Throughout my African American Literature English class (what a mouthful!), we have read many novels and nonfiction commentaries. Some novels include Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, Charles Chesnutt’s “The Sheriff’s Children” and Conjuring Stories, and Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative. The main commentary we have read are the thoughts of Henry Louis Gates, who is truly is a brilliant man and I encourage all to read him. I’ll list a few of his works at the end of this post. Currently, we are reading Passing by Nella Larsen.
This is my attempt to summarize the book; no worries, there are no spoilers:
The story is a third person narrative of Irene Redfield. Irene is black, but she has light skin and therefore can pass as a white woman when she wants. One day she receives a letter from her childhood friend, Clare. Clare is also part black, but with her blonde hair and skin even lighter than Irene’s, no one would even think guess that she might be African American. And she, mostly, likes that. The letter asks if Irene is willing to meet up with Clare. However, Irene is hesitant. Irene has a flashback to when she first saw Clare after years of not hearing from her. It is not a pleasant memory. Brought back to the present, Irene reluctantly agrees to meet with Clare. As Clare becomes more and more present in Irene’s life, Irene quickly learns that she should have listened to her initial gut feeling.
In my class we talked a lot about the concept of passing. I’ll try to explain the idea of passing to the best of my ability. The idea of passing is that if you have light enough skin you can call yourself “white” and socialize in “white culture”, even if you are part black. Keep in mind that this book is placed in the 1920’s.
Clare is part black like Irene, but she seems to be more “white” that Irene. Even though she was treated like a servant, Clare was raised by a white family. This suggests the concept of environment playing a role in the ability someone has to pass. Clare considers herself white, but also black and in my class we discussed if she has the option to do this. As humans, we want to categorize, but this does not necessarily work with people. Every person fits into multiple categories, even if they try to stay in just one. These attempts are sometimes caused by social pressure to fill gaps. In the book, there is an idea that if you’re white, you’re supposed to act a certain way and live particular type of life, especially if you are an aristocrat. There is also the idea that if you’re black you’re supposed act a certain way and also live a specific kind of life. In my class my professor also mentioned that President Obama also dicusses this problem in his autobiography. He talks about when he was in college and the struggle he faced with his identity. Obama tried to figure out how a black man was supposed to be like, only to discover there is no certain way. Color and race does not determine how someone should act or live. I think that a large part Passing tries to deal with stereotypes and Larsen uses this novel to show just what dangerous stereotypes can be, which is especially present at the end of the book.
I think categorizing is a really sad part of human society. However, I also think humans are working to break these divisions. I know that I am guilty of using some stereotypes and I resent that part of me. I sometimes even stereotype myself, like how white girls can’t dance. But I also know that I can work hard and change that portion of myself and I think we all have that ability. I have friends of many different races, African American, Asian, Latino, Native American (my best friend is actually Native American), and Caucasian. Nella Larsen’s Passing shows just how dangerous stereotypes, categorizing, and the feeling of needing to pass are. I agree with her, they are hazardous. But we can fix this.
Gates, Henry Louis. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “racial” Self. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. Print.
Gates, Henry Louis. “The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers.” Choice Reviews Online 41.02 (2003): 41-0782. Web.
Larsen, Nella, and Carla Kaplan. Passing: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. Print.
The book is pretty short, only 77 pages, I think.
Have you read Passing? What are your thoughts on this novel? Do you think humans try to categorize people?