Passing by Nella Larson

"I've often wondered why more coloured girls never 'passed' over. It's such a frightfully easy thing to do. If one's the type, all that's needed is a little nerve."

I reread this one to finish up the Back to the Classics Challenge to fulfill a reread from high school or college. I first read this in my AP English class (I can't remember which year) and didn't remember much about it except that I liked it.

Nella Larson was an author of the Harlem Renaissance. In her second novel, Passing, we meet Irene and her childhood friend Clare. While Irene embraces her African American heritage, Clare, a fair-skinned and elegant black woman, is married to a white man who is unaware of her ethnicity; she is "passing" for a white woman. When the two women meet again years later they each face their black cultural consciousness in very different ways. The consequences of Clare's "passing" proves to be more complex than she first thought and eventually prompts Irene to reconsider her own ideas about race.
She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her... Irebe Redfield wished, for the first time in her life, that she had not been born a negro. For the first time she suffered and rebelled because she was unable to disregard the burden of race. It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a woman, and individual, on one's own account, without having to suffer for the race as well.
Through the dual figures of Clare and Irene, Passing examines the complexities and intricacies of racial identity in the Harlem Renaissance. It also explores women's sexuality and how it's repression is related to racial repression. Larson conveys the ideas of pretentiousness and the false authenticity associated with Clare's misleading identity to satirize the ambitions of the African-American bourgeoisie in 1920's New York.

One of my favorite things about this novel is that Larson leaves much of the story open-ended. We are not left with a definitive conclusion, and there are many ways of interpreting the underlying issues of the novel. It's a shorter novel, but it packs a punch.

Publisher: Penguin Classics, 1929


  1. what a wonderful challenge! i didn't know anyone else had read this book, especially in an AP class what a cool teacher you must have had. i do enjoy this book and the controversy so much!

  2. Stephanie, My teacher for that class was pretty great. I'm glad you enjoyed this one as well!

  3. I reminds me of the story of the movie "Show Boat". I'm curious about these men and women who "passed" over, but usually look for their stories in films rather than books. Thanks for flagging this one!

  4. I really enjoyed this book when I read it years ago. The concept was not one I was very familiar with, and I was fascinated. Glad it is still enjoyable.

  5. Alexandra, I haven't heard of that movie but it sounds really interesting!

    picky, It certainly makes for an enjoyable, quick reread.

  6. I'd never even heard of this, but it sounds intriguing. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Kerry, It's a great book!

  8. Hadn't heard of this book, so I'm glad you posted about it. Sounds like my cup of tea. I'm familiar with the concept of passing on an academic level and a personal one. So, thanks for bringing this book to my attention ;)