“You Should’ve Seen My Grandmother; She Passed for White”: African American Women Writers, Genealogy, and the Passing Genre

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, Women on 2018-08-22 04:27Z by Steven

“You Should’ve Seen My Grandmother; She Passed for White”: African American Women Writers, Genealogy, and the Passing Genre

University of Sheffield
October 2015

Janine Bradbury, Senior Lecturer in Literature; School Learning and Teaching Lead
School of Humanities, Religion & Philosophy
York St John University, York, United Kingdom

Ph.D. Dissertation

This thesis critiques the prevailing assumption that passing is passé in contemporary African American women’s literature.

By re-examining the work of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Dorothy West, Alice Walker, and Barbara Neely, I argue that these writers signify on canonical passing narratives – Brown’s Clotel (1853) and Clotelle (1867), Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), Larsen’s Passing (1929), and Hurst’s Imitation of Life (1933) – in order to confront and redress both the historical roots and contemporary contexts of colourism.

As well bridging this historiographic gap, I make a case for reading passing as a multivalent trope that facilitates this very process of cultural interrogation. Rather than focussing on literal episodes of passing, I consider moments of symbolic, textual, and narrative passing, as well as the genealogical and intertextual processes at play in each text which account for the spectral hauntings of the passing-for-white figure in post-civil rights literature.

In Chapter 1, I examine the relationship between passing and embodiments of beauty in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), Bambara’s “Christmas Eve at Johnson’s Drugs N Goods” (1974) and Neely’s Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (1994).

In Chapter 2, I discuss passing, class, and capital in Naylor’s Linden Hills (1985) and Dorothy West’s The Wedding (1995).

In Chapter 3, I suggest that Walker and Morrison revisit Larsen’s Passing in their short stories “Source” (1982) and “Recitatif” (1983).

Finally, I conclude this project with a discussion of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child (2015) in order to demonstrate the continued centrality of the passing trope for authors interested in colourism, genealogy, and black women’s experiences.

Embargoed here until October 2020.

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‘Passing for white’: how a taboo film genre is being revived to expose racial privilege

Posted in Articles, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2018-08-22 00:48Z by Steven

‘Passing for white’: how a taboo film genre is being revived to expose racial privilege

The Guardian
2018-08-20

Janine Bradbury, Senior Lecturer in Literature; School Learning and Teaching Lead
School of Humanities, Religion & Philosophy
York St John University, York, United Kingdom

SUSAN KOHNER and JUANITA MOORE in Imitation of Life
Crossing the colour line … Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore as daughter and mother in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959). Photograph: www.ronaldgrantarchive.com

Rebecca Hall’sdirectorial debut is an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, a theme little seen since the likes of Show Boat and Pinky

Hollywood once loved films about passing. The genre was popular in the 1940s and 50s, when segregation was rife and the “one-drop rule” – which deemed anybody with even a trace of African ancestry to be black – prevailed. Box-office hits included Elia Kazan’s Pinky (1949) and George Sidney’s musical Show Boat (1951), which featured light-skinned, mixed-race characters who passed for white in the hopes of enjoying the privileges whiteness confers. The secrets, the scandal and the sheer sensationalism of it all made for excellent melodrama.

Now Rebecca Hall, the star of Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Red Riding, is revisiting the genre with her directorial debut, an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s seminal 1929 novel Passing. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga will feature in the project, which tells the story of childhood friends, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield, who are both light-skinned enough to pass for white but choose to live on opposite sides of the colour line…

…How will Hall negotiate the tricky history of the genre? Even though it was a real-life phenomenon, most films about passing, including Pinky and Show Boat, have literary roots. William Wells Brown’s 1853 anti-slavery novel Clotel, which imagines the fate of Thomas Jefferson’s mixed race progeny, is perhaps the first American passing novel. Brown used passing to expose the arbitrary nature of white privilege. His mixed-race characters were a manifest symbol of the reality that many powerful, supposedly God-fearing white slaveholding men were coercing and raping enslaved black women and condemning their own children to a life in bondage (although, as Beyoncé recently revealed, not all unions were of this nature)…

Read the entire article here.

