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Passing Essay

Nella Larsen’s book Passing examines the role of African American females and their identities in society. The way in which these identities mutate, shift, become a camouflage in society is something that is intriguing on both a sociological as well as psychological level. In Brody’s examination of these elements of Larsen’s story in her article Clare Kendry’s “True” Colors: Race and Class Conflict in Nella Larsen’s Passing is a revelation into not only Larsen’s narration technique but also her characterization.

The psychology of a character can lead to situation of grace or tragedy: in Larsen’s account of Clare Kendry (or rather of Irene’s account in listening to Clare’s story) (Tate 143), she is the epitome of the idea of Africa. This idea is further extolled by Brody as she writes, “…I argue that readings of race or more accurately, definitions of Blackness are indeed central to Passing. (Brody 1054), thus it is this ‘definition of Blackness’ that not only allows the characters to have identities but also allows the plot to progress toward how these identities are fathomable inside the constructions of a racist society.

In the character of Clare, Larsen is trying to bring forth this juxtaposition of race with society, yet in so placing the two next to one another what Larsen truly creates is a type of parasitic relationship that race and society have with one another; this idea is expounded upon by Sullivan in Nella Larsen’s Passing and the Fading Subject, “The aunt’s (Clare’s aunt) definition of blackness attempts to rob Clare of her humanity, so she must shed the black identity to be human.

To do so she must literally turn white by passing, accepting the demands of assimilation to avoid the ramifications of what Joel Kovel refers to as the ‘Ham Myth of Expulsion’ ((Larsen 79) (Sullivan 375)). Thus, it seems that Clare is unable to unify society and race through either being black (in which the opinion of her aunt overrules Clare’s identity as a black woman) or being a part of society (a society in which she has been “trained to assimilate” into in order to be accepted) (Sherrard-Johnson 839).

Inside these two elements of the story the reader finds Clare’s identity, her struggles with these two identities of her race and her race inside of society as expressed by Brody, “Clare is not a member of the rising Black bourgeoisie nor was she ever a member of the aspiring middle-classes. She rose rapidly, readily “passed” and in so doing surpassed Irene in terms of class and material wealth. Yet in shifting her class status, Clare maintains a clear sense of her prior identity. Her Gatsbyesque ascendance to the upper-echelons of white society is undercut by her patriotic (not patronizing) racial sympathies.

She occupies an extremely precarious position” (Brody 1056). Due to Clare’s ambiguity at times in the novel, the reader is never really positive of her position in either class (society) or her culture (race). It is this ambiguity that allows the tragedy of Clare’s story to read almost sanctimoniously. Although Brody presents the reader with the ideas of identity as a pass through which either color can ‘walk in the shoes’ of another race, she also gives the reader a viewpoint of Larsen’s work that harkens back to other works dealing with similar situation such as The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman or Native Son by Richard Wright.

In the story of African Americans, there is prejudice involved with how dark or how light an African American’s skin is; thus, there is racism that exists even within the dynamics of that culture, a point which Larsen makes but briefly in Clare’s encounters with other blacks who are trying to ‘pass’ for white in order to move up in society or to gain access to certain clubs or diners. The idea of the struggles of racism in society as presented in Larsen’s novel are further expounded upon by Hutchinson in Nella Larsen and the Veil of Race,

While studies of cultural syncretism, transnationalism, and “hybridity” have lately become all the rage, there is one area in which claims of racially “hybrid” identity are still subtly resisted, quietly repressed, or openly mocked. The child of both black and white parents encounters various forms of incomprehension in a society for which “blackness” and “whiteness” seem to constitute two mutually exclusive and antagonistic forms of identity.

More- over, the shift to terms presumably marking ethnic or cultural descent-“European” and “African”-has done little to clarify the situation of those “black” subjects who are at the same time, say, German, or, as in the case of the young woman quoted above, Danish-American (Hutchinson 329).

This theme of biracial subjectivity presents both a sociological and psychological dynamism in Larsen’s novel. Not only are the main characters (especially Irene and Clare) subject to desiring to be white in order to have access to the better accouterments of society (restaurants, movies, etc.), but the hostility with which their desire is met in both white and black society is apparent (especially in regards to Clare’s aunt’s opinion of black society). Thus, the characters in Larsen’s Passing become not a hybrid of either society but a pariah by both societies; not belonging anywhere; and it is this notion of not belonging that has a negative psychological effect on Irene’s identity. In conclusion, it is purely a fundamental choice of two wrongs that the book Passing is based; the wrong of prejudices in race and society.

While one black person may pass as white, they may be criticized for doing so, but they may also be criticized for being too dark. In a society who basis acceptance on an uncontrollable gene factor, there is bound to be dogmatic reasoning that eventually leads to tragedy. In Clare’s case, or in Larsen’s case, this tragedy is the lack of growth in the protagonist alongside this obviously transmogrifying time in society. Works Cited Brody, Jennifer. Clare Kendry’s “True” Colors: Race and Class Conflict in Nella Larsen’s Passing. Callaloo, Vol. 15, No. 4. (Autumn, 1992), pp. 1053-1065.

Hutchinson, George. Nella Larsen and the Veil of Race. American Literary History. Vol. 9, No. 2. (Summer 1997), pp. 329-349. Larsen, Nella. Passing. Penguin. New York. 1989. Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene. “A Plea for Color”: Nella Larsen’s Iconography of the Mulatta. American Literature. Vol. 76, No. 4. (Dec. , 2004), pp. 833-869. Sullivan, Nell. Nella Larsen’s Passing and the Fading Subject. African American Review. Vol. 32, No. 3. (Autumn 1998), pp. 373-386. Tate, Claudia. Nella Larsen’s Passing: A Problem of Interpretation. Black American Literature Forum. Vol. 14, No. 4. (Winter 1980), pp. 142-146.

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