Passing by Nella Larsen: An Unforgettable Novella about Race

When I heard that a movie adaptation of Nella Larsen’s Passing was coming to Netflix on November 10, 2021, I had to share my review of the 1929 novella. I also had a rare urge to acquire a Netflix subscription.

Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry are two light-skinned African-American women who played together as children in Chicago. They are so light skinned that one of them–Clare–decided to pass as white. Clare got what she thought she wanted: marriage to a wealthy white man, a seemingly white daughter, and the status conferred upon attractive and successful white people in American society.

Yet as the novel opens, Irene has just received a letter from Clare, begging Irene to reintroduce her to African American friends and to attend their social gatherings. She reminds Irene of the time they ran into each other in Chicago as adults. When they meet, Clare invites Irene back to her hotel where she introduces Irene to her husband Jack Bellow. Bellow makes his hatred for all African Americans clear, even jokingly calling his wife Nig because of how brown her skin gets in the sun.

Book Cover

Though she doesn’t give Clare’s secret away, Irene is appalled by the encounter. Irene is married to a darker skinned man and one of her two children would also not pass for white. She decides not to answer Clare’s most recent letter and tears it up. But Clare reappears in Irene’s life, coaxing Irene to help her renter African American society. Both Clare’s and Irene’s reactions to this second encounter have consequences for them both.

I thought I read the complete novella in college but when I reached the ending I realized I had only read part of it. I won’t discuss the ending, except to say that it is both brilliant and surprising. I read Passing months ago and still can’t stop thinking about it.

Larsen’s story shows the advantages of passing as white along with the disadvantages. Clare has more status as a perceived white woman, but Irene is her authentic self and remains part of black culture and society.

Nella Larsen is an underrated author who dealt with issues of identity that continue to effect the African American community in the 21st century. I hope that the new movie will encourage more people to read Larsen’s work.

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