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Rebecca Hall To Make Directorial Debut With ‘Passing’; Tessa Thompson & Ruth Negga Star In Adaptation Of 1920s Novel

Posted in Articles, Arts, Passing, United States, Women on 2018-08-07 03:40Z by Steven

Rebecca Hall To Make Directorial Debut With ‘Passing’; Tessa Thompson & Ruth Negga Star In Adaptation Of 1920s Novel

Deadline Hollywood
2018-08-06

Amanda N’Duka

Rebecca Hall Tessa Thompson Ruth Negga
Shutterstock

EXCLUSIVE: Rebecca Hall has set up Passing, an adaptation based on Nella Larsen’s 1920s Harlem Renaissance novel that explores the practice of racial passing, a term used for a person classified as a member of one racial group who seeks to be accepted by a different racial group. Hall has penned the script and will direct in her feature helming debut, with Westworld star Tessa Thompson and Oscar nominee Ruth Negga attached to star in the film.

Margot Hand of Picture Films and Oren Moverman of Sight Unseen are producing, with Angela Robinson serving as executive producer.

First published in 1929, Passing follows the unexpected reunion of two high school friends, Clare Kendry (Negga) and Irene Redfield (Thompson), whose renewed acquaintance ignites a mutual obsession that threatens both of their carefully constructed realities…

Read the entire article here.

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What do Meghan Markle and Chicago woman who wrote ‘Passing’ have in common?

Posted in Articles, Biography, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2018-02-25 23:47Z by Steven

What do Meghan Markle and Chicago woman who wrote ‘Passing’ have in common?

The Chicago Tribune
2018-02-23

Christopher Borrelli


Nella Larsen, author of “Passing.” (Carl Van Vechten)

Nella Larsen was a mystery in life, and a mystery after her death in 1964. According to biographers, when she died her half sister inherited the $35,000 that remained in Larsen’s savings, then said she didn’t know she had a half sister.

Which wasn’t true.

Yet, in many ways, it’s the response you expect.

Nella Larsen was born Nellie Walker in 1891, in Chicago.

Or Nella Larsen was born Nella Larsen, 1892, in Chicago.

Or Nella Larsen was born Nellye Larson, 1893, in Chicago.

Biographers have run across a few possibilities, and the agreed-upon details are this: Nella Larsen was born in 1891, in Chicago, as Nellie Walker. Larsen fudged her vitals on occasion, depending on who was asking and what form she was completing. She lived her life at times with a sort of concentrated vagueness — “in the shadows,” wrote George Hutchinson, one of her biographers. Just as her career was taking off, she broke ties with her closest friends, and she spent her last three decades working as a nurse, living in a relative, self-imposed anonymity. Which sounds melodramatic, yet Larsen — who had been a major star of the Harlem Renaissance after leaving Chicago (but never quite cast aside the rejection that she felt here) — lived a life that could fuel melodramas.

As it happens, she left great ones, slim novels that amount to 250 pages, combined. Indeed, “Quicksand” (1928) and “Passing” (1929) constitute most of her published work. Yet both are portraits of Chicago women who, like Larsen, navigated the blurriest of racial lines in the early 20th century, having been born to one black parent and one white parent. Both novels are about women who “passed” — that is, they presented themselves, day to day, as white. Her biographers say it’s unlikely Larsen herself did this, yet her protagonists are haunted by identity, frozen out by the black bourgeois, not at ease in white society, torn by the task of self-identifying in a binary-minded country…

Read the entire article here.

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The Skyscraper’s Unseeing Eyes: Louis Sullivan, Nella Larsen, and Racial Formalism

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-11-25 02:26Z by Steven

The Skyscraper’s Unseeing Eyes: Louis Sullivan, Nella Larsen, and Racial Formalism

American Literature
Volume 89, Issue 3
2017-09-01
DOI: 10.1215/00029831-4160846

Sue Shon

Since its inception, the skyscraper has served as an icon of American innovation, modernity, and freedom. Upholding this image has erased the racial thinking and racist practices foundational to this born-and-bred American architectural form. This essay restores the import of race to the skyscraper by reading formalist theories by the father of modern architecture, Louis Sullivan, alongside a work of African American modernist fiction, Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929). Reading Sullivan alongside Larsen explains how skyscrapers and blackness together have defined what gets seen as modern. The unexpected pairing reveals the visual racial logics built into skyscraper aesthetics and adds an architectural thread to the well-established scholarship on Larsen’s novel.

