Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Passing by Nella Larsen

This was an interesting new read for me, for several reasons: I had never read (or even, alas, heard of) the author, and I've never seen race dealt with in quite the same way.

For those reasons, I was delighted that my American Modernism professor chose Passing as one of the readings for my class. ...Can I go on a mini-rant here? So many of my professors think it's very important to read the canonized literature, so they all assign the same exact stuff and an English major ends up reading the same texts over and over again. (And, I might add, we go over more or less the same interpretation every time.) And yes, I know you remember it better if you read it more times, but I think there's much more to be gained reading a text, say, ten years down the road than in reading it 4 months down the road. As great as these texts are, when we just read the same stuff, we only get one side of the story. I think it's better to see many different sides of the same story, so that even if we don't remember the individual texts themselves all that well, we remember the different perspectives (or, at the very least, we remember that there are many different perspectives). I think my American Modernism teacher is doing a great job of mixing up canonized literature ("dead white guys") with stuff that also shows another side of the story, the way Nella Larsen does in Passing

This short novel follows the story of Irene, a mixed-race American woman who could pass for white but chooses to live in the black community, and her friendship with Clare, another mixed-race American woman who actually chooses to pose as white, even though she is "really black." The story shows not just the racial tensions between "white" and "black," but also exposes how ridiculous our conception of race really is, and unearths an experience that is not just "white" or "black" but somewhere in between. 

I think this book is very much grounded in its time. It provides such a unique and important perspective on society in the first half of the 20th century, dealing not only with race, but also with class, gender, family, and culture issues, and how those relate to race. Larsen shows how really nothing in life, including the little things, can be separated from race--but at the same time, race is basically imaginary.

Like most good literature, Passing brings up more questions than it does answers. I began questioning my own ideas about race and racial mixture. This book is certainly a must-read for anyone interested in the way race is historically dealt with in the United States.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? 


  1. Race is a topic of interest in Madison. I believe we have a large black minority here, and from what I hear, they live poorer and with less education. I'll tell you a personal experience I've had. There is some sort of black camaraderie going on when I ride the bus sometimes. It really highlights a cultural difference when a lot of black people get on the bus all together, shouting at each other and being loud in general, and almost all sit in the back together. I think it's kind of a cool culture, because everyone else looks downright reticent and antisocial by comparison. :)

    Then there's the five or so that go around with their pants sagging so bad they have to hold them up at all times. They are probably gangsters, but I only make that supposition because of some things my roommate has said about his experiences on downtown buses. :( If it weren't for people being that way, I'd probably be making more black friends on the bus.

    1. It's interesting to examine the way we talk about race. We like to think that there is no difference between white and black, and that it's all about skin color. On the other hand, in America there is very much a black culture (which is largely unconnected to, say, African heritage). I often wonder, would it be better for us to try to preserve the cultural differences, or to try to eliminate them in pursuit of equality? I guess one of humankind's greatest flaws is that we have a hard time appreciating differences--we can't find equality without sameness. (Just look at what's happening with gender!)

  2. That book sounds interesting. I don't feel like I know enough about race issues to even give an opinion most of the time. Growing up, I never observed it being a serious issue, and I didn't think about it much, even though San Diego was somewhat diverse (especially compared to Eugene). But now, from what I've seen on TV, I think there are places where race is a major issue. It's tricky. Some politician will make a comment that sounds totally benign to me, and then other politicians and pundits will jump all over him for being racist, and I have no idea whether it was racist! It just depends on what was going on in his head. (An example is almost anything using the word "urban.")