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.

After Dallas: Searching for Peace in a Violent World

In the wake of the Dallas shootings and others across the United States this week, I have felt at a loss for words. This is not a good feeling for a writer, but so much senseless violence, whether motivated by racism or fear or just hate has made me stuck.

I did find this quote from Shakespeare, however.

“How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds / Make deeds ill done!” –Shakespeare, King John.

We need to make it more difficult for people to do ill deeds. I believe that people have a right to own guns to protect themselves and their families from people who would harm them. However, I don’t think the Founding Fathers could have envisioned semi-automatic weapons or rogue police officers. The proliferation and misuse of weapons isn’t our only problem, though.

We also have racism.

The Founding Fathers didn’t envision a society where people who did not look exactly like them would rightfully demand equal rights under the law. All men are created equal? The fine words of the U.S. Constitution didn’t remotely ring true in the 18th century. This week’s events, among others, has made it clear that we still fall short of thinking that everyone is equal.

Many of the Founding Fathers committed “ill deeds” by owning slaves. Sometimes the slaves escaped or even managed to revolt and use weapons against their masters. In many ways, our country still suffers from the evils of slavery.

White and black people too often look at each other with distrust. And when a gun is handy for either side, the results are often disastrous.

Babies aren’t naturally born with a racist gene. They have to be taught to distrust someone who looks different from them. Laws that limit the sale of weapons that only need to be used in war and require background checks are all well and good. However, if children continue to be taught by their families or by their everyday experiences to hate people who are not just like them, ill deeds will be perpetuated.