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SAS Researchers Probe Racial Passing, Identity Based on Two Novels

Posted in Africa, Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-05-11 01:18Z by Steven

SAS Researchers Probe Racial Passing, Identity Based on Two Novels

American University of Nigeria
2017-05-01

Nelly Ating

The modern-day issues of “racial passing” and “identity,” dominated the April 20 SAS research seminar presented by Dr. Agatha Ukata and Dr. Brian Reed of the English & Literature department.

The duo’s research probes the phenomenon in “Being and Not Being:  How Society Negotiates Humanity.”  This is a study based on Nella Larsen, and Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, and on Isidore Okpewho’s Call Me by My Rightful Name.

This work will be presented at the African Literature Association conference at Yale University in June.

Leading the discussion, Dr Ukata said that despite disparity in the years of publication of the novels, it is astonishing to see the recurrence of “racial passing” in this era…

Read the entire article here.

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The Manner of Blackness in Nella Larsen’s Passing

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-05-06 02:06Z by Steven

The Manner of Blackness in Nella Larsen’s Passing

Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal
Volume 100, Number 2, 2017
pages 112-142

Michael A. Istvan Jr., Lecturer in Philosophy
Texas State University

Commentators have suggested that Nella Larsen’s Passing rejects the view that there is some sort of black essence. This article challenges this reading. Since Irene is the most vocal advocate of an essence in respect to which all blacks are homogenous, much of the evidence for thinking that Passing is skeptical about such an essence amounts to evidence for not trusting Irene’s judgment in general, and for not trusting her judgment on this matter in particular. My arguments, then, will often involve explaining why Passing is not leading the reader to mistrust Irene’s judgment on this matter. Now, what exactly is meant by a black essence is, explicitly in this book, mysterious. Nevertheless, this article intends to shed some light on how Passing understands the nature of this something, this je ne sais quoi, peculiar to blacks. My tentative interpretation is that this something is an intangible and indefinite manner of being that is neither a conscious choice nor an inborn fact of biology, but rather a given of culture. This article takes this, in effect, blackness manner to be, so Passing seems to indicate, a function of one’s belief that one is black in a milieu of pervasive anti-black prejudice. Passing thus has something to offer those today who struggle to adjudicate between a pull towards essentialism and a pull towards constructionism. What Passing emphasizes in this discussion is the possibility that, in addition to biological and societal influences, one’s mind state is a crucial ingredient to one’s racial identity.

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The Shadow of Lynching in Nella Larsen’s Passing

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2017-03-19 20:14Z by Steven

The Shadow of Lynching in Nella Larsen’s Passing

Women’s Studies: An inter-disciplinary journal
Published online: 2017-02-22
pages 1-22
DOI: 10.1080/00497878.2017.1285767

Kangyl Ko
Yonsei University, Seoul, South Korea

Since Deborah E. McDowell’s groundbreaking essay on the representation of black female sexuality in Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), many scholars have discussed how the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and sexuality unfolds throughout the novel. In her compelling reading of Passing, McDowell examines the hidden lesbian narratives beneath “the safe and familiar plot of racial passing” on which previous scholars have focused (xxx). McDowell’s excavation of the tale of sexual passing within the tale of racial passing has since inspired many scholars to further examine the novel’s exploration of black female sexuality, especially in terms of lesbian desire, and its appropriation and negotiation of the literary convention of the tragic mulatto—“the safe and familiar plot of racial passing,” as McDowell refers to it. The continuous trend in scholarship of Passing, whether it focuses on lesbian desire and/or the appropriation of the tragic mulatto narrative, links discussions of black female sexuality directly with racialized popular discourses about black female bodies in Jim Crow America. As a result, one of Larsen’s rhetorical and thematic threads that runs through her second novel has remained underexplored: lynching.

