Passing beyond hope

June 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

Nella Larsen’s Passing forces the reader to confront shades. Shades of colour as it appears on skin. Shades of sexual ambiguity and desire; shades of morality; shades of truth; shades of motherhood and wifeliness. A slim novella of only 94 pages is rarely expected to leave devastating imprints on the reader, but here’s Larsen with her gorgeously-wrought sentences and delicate phrasing, and she takes all the clichés associated with gorgeous and delicate and rips it out from its pedestal and the reader won’t even see it coming.

Although Larsen was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement, and is probably taught in most university literature programmes (or at the very least, mentioned in passing), she’s unknown to most people. Her life, as it were, also remains largely unknown to everyone. We do know that she was born to a Danish mother and a West-Indian father, thus marking her for life as “black” in American society even as she straddled the liminal space that is afforded to people born out of a mingling of ethnicities.

Passing, on the one hand, refers to the practice of “passing” that blacks sometimes did in the early to middle 20th century in order to carry off white identities. There are shades of passing, as Larsen outlines it; fair-skinned blacks could do it temporarily, simply to go from the hot, sizzling streets of Chicago in August to “being wafted upward on a magic carpet to another world” – the air-conditioned coolness of a cafe in the Drayton – which is what the main protagonist of this book, Irene Redfield does, in order to escape the scorching heat. (The Drayton, naturally, is off-limit to blacks.) Then there’s a more permanent sense of passing, which is what an old schoolmate, Clare Kendry, does, married as she is to a racist man who calls her “Nig” for fun because her complexion is getting tanned under the sun, but who firmly states to his wife in front of Irene’s presence (thinking her to be white, like Clare supposedly “is”), “You can get as black as you please as far as I’m concerned, since I know you’re no nigger. I draw the line at that. No niggers in my family. Never have and never will be.”

And there are the different shades of passing that regular people do all the time – passing as a contented married wife or husband, passing as a loving mother, passing as a happy person – which, in Larsen’s superbly able, gifted hands, can be condensed and stretched taut over the short span of just 94 pages.

Irene craves security, but as Larsen shows us, this has much to do with her circumstances of being black, and a woman, in pre-Civil Rights America that had just come to terms with recognising women as political beings. From the very first moment Clare re-enters Irene’s life, the ground starts to shift slightly beneath Irene’s feet. At their first meeting, in the Drayton, Irene wonders why Clare stares at her for so long before coming up to her – and Irene’s first instinct is to assume that Clare has registered that Irene’s not a white woman at all, but a black one, and was going to inform the hotel management to throw her out. Irene’s thoughts start running riot:

One of the few rare images of the author

Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect she was a Negro. No, the woman sitting there staring at her couldn’t possibly know. Nevertheless, Irene felt, in turn, anger, scorn, and fear slide over her. It was the idea of being ejected from any place, even in the polite and tactful way in which the Drayton would probably do it, that disturbed her.

Within a few short pages, Larsen has painted the picture of Irene as we’ll come to know her – careful, guarded, safe, and in perfect control of her reputation. The irony of it, however, is that Clare’s sense of passing is greater and riskier than Irene could have imagined.

Larsen’s writing literally throbs with sensory images: “A brilliant day, hot, with a brutal staring sun pouring down rays that were like molten rain,” or “Her fright was like a scarlet spear of terror leaping at her heart.” But she’s deft at conveying obscured feelings through slight moments, through the unseen gestures of everyday life, through a half-seen expression or barely registered tonal change in voice. This tightrope balancing act creates a marvellous tension between the sense of stifling closeness of the domestic or internal space – which is where the majority of actions and revelations take place, whether in a hotel restaurant, a tea-party, a dance, or the bedroom – and the unfettered and mildly subversive undercurrents of the external space, where Irene usually escapes to fulfill her regular errands or gain a sense of clarity.

Irene’s carefully-constructed existence owes a lot to her tenacity and practical reason – she has carved out her life like a master designer, etching on the details of husband and children onto a smooth, polished surface of normalcy and privilege. She enjoys a stable life in Harlem, what others consider a good life, but Larsen shows us the deception in this as well, in the tense passages that describe Irene’s interactions with her husband, Brian. For all that her race might have caused her moments of trouble, or danger, Irene has subsumed them entirely into her domestic life, and to a larger extent, her social connections. She is a proud member of her race, yes, but with skin light enough to pass as white when she needs to enjoy the privileges that are not extended to blacks – privileges that dark-skinned blacks can’t attain through her kind of subterfuge. Irene’s duplicity, her voluntary deceptiveness, does not in the least trouble her, because she does not think about it. She spends a lot of time thinking about Clare’s situation, but very little time on her own.

While Irene is at once repulsed and drawn to Clare for the rifts and fissures her very presence starts to reveal in Irene’s own life, she only realises the double-burden of her race and sex towards the end:

Sitting alone in the quiet living-room in the pleasant firelight, Irene Redfield wished, for the first time in her life, that she had not been born a Negro. For the first time she suffered and rebelled because she was unable to disregard the burden of race. It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, on one’s own account, without having to suffer for the race as well. It was a brutality, and undeserved. Surely, no other people so cursed as Ham’s dark children.

In contrast, Clare, whom we only perceive through Irene’s eyes and is thus presented as childish, immature, selfish, and wilful, appears to be honest with her own self-deception. She makes it plain that her pain is raw: “You don’t know, you can’t realize how I want to see Negroes, to be with them again, to talk with them, to hear them laugh.” With those few words delivered by Clare, Larsen just lays it all out on the table: that of the sacrifice of lifelong ‘passing’ for white. The renunciation of not only a significant chunk of the self, but a whole tribe of kinsmen and kinswomen – whether real or imagined.

Passing is infused with deep melancholy, and there is no resilience of human spirit here to carry the relentless burden of hope. There is very little joy or laughter; this is a book about pain and loneliness and the long, drawn-out martyrdom of a woman’s suffering for the sake of a husband, a few children, a nice house, and social acceptance and reputation. The most profound sense of pain derives from the reader’s realisation that Irene is as practical and no-nonsense with her herself as she is with the rest of the world.

Things might have turned out different for Irene, one thinks, if only she allowed herself to like and care for herself more and realised that the battle fought along racial and gender lines is never individual; that it’s never just one person’s fault for lack of trying. There are so many women who are of the same and the tragedy, Larsen seems to imply, is that we can’t save them all.

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