Passing for what? Aspects of Identity in Nella Larsen’s Novels

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2012-05-12 00:34Z by Steven

Passing for what? Aspects of Identity in Nella Larsen’s Novels

Black American Literature Forum
Volume 20, Number 1/2 (Spring-Summer, 1986)
pages 97-111

Cheryl A. Wall, Board of Governors Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English
Rutgers University

True, she was attractive, unusual, in an exotic, almost savage way, but she wasn’t one of them.
—Quicksand (124)

“… I was determined … to be a person and not a charity or a problem, or even a daughter of the indiscreet Ham. Then, too, I wanted things. I knew I wasn’t bad-looking and that I could ‘pass.'”
—Passing (56)

At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen published two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). They were widely and favorably reviewed. Applauded by the critics, Larsen was heralded as a rising star in the black artistic firmament. In 1930 she became the first Afro-American woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing. Her star then faded as quickly as it had risen, and by 1934 Nella Larsen had disappeared from Harlem and from literature. The novels she left behind prove that at least some of her promise was realized. Among the best written of the time, her books comment incisively on issues of marginality and cultural dualism that engaged Larsen’s contemporaries, such as Jean Toomer and Claude McKay, but the bourgeois ethos of her novels has unfortunately obscured the similarities. However, Larsen’s most striking insights are into psychic dilemmas confronting certain black women. To dramatize these, Larsen draws characters who are, by virtue of their appearance, education, and social class, atypical in the extreme. Swiftly viewed, they resemble the tragic mulattoes of literary convention. On closer examination, they become the means through which the author demonstrates the psychological costs of racism and sexism.

For Larsen, the tragic mulatto was the only formulation historically available to portray educated middle-class black women in fiction. But her protagonists subvert the convention consistently. They…

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