Following Grace Elizabeth Hale’s formulation of lynching as “cultural form” that “existed as both physical practice and as written and photographic representations” (360), I read Passing as a discursive platform where Larsen explores and challenges not only the dominant white lynching narrative, but also its counter-lynching narrative created by black male writers. As an iconic “cultural form” of Jim Crow America, lynching played a crucial role in defining and shaping interracial relations in the United States. Within criticism, lynching as a form of physical violence and a discourse has been addressed largely in terms of the black male body alone. However, black women were victims of lynching as well. They were “routinely lynched, burned, and summarily mutilated” (Wiegman 84)…

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The “Highly Important Matter of Clothes”: Apparel and Identity in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-05-09 00:15Z by Steven

The “Highly Important Matter of Clothes”: Apparel and Identity in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand

Fringe: The Noun That Verbs Your World
Issue 19, Summer 2009 (2009-07-19)

Kaley Joyes

Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand (1928) is saturated with clothing. This essay examines the ways in which Larsen uses fashionable apparel to map connections between racial identity and aesthetic style. The narrator tells us that protagonist Helga Crane has “loved and longed for nice things” all her life (6), and this desire for “things” is a constant throughout the novel. Larsen tracks Helga’s quest for self-discovery not only across multiple geographic settings – from the American South to New York, Denmark, and back again – but also through multiple changes in costume. As the novel opens, Helga is a teacher at an elite African-American boarding school called Naxos. After becoming frustrated with the school’s repressive and assimilative hierarchies, Helga quits her job and returns to her hometown, Chicago, where she experiences a period of deprivation. The job she eventually finds takes her to Harlem, where Helga immerses herself in bourgeois black culture but soon tires of closeting her white ancestry. Helga next travels to Denmark to reconnect with her mother’s family. Far from being accepted as Danish, however, Helga is seen as an exotic outsider. She returns to America, hastily marries, moves to rural Alabama, and has five children in rapid succession. At the novel’s conclusion, Helga longs for the affluence and beauty of her premarital life, but there are no indications that she will renew her pattern of abrupt departures and new beginnings. Throughout Helga’s journey, fashion provides a useful symbolic register for racial identity. Like many mixed-race Americans, Helga is consistently identified – that is to say, defined – by her appearance.[1] Through Helga’s clothing, Larsen links modern culture’s deep investment in appearances to what W.E.B. DuBois famously identified as slavery’s twentieth-century heritage: “the problem of the color-line” (1), of how “to be both a Negro and an American” (5). The color line is particularly problematic for mixed-race Americans who may be displaced, and thus obscured, by the color line’s divisions.[2] This is not to say that Helga’s character can be entirely explained by her biracial heritage; rather, I read the connection between Helga’s clothing and her search for integrative mixed-race identity as one aspect of Larsen’s complex novel. By unpacking the ways in which Helga’s fashion choices signify the effects of being located between the color line’s demarcations, I hope to explicate Larsen’s keen understanding of commodified aesthetics’ relationship to modern identity formation…

Read the entire article here.

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Beautiful White Girlhood?: Daisy Buchanan in Nella Larsen’s Passing

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-03-14 15:13Z by Steven

Beautiful White Girlhood?: Daisy Buchanan in Nella Larsen’s Passing

African American Review
Volume 47, Number 1, Spring 2014
pages 37-49

Sinéad Moynihan, Lecturer in English
University of Exeter

This article expands recent scholarship on race in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and intertextuality in Nella Larsen’s Passing by arguing that the latter is a “blackened” version of Gatsby. Mapping the genealogy of Passing, from Gatsby through Larsen’s first published work of fiction, “The Wrong Man” (1926), it proposes that Larsen’s allusions to Fitzgerald’s novel work to destabilize radically any secure sense of Daisy Buchanan’s whiteness by linking her quite emphatically with Clare Kendry. By reading Passing in this way, the article also reveals the extent to which Larsen built covert engagements with reading, writing and authorship into a text thematically preoccupied with looking, seeing and interpreting.

