Nella Larsen – Passing (1929)

A couple of years ago I read Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and I thought it was quite an original premise: An Afro-American passing off as a white person, which brought out racist tendencies against her from the black community.

I guess Nella Larsen got there first in 1929.

One day Irene, A light skinned Afro American receives a letter from an old friend, Clare. Instantly Irene drifts to the past where she remembers Clare visiting her and passing off as a white person. In fact her husband doesn’t even know that she’s black and throughout this section, he comes out as a racist, which upsets Irene and she cuts off Clare due to her hypocrisy.

Now it seems that Clare wants to make amends and she integrates herself once again in the community, unbeknownst to her husband, eventually he finds out.

The term Passing means to pass off as another person, although in the book passing takes on many other meaning. Clare is passing by to visit Irene, Clare makes passes at Irene’s husband at one point in the book (although it is unclear at how this flirtation ends) and by the books conclusion Clare passes in another way.

Essentially though the book is about race relations – is it ethical for a black person to pass off as white as there are more privileges? How difficult is it for a dark skinned white person to pass off an Afro-American? The latter is quite interesting if put in my situation as Maltese are classified as white and yet due to our geographical positioning between Italy and Libya, as a race, a lot of us get mistaken for Arabs (to add more complications, due to the fact that we were colonised until 1964 no two Maltese look alike, you can have one with dark skin and jet black hair or one that’s pale with freckles and blonde).

In just under 120 pages Nella Larsen as written a complex novel that keeps the reader thinking. As a subject like race is not , to use a cliché, clear cut, the book is vague as well. We only have clues to what the characters do and even then they are a bit muggy. Saying that Passing is definitely a classic and. hopefully, more people will read it as the discussions and arguments the protagonists have are still valid today.

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