Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing, provides an example ofsome of the best writing the Harlem Renaissance has tooffer. Nella Larsen was one of the most promising youngwriter’s of her time. Though she only published two novelsit is clear that she was one of the most important writersof the Harlem Renaissance movement.
Her career as writerprobably would have lasted longer, but she was accused ofplagiarizing her short story, Sanctuary. She waseventually cleared of any wrong doing, but the accusationdeeply tarnished her reputation as writer. It is truly ashame that the first African-American woman to win theGuggenheim Fellowship was forced out of writing by scandal. Before being haunted by scandal, Nella Larsen playedan intricate role in the Harlem Renaissance.
The HarlemRenaissance was a movement that started toward the end ofWorld War I and lasted through the mid 1930’s. It was thefirst notable movement of African-American writers andartists in the United States. It was given the nameHarlem Renaissance because the movement was centered inthe Harlem district in New York City. MoreAfrican-American writers and poets were published duringthis period in the United States than ever before.
Notonly were African-American writers being published more,but they were also getting a great deal of recognition fortheir work. The body of work characteristic of this timeperiod showed a heightened sense of racial consciousness. African-American writers during this time were not onlyseeking to counteract racial prejudice, but were alsoperpetuating the cultural heritage of Africa. Some of themajor writers born from this period include LangstonHughes, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, NealeHurston and of course, Nella Larsen. The writing of the Harlem Renaissance explored avariety of themes and genres. The writer’s experimentedwith a wide variety of styles as well.
Langston Hughes forinstance explored the lives of working-classAfrican-Americans. Jean Toomer explored what life was likefor very poor African-Americans. Countee Cullen on theother hand explored the problem of racism and thedefinition of Africa for African-Americans. Nella Larsenexplored the restrictions faced by African-Americansaccording to their skin color.
Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing was her second as wellas last novel and was published in 1929. To get a betteridea of what this novel is about, one must understand whatexactly passing is. Passing is when African-American menor women with light skin pass themselves off as white inorder to enjoy the privileges that were afforded to whitepeople during this period in American history. The Plessyvs.
Ferguson ruling of separate, but equal was still ineffect at this time in history. Therefore, one couldunderstand why it could be advantageous forAfrican-Americans who had light enough skin to passthemselves off as white. Passing is narrated by the character, Irene Redfield,who is a middle-class, light-skinned African-American womanwho deplores passing. She is married to a doctor, withwhom she has two sons, who is too dark to pass. Irene issomewhat self-consciously proud of her African heritage.
Irene’s life is going along as usual when she runs into achildhood friend. Her old friend’s name is Clare Kendry. Clare Kendry is a light-skinned African-American woman whopasses for white. In fact she is even married to a whitedoctor. Ironically, Irene runs into her at a rooftoprestaurant where she herself is passing to evade the heatwave.
The characters in Passing, are faced with theconfusion of which race to identify with. They are trappedin limbo between two worlds: white and black. Thesefeelings of being denied privileges if they identify withAfrican-American society and being allowed privileges ifthey pass as white causes them to feel lonely and feel asthough they are not truly part of either race. If theypass they will be allowed to exercise all the privilegesthat come along with being white during this period ofhistory in America.
If they decide to identify themselvesas African-American they will be denied many of the mostbasic privileges given to American citizens. This book explores the trap that light-skinnedAfrican-Americans are put in by the Plessy vs. Fergusonruling of separate, but equal. This ruling is inreality, separate, but not anywhere near equal.
Passingproves this to be true. African-Americans would not evenentertain the idea of passing if they were not beingdenied certain rights and privileges. This book is a valuable account of the tragicconsequences of being denied racial identity due to a courtdecision and a society which perpetuates this unfoundedprejudice. Is it better to deny one’s racial heritage oraccept it and identify with it.
This book shows how bothchoices are loaded with a number of adverse consequences. After reading Passing, the reader will see that this is byno means a black and white issue, but rather a complexseries of stages of gray. Whether you are familiar withHarlem Renaissance and this period in history or this isyour first journey into exploring what society was like inthe 11920’s you stand to learn a lot from Nella Larsen’sclassic, Passing.Book Reports