“The idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and—” After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again.  —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925; emphasis added)

She couldn’t betray Clare, couldn’t even run the risk of appearing to defend a people that were being maligned, for fear that that defence might in some infinitesimal degree lead the way to final discovery of her secret. —Nella Larsen, Passing (1929; emphasis added)

In October 1927 The Forum published a debate entitled “Should the Negro be encouraged to cultural equality?” Writing in favor of the proposal was Alain Locke, one of the leading intellectuals of what was subsequently termed the Harlem Renaissance; writing against it was the nativist and eugenicist, Lothrop Stoddard. Although the thrust of Locke’s argument rests on encouraging cultural equality through white recognition of “Negro genius” as evidenced in the work of Countée Cullen, Langston Hughes and others, he anticipates Stoddard’s concern that “cultural equality” equates with interracial sex, marriage and reproduction. Locke identifies the hypocrisy of a situation by which a man who opposes “amalgamation” so passionately is the very man who “by the sex exploitation of the socially and economically unprotected Negro woman, has bred a social dilution which threatens at its weakest point the race integrity he boasts of maintaining and upholding” (Locke and Stoddard 503, 505). What is striking about Stoddard’s rebuttal is his refusal to acknowledge, as Locke does, that “amalgamation” is a fait accompli, that the amalgamation horse, if you will, had long ago bolted. For Stoddard, “the plain facts of the case” are as follows:

Since the Negroes form nearly one-tenth of the population of the United States, we are statistically light mulattos. In the last analysis, the only thing which keeps us from being biologically mulattos is the color-line. Therefore, once the principle of the color-line is abandoned, White America is doomed, and a mulatto America stands on the threshold.

(Locke and Stoddard 515)

By the term “statistically light mulatto,” Stoddard means that the American racial body (envisaged as white) is already one-tenth black. Stoddard believes that the color line must be policed rigidly if the other nine-tenths of the population are not to become “biologically mulattos,” as if America’s “white” majority were not already racially mixed. Here, Stoddard makes no admission of the possibility of what Joel Williamson terms “invisible blackness” (103): the prospect of a “black” subject’s looking, and potentially passing as, “white.”

This debate appeared halfway through the four-year interval between the publication of two apparently unconnected novels: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929). In Tom Buchanan, as several critics have noted, Fitzgerald creates a mouthpiece for the ideas of Lothrop Stoddard, especially those articulated in The Rising Tide of Color against White World-Supremacy (1920), thinly disguised in The Great Gatsby as “The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard” (Gatsby 18). Meanwhile, Larsen was not only an exemplar of “the cultural flowering of Negro talent” that Locke identifies; she was also, being of Danish and African Caribbean ancestry, the embodiment of the “hybridization” Stoddard so feared (Locke and Stoddard 507, 514). Here I consider the tissue of connections suggested by this exchange between Locke and Stoddard: between the Harlem Renaissance, contemporaneous eugenicist discourses and racial passing and, ultimately, between The Great Gatsby and Passing. This article argues that in Passing Larsen responds to both Stoddard and Tom Buchanan, that Passing is in fact a “blackened” version of The Great Gatsby. Indeed, as Thadious Davis discovers, Larsen wrote to Carl Van Vechten in 1926 of the possibility of “blackening” Francisco de Quevedo-Villegas’s novel Pablo de Segovia (1595), and it was a similar kind of literary blackening that led to the plagiarism charge leveled at her in 1930 when readers of “Sanctuary” noted the remarkable similarities between this and a story published by British writer Sheila Kaye-Smith in The Century in 1922 (Davis 165–66, 351). In fact, “Sanctuary” appeared in The Forum and Larsen was the first black writer to place fiction there. It is therefore possible, indeed likely, that she read the exchange between Locke and Stoddard. While the plagiarism charge is not my primary concern, Larsen’s engagement with Fitzgerald’s text is so obviously critical and self-conscious as to raise questions about where we draw the line between what Linda Hutcheon would term a “critical reworking” of the literary past, and one that is more uncritically derivative (4)…

Read the entire article here.

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