I've just finished reading Nella Larsen's "Passing" and also Sinclair Lewis' "Kingsblood Royal." Both are absolutely excellent books for anyone interested in the history of racism in our country right up to the present day - although these books both address a form of racism that isn't as much of an issue as it once was, namely the Jim-Crowing of white people who have 'hidden' African ancestry, ie "Black Blood." (By the way, my mother's high-school photo was sepia-washed like this photo of Nella Larsen, a popular 'technique' of the era for indicating 'mulatto' status).
Nella Larsen's novel, Passing, captures the emotional reverberations of the Jim Crow era for light-colored 'Negroes' as well those white-looking enough to 'pass' as white, better than anyone else I've ever read - for example, in the scene where the three women (two 'passing') talk about their intense anxieties about their children to the point where they are physically sweating with fear, or in the intense discomfort of feeling 'confined' in life that is experienced by the narrator's copper-skinned physician husband, Brian, who would like to escape the 'color-line' by moving to Brazil.
But the book is even beyond this, so much more! Nella Larsen seems to be quite a good psychologist, even though in life she worked mostly as a nurse and also as a librarian. For example, the main 'passing' character is Clare who is married to a white man who is a raging racist. The general consensus seems to be that people who pass are exceptionally selfish people who want to 'get' things, even though there is also an admission that everyone wants to get as much as they can, but not everyone is willing - or able - to 'pass' in order to get them. 'Getting things' seems to be a priority in human life, as far as I can see, but spurning your family and community to get them, or even to acquire a greater measure of personal freedom, is too radical a move for most people to make.
And here is the genius of Nella Larsen: she makes it quite clear that Clare does not have any family. Her mother died while Clare was a baby and she was 'raised' by a white-skinned Negro-identified drunken janitor who died when she was fifteen. At that point, she was removed from the community by three white maiden great-aunts who used her as their household laborer until the time when Clare's blonde dark-eyed beauty attracted a rich white man who wanted to marry her. She ditches the aunts without a backward glance - all the better that none of them know about her marriage, so that no hint of her secret black identity should get back to her husband, who turns out to be quite racist.
Clare has no loyalty to the white race, who in the form of her great-aunts, abused her, so she feels free to marry this racist man and deceive him as to her true identity. She tells Irene, the light-skinned Negro narrator, married to a darker man, Brian, a physician, that she, Clare, is the kind of person who just takes what she wants and doesn't care who she hurts. This is either not entirely true, or Clare somehow regrets this coldness about herself, because she weeps as she tells this to Irene.
Clare, in my book, is a 'survivor,' someone who has no particular allegiance to anyone else, who has always had to 'take care of herself,' and cope and survive - someone who has been minimally 'helped' but much 'abandoned' by both 'races.' Irene's 'dark' father may have been kind to Clare when her drunken parent died, but no one offered to take her in. As she tells Irene, without the great-aunts (who put her to hard work for her keep) she would have had no home in the world. To me this is not someone who is superficially 'selfish' but someone desperate to survive and desirous of the best that life can offer her, who knows that it's up to her to get it for herself because no one is going to help her, and is not denying herself - in the way that Irene seems to do, Irene who treads the safe, respectable, predictable paths of the black middle-class 'professional-people' lifestyle. Clare has no family and no community, black or white.
Plato said that people like this are not really human, and this is exactly what plagues Irene about Clare and makes her friendship toxic to her. Clare is not playing by the same rules as Irene and even tries unsuccessfully to talk to Irene about it.
People write that there is a lesbian sub-text to this novel, but I can't say that I see it. A book I read in 2013 called "Yesterday's Self," written by a Polish Jew whose family left Poland for Canada when she was 13 years old evinces the same kind of language of longing, writes about all kinds of people she had to leave behind almost in the terms one uses to describe a lover. I think, based on my own experience, that a culture, an ethnicity is a very sensuous experience: the sounds of a dialect or a way of laughing, the smells of skin, hair, the interiors of homes, of ethnic foods, the colors of people skin and hair and eyes - all of this can become the object of intense longing when one is separated from the culture and its ethnic representatives.
