I first encountered Passing in Professor Seiler’s Celtic revival course during my first year at Dickinson, and in that context, the novel and Larsen exemplified the women not typically associated with the Harlem Renaissance canon. I initially found the text captivating for its approach to identity and racial constructs, and I was intrigued by Larsen as a figure of the movement. Her appeal for me was tied to the unclear narrative of her exclusion from its canon and the difference between themes in her and her peers’ work. Passing includes identity confusion, intersectionality, and women’s disenfranchisement in heterosexual relationships. That power imbalance leaves them in a position where passing’s benefits might be necessary, whereas men are more likely to assert themselves independently and critique alternate means of gaining power.
I revisited Passing this year in Professor Harris’ class on secrets in African American culture and literature where we spent more time with the text and focused on its sexual implications and contemporary critiques of the novel more. After reading Cheryl A. Wall and Judith Butler’s pieces on sexuality and identity in the novel, I was prompted to explore that aspect of it more deeply in my thesis. Comparing it to the passing narratives we read alongside it heightened my interest. Black No More and The Biography of an Ex-Colored Man are both written by men, and their focus is much more similar to the other male authored Harlem Renaissance texts. This made it clear to me that the themes I noticed in Larsen’s and Fauset’s work are not passing-related but woman and queer related.
The power dynamic in heterosexual marriages runs throughout the text and Irene and Clare’s experiences. One passage in which Irene struggles with her powerlessness takes place midway through the novel. Brian, her husband expresses his violent dislike of everything about his life as he does repeatedly, and Irene silently processes it next to him in their car. This is the pattern their relationship adopts in the text—Brian lets his emotions out as he feels them, and Irene is silent as she desperately tries to negate her own. After his explosion, the narrator tells the reader that, “Irene, watching him, was thinking: ‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t fair.’ After all these years to still blame her like this. Hadn’t his success proved that she’d been right in insisting that he stick to his procession fight there in New York?… Was she ever to be free of it, that fear which crouched, always, deep down within her, stealing away the sense of security, the feeling of permanence, from the life which she had so admirably arranged for them all, and desired so ardently to have remain as it was?… how it frightened her, and—yes, angered her!” (57).
Brian holds all the power over Irene’s access to money, her children, her mobility, and her identity as a “real” black woman despite the biases associated with those who can pass. Their position in the car, which he is driving, is a physical representation of Brian’s control of her body, its location, and even her safety. She must prioritize her survival over her happiness, but in order to claim contentment, she must equate material success with quality of life. Her happiness is a symbolic ideal she has been trained to aspire to and struggle to maintain for “all these years.” Without her husband and black children, she would be like Clare, a traitor to her race, or a completely powerless black woman once single. The association between asserting herself and being a traitor to her husband and, implicitly, the black community as a whole.
After reading Passing through a racial and sexuality and gender lens, I can approach it more intersectionally in my thesis, for which it has been one of my inspirations. I see a parallel between my and the literary world’s evolving understanding of the book based on race initially and later understanding more of its approach to gender and sexuality. Larsen describes the frustration felt without the full empowerment of men in the fight for racial equality. Until recently, her critics perceived that as disregard for the racial struggle. Just as the fight for racial equality is remembered as the work of black men, so is the originally established Harlem Renaissance canon. I want to identify the aspects of black womanhood and queerness which I find so compelling and that were threatening to those who excluded her and others from immediate acclaim.
Larsen, Nella. Passing. Penguin, 2003.