Basing her definition on readable social texts, she concludes that by changing their environment or social structures, passers disrupt social meanings and avail themselves of both basic human and fundamental constitutional rights enjoyed by the white majority. With such certain rewards for so easy a move, Clare “wondered why more coloured girls … never ‘passed’ over. It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do. If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve.”

Passing, according to Clare, is a movement in gesture as well as in space: a psychological, social, cultural movement signaling both a reconfiguration of the self and consolidation of one’s cultural identity, but not a valuation of one’s physical body.

… In creating characters like Irene, her physician husband, and their designer-dressed, college-educated friends, Larsen reduced the material difference in lifestyle between blacks and whites of the middle class and freed her narrative of the more obvious markers of racial identity.

Read the rest of Thadious M. Davis’s insightful introduction to Passing  by Nella Larsen (1929) in the 1992 Penguin edition.

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Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)

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