In recent decades we've read more literature coming from the pens of descendants of dark-skinned, 'black' African-Americans, describing their experience, the fictionalized and sometimes deeply researched historical experiences of their forebears, and less attention has been placed on those who might prefer to be known as multi-'racial' or multi-ethnic. Nella Larsen and Jean Toomer would be two writers who wanted to be known as bi-racial or multi-racial, but the Jim Crow society demanded that they come down on one side or the other of the colors line: either white or black. They knew they were both, and much of Nella Larsen's writing seems to explore this knowledge.
The light-skinned African-Americans who had the possible option of 'passing' were perceived by the darker, less mixed brethren as the privileged elite. And although they did most definitely enjoy privilege relative to the darker members of the 'race,' they were still trapped in the ghetto of Jim Crow society. Blackness is the seed at the heart of the matter. Even though the narrative does not revolve so much anymore around the paradox of white people who have blackness at their cores, their narrative was nevertheless the narrative of blackness in a racist society, and served to underscore the irrationality of it. Without their layer of the story, everything becomes much more black-and-white. And so the story continues.
My own interest in Nella Larsen in particular is that my great-grandmother 'passed' as white, or tried to. She was multi-ethnic from an 'isolate-community' in Delaware who attempted to escape the color-line by taking work in Scranton, Pennsylvania, at that time a booming city with many immigrant laborers among whom she could blend in, pretending to be Irish in order to 'disguise' her archaic 'Appalachian-like' non-standard English. This was not the story of someone 'elite' or 'middle-class' as scholars like to categorize the 'passing' narrative. She was illiterate, a prostitute until she was able to locate her goal in life - a white husband from one of the classes above the level of the working-class, which she found in my highly spiritual Civil War wounded veteran great-grandfather who had been a white collar worker: county clerk. Her appearance was more Indian, or Caribbean perhaps, than 'black,' but even in that world of immigrant labor, she was recognized as 'not one of them.' Her 'passing' status was handed down to her son, my grandfather, and from him to my mother, who struggled to decide which 'race' to join - note again the sense of freedom to choose a race rather than a gut-feeling of 'belonging' to a race - I think this must be a central element in the psychological makeup of those who pass - a lack of feeling of belonging to either race.
My mother married someone she thought of as a white Danish man (similar to Nella Larsen's white Danish mother), although he was a Danish Jew. When I was born unambiguously white-looking with blonde hair and blue eyes, she decided the passing narrative should cease, should go underground with all the finality of a burial. However, she couldn't help herself, I suppose, and dropped hints, said things which had so much 'charge' to them at the time, that I've remembered them, wondered about them, and done the archaeology necessary to put the pieces together and interpret them. But that's a whole other story, which you can find on my weblog, Great-Grandmother's Blog.
Finally, I'd like to say that there are many different narratives of racism from all around the world, and for me some of what specifically characterizes the time-period that Nella Larsen was writing in, is that in attempting to break out of the ghetto and find some measure of greater freedom and anonymity in the wider society one ran the risk of discovery followed by disgrace, losses of all kinds (friends, family, job, status, income - as for example is narrated in Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis), and a return to a community, the black community, which may not accept you because they despise those who attempt to 'pass.' For people who don't have the option to pass, the narrative revolves around being forced to live in substandard housing, to take the lowest and worst-paying jobs, to be invisible/dismissed/hated by the dominant society's members, to be aware that your survival does not matter to your fellow-humans outside the circle of your own family and community, ie that you are expendable. Actually, all poor people, whatever their color experience this latter problem. During the days when slavery was legal, dark-complected people, including many Europeans, even if they lived free, had to live daily with the fear that they would be shanghaied into slavery and lose their freedom and self-determination on every level.
But I can see that this particular 'passing' narrative of the white-looking 'negro' has its parallels in stories like those of the Spanish Inquisition, in which people - Jews or Muslims - may have converted to Catholicism, whether genuinely or out of a sense of conforming to the dominant society at least on the surface (as was requested repeatedly by royal edicts), could be dragged from their homes, have their property seized by the state, and then be tortured and killed. An even more radical result if one failed at 'passing'! There is a novel that writes about this particular form of 'apartheid' called "The Queen's Fool" if you are interested in reading a book that deals with similar themes to those of "Passing" but in the setting of Inquisitional Europe. However, this latter book, and most books as far as I am aware, cannot approach the sheer artistry of Nella Larsen's novelistic work.