Published in the 1920s, Passing is considered a landmark novel of the Harlem Renaissance period focusing on the themes of racial identity and colour and the blurring of racial boundaries.
The novel centers around two black women Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry Bellew, who because of their light skin can easily pass off as white. However, while Irene passes over only occasionally in certain situations, Clare has completely passed over to the other side for good.
Irene has a well-set life. Married to a qualified black doctor with whom she has two sons, Irene is part of an upper class black social circle, heavily involved in organizing charity events. She identifies herself as black and is satisfied and content with the way things are at home barring one fear – her husband’s longing to relocate to South America so that he can work with the poor there.
When the book opens, Irene has received a letter from Clare who expresses a desire to meet. The letter unsettles Irene who is reluctant to resume ties with Clare who she thinks is used to having her way. Clare’s letter sends Irene back to the past to Chicago, as she reflects on certain events that took place then.
Exhausted by the blistering heat, Irene seeks refuge in an upscale rooftop café where for the sake of convenience, she chooses to pass over as white (since blacks are not permitted). There she bumps into Clare Kendry and is struck by her beauty, unable to recognize her at first. When they get talking, Irene learns of Clare’s marriage to a white man, John Bellew, and her subsequent severing of ties with the black community so that she can capitalize on the opportunities otherwise denied to the blacks. In fact, Clare “wondered why more coloured girls…never ‘passed’ over. It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do. If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve.”
Clare’s husband has no idea that she is white and Irene is keenly aware of how dangerous a game Clare is playing, there is a sense that she is living on the edge.
“What about background? Family, I mean. Surely you can’t just drop down on people from nowhere and expect them to receive you with open arms, can you?”
“Almost,” Clare asserted. “You’d be surprised, Irene, how much easier that is with white people than with us. Maybe because there are so many more of them, or maybe because they are secure and so don’t have to bother. I’ve never quite decided.”
Irene perceives Clare’s re-entry into her life as a threat and is reluctant to have anything more to do with her. But Clare somehow finds a way to insinuate herself into Irene’s well-organised life and this ultimately has consequences.
The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.
Interestingly, Irene belongs to the upper class black community and in terms of lifestyle there is nothing much to differentiate hers from that of well-to-do whites. Other than colour that is. It is this racial fluidity that is one of the core themes of the novel further highlighting the absurdity of race and colour distinctions.
But this is also very much a novel that focuses on the inner drama of the two women. Clare is stunningly beautiful and is attuned to getting what she wants. And yet, she finds herself unable to really belong to either side. She feels out of place with the whites, and her decision to identify with them puts her at odds with her black people. Clare’s subsequent wish to reconnect with her community can possibly be construed as a form of a defiance against her husband’s rampant racism – a decision which has all the makings of playing with fire.
Irene has her own set of insecurities as well. She has worked hard to set up her home and lead a good life. Major changes and disruptions are not something she has an appetite for. And yet, her husband’s increased longing to move to Brazil is a constant source of anxiety and alarm.
Yet all the while, in spite of her searchings and feeling of frustration, she was aware that, to her, security was the most important and desired thing in life. Not for any of the others, or for all of them, would she exchange it. She wanted only to be tranquil. Only, unmolested, to be allowed to direct for their own best good the lives of her sons and her husband.
The friendship between Irene and Clare is an uneasy one – atleast on Irene’s side. The fact that they belong to the same race often deters Irene from criticizing Clare’s actions vocally, even if she is sorely tempted to do so.
That instinctive loyalty to a race. Why couldn’t she get free of it? Why should it include Clare? Clare, who’d shown little enough consideration for her…What she felt was not so much resentment as dull despair because she could not change herself in this respect, could not separate individuals from the race, herself from Clare Kendry.
At barely over a 100 pages, Passing is slim but packs in a lot of weightier themes with some really stunning writing from Larsen. As it hurtles towards a climax that is both strange and surprising, it leaves room for a lot of interpretation and debate for the reader.