Seeing Black Women Anew through Lesbian Desire in Nella Larsen’s Passing

Seeing Black Women Anew through Lesbian Desire in Nella Larsen’s Passing

Rocky Mountain Review
Rocky Mountain Language Association
Volume 60, Number 1 (Spring 2006)
pages 25-52

H. Jordan Landry, Professor of English
University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh

Beginning in the 1910s and 1920s, a series of novels advocate that African Americans commit themselves to “loving blackness,” as bell hooks calls African-American ethnic pride (9-10). By loving blackness, the novels promise, African Americans will advance African-American culture, overcome internalized racism, and achieve emotional stability. Together, these novels create a powerful, early 20th-century discourse about embracing ethnic pride and resisting assimilation into white culture.

Unfortunately, this discourse champions its iconoclastic ideas about race by invoking conventional images of women’s gender and sexuality. The popular literary figure of the “mulatto” woman and her role in the triangle of desire, the literary device structuring almost all narrative in the Western literary tradition (Sedgwick 1-20; Girard 1-38), become central to this discourse. The mulatto woman plays one of two roles in the discourse’s triangles of desire. In the first, she conforms to the most conventional form of femininity imaginable and woos the black man toward ethnic pride. According to this discourse, the mulatto woman’s extreme femininity bolsters the black man’s masculinity, confirming his sense of superiority, power, and control. This ego boost endows the black man with the capacity to take pride in African-American culture and contribute to it rather than assimilating into white society. In the second, the mulatto woman defies all the sex and gender norms of dominant culture and lures the black man into vassalage to whiteness. Her rebellion against predefined sex and gender roles feminizes her partner, thereby seducing him into false servility. Since this discourse defines conventional femininity as sexual loyalty, submission, and homage to a black man, the way for the mulatto woman to express ethnic pride is not simply through loving a black man but actually through subordinating herself to one. Of course, embracing inferiority is a limited form of pride indeed. In addition to representing mulatto women’s submission as positive, this early 20th-century literary discourse blames assimilation on mulatto women’s pursuit of freedom from gender and sexual strictures. Thus, mulatto women must regulate their gender and sexuality for ethnic pride to burgeon, and their failure to do so spells a threat to the continuation of African-American culture.

These images of mulatto women circulate widely from the 1910s to the 1920s due to a shift in interest among African-American writers. Whereas late 19th- and turn-of-the-century African-American literature often stressed the need for white culture to accept African Americans, by the 1910s and 1920s, African-American writers began to encourage pride in both African and African-American traditions separate from white culture. This dramatic shift in values results in a corresponding change in representations of mulatto women. Through the two stereotypical roles allotted to mulatto women, writers weight the major “choice” within the erotic triangle—that of ethnic pride or assimilation—with gendered meanings.

In Passing, Larsen reveals that these two dominant fictions about mulatto women effectively regulate women of mixed ethnicity’s performance of gender identity causing them to enact a normative version of femininity. According to Larsen, the two fictions encourage self-regulation by escalating these women’s anxiety. As a result, the women become more aware of others’ external policing of their behavior and, in reaction, internalize these judgments and police themselves. In Larsen’s work, women of mixed ethnicity fear being defined by other African Americans as race traitors if they resist sexual and gender norms. Yet, their attempts to live up to a fictionalized ideal of femininity increases their sense of failure and self-blame as they find it impossible to conform themselves continually to such an image. Moreover, according to Larsen, the more women of mixed ethnicity invest in mulatto female stereotypes, the more they blame each other for and exonerate men from ethnic and sexual betrayal. In Passing, Larsen questions this construction of mulatto women as race and sexual traitors by tracing such blame back to the contemporary literary discourse that imagines racial uplift as dependent on women’s containment…

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