Fifteen or so years ago I found myself on Main Street in downtown Flushing, NY at midday. The sidewalks were filled with crowds, some jostling their way between errands, some in search of lunch.
It’s an experience I can recommend because Flushing, which in my childhood had Jewish and Italian enclaves, is nowadays more than 50% Asian. To be in a crowd and be the one who is visibly different, to feel otherness written all over your face, is to begin to understand what non-white Americans experience every time they come into contact with the dominant culture.
Which brings me to Nella Larsen‘s 1929 novel about lighter-skinned African-Americans, Negroes in the language of the day. Although I have long loved the music and art of the Harlem Renaissance, I am woefully ignorant of its writers and their work. Until now, Nella Larsen was not even on my radar. Yet this short, powerful novel hit me harder than many books that have been pressed upon me over the years.
Passing is the story of Irene Redfield, born Irene Westover in Chicago. At the outset that’s where we meet her, in a flashback triggered by receipt of a letter.
Irene is home for a summertime visit and, overtaken by heat and humidity, she repairs to the rooftop cafe of a hotel facing Lake Michigan for some air and a refreshment.
It’s here we first encounter the act enshrined in the title of the book. As Irene cools off and begins to enjoy the view and surroundings she comes under the scrutiny of a woman at a neighboring table and wonders to herself, “Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro?” (p. 16) The answer is critical but the question itself seems peculiar. Until this point nothing has occurred that should make her ask herself that.
Later, back home in New York, shopping in Midtown with a friend, Irene addresses passing as an almost transactional activity:
“I don’t believe I’ve ever gone native in my life except for the sake of convenience, restaurants, theatre tickets and things like that. Never socially, I mean, except once. You’ve just passed the only person that I’ve ever met disguised as a white woman.” (p. 156)
There are moments of beautiful language in this book. There are moments of emotional intensity and deep insight. By comparison, the above is almost prosaic, yet it pierced the veil of privilege.
Imagine, as Irene might say, choosing to engage in a charade just to lubricate the mundanities of life. No matter how many noontimes I spend on Main Street, I’ll never have to face such a choice.
But, yes, Irene has been recognized because the woman at the neighboring table giving her the once over knows her from childhood. She’s Clare Keandry, now Clare Bellew, a classmate of Irene’s who left the neighborhood after her parents died.
Clare was not seen much after she left, although, occasionally, a sighting was reported, usually in the company of whites. I sensed that Clare’s behavior is looked askance at by her former neighbors.
An insistent sort, Clare pressures Irene to come to a tea party to meet her husband, Jack Bellew. Despite misgivings–Irene is caught constantly between premonitions of trouble with Clare and caving in to the emotional intensity of her friend–she attends, and finds another contemporary from the neighborhood, Gertrude Martin, there.
Gertrude married the butcher’s son and shares common ground with Clare. Both of them are married to white men, although Gertrude’s husband has known her since childhood. Clare’s husband hasn’t a clue. She’s passing.
That adds its own tension. Bellew breezes in to be introduced and greets his wife, jocularly, “Hi, Nig.” He fancies this a playful nickname that trades on her, um, tendency to tan. An out-and-out racist, when asked by Irene if he dislike Negroes he says, “I don’t dislike them. I hate them.” (p. 57) Both Irene and Gertrude find a reason to hasten their departures from this goon. Irene then departs for New York, vowing she’s done with Clare.
Until that letter arrives.
Clare’s now in New York and wants to see Irene. She insists and, as in Chicago, Irene caves in. Clare steps into Irene’s carefully ordered life and soon upends it. To say much more would spoil the plot of the book’s second half.
But I will touch on the life Irene has built. The Redfields, indeed the Westovers and even the Martins, do not live in poverty. If Zora Neale Hursrton‘s work is almost folkloric and Jean Toomer is as likely to write about poor sharecroppers as better-off urbanites, Larsen’s characters are solidly middle class.
Irene grew up in a private residence. Her husband, Brian, is a doctor. They own their home–it’s uptown but it’s an entire building–and have servants, just like the family in Sinclair Lewis‘ Main Street. They have the modern conveniences.
Irene believes she has a duty to maintain that place and demonstrate that it’s not a fluke for black people to achieve the same things as whites. Her life in New York is full of benefits and activities that “benefit the race” and she spends a lot of time thinking about how Clare’s behavior is harmful to it. This grows as Clare intrudes more and more in Irene’s life, eager “to see other people.”
In practice, that means spending more time uptown. Brian, who may or may not become smitten with Clare, warns it’s always like that. If Irene stands for, as she repeatedly says, safety and security, Brian’s is the voice of cold, hard fact. His plan, put aside for Irene, had always been to escape America’s race problem by moving to Brazil. It’s he, not Irene, who is willing to confront the cold hard facts of lynching and the N-word with his sons.
The tale ends awfully, and ambiguously. That seems fitting given how much and how little has changed in the almost 90 years since this book was published.