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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Segregation

Nella Larsen, photograph, 1928
Nella Larsen
- Nella Larsen, Passing, novel, 1929, Ch. 3, excerpts (PDF)

"If passing for white will get a fellow better accommodations on the train, better seats in the theatre, immunity from insults in public places, and may even save his life from a mob," wrote William Pickens, "only idiots would fail to seize the advantages of passing, at least occasionally if not permanently" (see #1. Segregation-Separation). Indeed, for some African Americans racial passing emerged as a viable, albeit risky, strategy for negotiating—and at times even exploiting—a segregated world. A prevalent theme across the African American literary tradition, "passing for white" features notably in works such as William Wells Brown's Clotel (1853), Charles Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars (1900), and James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). Yet perhaps none of these earlier novels approaches the topic with as much candor as Nella Larsen's Passing. Larsen (1891-1964) was born into a mixed race family: her mother was Danish and her father was a black West Indian. She grew up in Chicago and attended Fisk University's Normal School in Nashville, Tennessee. Between 1912 and 1915, she trained as a nurse in New York. After a brief stint at the John Andrew Memorial Hospital and Nurse Training School in Tuskegee, Alabama, she returned to New York, where she practiced nursing until 1921, when she took a position in the New York Public Library system. In 1925, during a long convalescent break from her job, she began her first novel Quicksand, which met with great critical acclaim when it appeared in 1928. Her second novel, Passing (1929), was less well received, but the two works eventually established her as a major writer of the Harlem Renaissance.

Set in Chicago, Passing examines the diverging lives and chance reunions of two light-skinned women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry Bellew. The chapter excerpted here includes a frank discussion of the social and economic advantages and disadvantages associated with racial passing. Chatting over a refined tea service at the Morgan, a whites-only hotel and restaurant, Clare and 'Rene, along with another former schoolmate, Gertrude, lapse into a lengthy conversation on the efficacy of this "hazardous business of passing." In rationalizing their deliberate exploitation of an at-times ambiguous or fluid color line, the women consider the clear economic rewards for entering the white world. Raising questions of class and social mobility, the novel also forcefully illustrates the prejudice that fuels segregation, as in the figure of Clare's husband Jack Bellew, while underscoring the potential fear, shame, and risk that passing involves. In many ways, life may be easier for those who successfully pass for white, but at what cost? (8 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Under the constructs of segregation, what "place" is available for those of mixed-race heritage?
  2. In what ways (and with what consequences) do these women manipulate white America's obsession with color, hue, and racial distinction?
  3. As highlighted by their discussion, what are the discernible costs and benefits of passing?
  4. In negotiating the social component of identity, what does it mean to perform—either "putting on" or "taking off"—particular racial identities?
  5. Clare is described as someone with "a having way." What role does desire play in the text? To what degree are the women primarily opportunistic?
  6. How do the characters in Passing define race?
  7. To what degree does Larsen critique these representatives of the black middle class for privileging economic standing and social status?

Framing Questions
  •  What constitutes segregation?
  •  How did African Americans experience it?
  •  What is the difference between segregation and separation?
  •  What are the consequences of segregation? Separation?

Passing: 8 pages
Supplemental Sites
Nella Larsen, in PAL: Perspectives in American Literature, from Paul Reuben, California State University, Stanislaus

Nella Larsen, in VG: Voices from the Gaps: Women Artists and Writers of Color, from the University of Minnesota

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: Nella Larsen, photograph, 1928. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Harmon Foundation Records.

1. Segregation–Separation   2. Lynching & Segregation   3. Antilynching Dramas
4. Life Under Segregation   5. The Black Psyche   6. Passing
  7. De-segregation–Integration   8. Separation & Power   9. Ambiguity of Integration

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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