Passing by Nella Larsen - 1929
Born April 13, 1891 Chicago, Illinois
Died March 30, 1964 Brooklyn,New York
“If someone was “Passing” in the slang of African Americans in the 1920s and 30rds it meant they were pretending to be white, hiding their full heritage. This was a period of massive migrations from The American South by descendents of slaves to big Northern cities and California. In The south it was very hard to pass as your ancestors were known. The two lead characters in Passing are women of African heritage who “look white”who live totally as if they were in fact white.
As the story opens two women, out alone, are caught in a bad rain storm in Chicago The knew each other before they migrated but have not seen each other in years. By coincidence they both seek refuge in the tea room of an elite “no colored allowed” hotel. They get reacquainted and laugh over how they are fooling the hotel.
The story is told by Irene Redfield, a mixed race woman living in Harlem. Irene gets a letter from Clare describing the incident and suggest they get together. Clare’s father was white and when both her parents passed at an early age she went to live with her white grandparents. Clare lives primarily in Europe with her rich husband who does not know her heritage and their daughter. Clare is temporarily in New York City and does reluctantly agree to socialize with Irene and her friends.
Irene goes to Clare’s town house for tea, along with another bi-racial friend from long ago. Clare’s husband shows up and begins a long racist rant. The friends decide Clare will be in danger if her husband learns her secret and decide to break off contact.
But things are not so simple. A complex series of events cause Clare’s husband to discover her secret. He goes into a wild rage, saying both his wife and his daughter are niggers. Clare dies in a fall down the stairs, it looks like her husband pushed her.
The prose is very elegant. Larsen wrote one other novel,
Quicksand I hope to read.
“Nellallitea "Nella" Larsen (born Nellie Walker; April 13, 1891 – March 30, 1964) was an American novelist. Working as a nurse and a librarian, she published two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing(1929), and a few short stories. Though her literary output was scant, she earned recognition by her contemporaries”