My good friend and I got into a debate about passing a few days ago after I discovered that the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was, and Slash from Guns N’ Roses is half black. Pushkin’s father was from Eritrea. It’s still blowing my mind.
My friend says the idea of passing is alive and well today—that if one appears white (or whiter than the stereotypical image of a black person) one could slip into the lofty realm of success and luxury meant for whites a lot more easily than could someone whose skin was visibly dark and whose hair was clearly kink-ridden. And so the whole notion of white being more desirable than black is as vibrant as it ever was. But I was reluctant to agree on the claim that it is the way it was in the past. It seems these days, in America, people grapple for all kinds of ethnicity right down to their great great great grandmother’s Cherokee heritage. It’s almost as though it’s not all right today to just be white American—one must be a complex amalgamation of ethnicities and distant heritage.
The debate went on and on until we were able to agree on one thing: the openness about race and ethnicity in America today would floor just about every character in Nella Larsen’s Passing. In the segregated world of Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, a black person passing for white was dangerous business. The “passer,” in his/her attempt to fully deceive the white community (and for their own safety), would have to sever all ties with their black life, assume a new identity and never so much as look back. Clare Kendry, the impossibly beautiful fair-haired woman passing for white, took to playing with fire: she married a white man who hated blacks, and what’s worse, after a chance reunion with her childhood friend Irene Redfield, who could have but did not pass, she began mingling with the black community again. The result was predictably devastating.
The book is slim, but there is hardly a moment that isn’t tense. I found I was either mentally yelling at Clare to leave the black party and go home to her husband, or I was trying to tell Irene that the suffocating jealousy she had developed for Clare would only lead to something awful.
Terrible things happen in Passing, but it’s a fascinating look into human relationships and the whole complicated business of race and identity.
Bio: Adaeze Elechi is an editorial assistant at Guernica. Read her last recommendation “here”:https://www.guernicamag.com/blog/1364/rec_room_adaeze_elechi/.