How Nella Larsen’s Passing deconstructed the question of race

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2021-11-15 17:38Z by Steven

How Nella Larsen’s Passing deconstructed the question of race

The New Statesman
2021-11-12

Gary Younge, Professor of Sociology
University of Manchester

Photo by Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Larsen’s 1929 novel, now a Netflix film, illustrates the degree to which race is a construct – without lecturing the reader.

Every year approximately 12,000 white-skinned Negroes disappear,” Walter White, the former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, wrote in a 1947 article. “People whose absence cannot be explained by death or emigration… Men and women who have decided that they will be happier and more successful if they flee from the proscription and humiliation which the American colour line imposes on them.”

White had first-hand experience. The black president of the NAACP had blonde hair and blue eyes. He would “disappear” himself from time to time, so that he could safely investigate lynching in the American South. The piece, published in TIME magazine, was called “Why I Choose to Remain a Negro”.

The term “passing” relates to those who disappear – pretending to be something, and therefore someone, that they are not, usually in search of a better, safer or easier life. The practice is not limited to race. It could be a Jew posing as a gentile; a Catholic as a Protestant. But the challenges remain the same and lend themselves easily to narrative tension – the need to cut yourself off from your past, the fear of being discovered, the construction of a life that is a lie.

Nella Larsen’s laconic novella, Passing, draws from the human toll and intrigue that emerges from the transgression, subterfuge and outright deceit involved in an African American woman passing as white in 1920s America. Published in 1929, it has been adapted into a film by the British actor Rebecca Hall, now streaming on Netflix. The novella has long been one of my favourites among the works from the Harlem Renaissance, the literary movement that emerged among black artists and writers in 20th-century New York and saw the likes of Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and Aaron Douglas become prominent. Sparsely written, character-driven and emotionally complex, it illustrates the degree to which black is a political colour, race is a construct, and racism is a system in which colour is a component, not a determinant – without actually lecturing the reader on any of that…

Read the entire article here.

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Erasure and Recollection: Memories of Racial Passing

Posted in Anthologies, Book/Video Reviews, Caribbean/Latin America, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Louisiana, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2021-09-29 01:09Z by Steven

Erasure and Recollection: Memories of Racial Passing

Peter Lang
September 2021
366 pages
13 fig. b/w.
Paperback ISBN:978-2-8076-1625-7
ePUB ISBN:978-2-8076-1627-1 (DOI: 10.3726/b18256)

Edited by:

Hélène Charlery, Professor of English Literature
University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, Toulouse, France

Aurélie Guillain, Professor of American Literature
University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, Toulouse, France

Many recent studies of racial passing have emphasized the continuing, almost haunting power of racial segregation even in the post-segregation period in the US, or in the post-apartheid period in South Africa. This “present-ness” of racial passing, the fact that it has not really become “passé,” is noticeable in the great number of testimonies which have been published in the 2000s and 2010s by descendants of individuals who passed for white in the English-speaking world. The sheer number of publications suggest a continuing interest in the kind of relation to the personal and national past which is at stake in the long-delayed revelation of cases of racial passing.

This interest in family memoirs or in fictional works re-tracing the erasure of some relative’s racial identity is by no means limited to the United States: for instance, Zoë Wicomb in South Africa or Zadie Smith in the UK both use the passing novel to unravel the complex situation of mixed-race subjects in relation to their family past and to a national past marked by a history of racial inequality.

Yet, the vast majority of critical approaches to racial passing have so far remained largely focused on the United States and its specific history of race relations. The objective of this volume is twofold: it aims at shedding light on the way texts or films show the work of individual memory and collective recollection as they grapple with a racially divided past, struggling with its legacy or playing with its stereotypes. Our second objective has been to explore the great variety in the forms taken by racial passing depending on the context, which in turn leads to differences in the ways it is remembered. Focusing on how a previously erased racial identity may resurface in the present has enabled us to extend the scope of our study to other countries than the United States, so that this volume hopes to propose some new, transnational directions in the study of racial passing.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction – Hélène Charlery and Aurélie Guillain
  • Part I: Memories of Racial Passing – Reconstructing Local and Personal Histories – From Homer Plessy to Paul Broyard
    • To Pass or Not to Pass in New Orleans – Nathalie Dessens
    • Racial Passing at New Orleans Mardi Gras; From Reconstruction to the Mid- Twentieth Century: Flight of Fancy or Masked Resistance? – Aurélie Godet
    • Passing through New Orleans, Atlanta, and New York City: The Dynamics of Racial Assignation in Walter White’s Flight (1926) – Aurélie Guillain
    • African American Women Activists and Racial Passing: Personal Journeys and Subversive Strategies (1880s– 1920s) – Élise Vallier-Mathieu
  • Part II: Memory, Consciousness and the Fantasy of Amnesia in Passing Novels
    • “What Irene Redfield Remembered”: Making It New in Nella Larsen’s Passing – M. Giulia Fabi
    • Between Fiction and Reality: Passing for Non- Jewish in Multicultural American Fiction – Ohad Reznick
    • Experiments in Passing: Racial Passing in George Schuyler’s Black No More and Arthur Miller’s Focus – Ochem G.l.a. Riesthuis
    • Passing to Disappearance: The Voice/ Body Dichotomy and the Problem of Identity in Richard Powers’s The Time of Our Singing (2004) – Anne-Catherine Bascoul
  • Part III: Memories of Racial Passing within and beyond the United States: Towards a Transnational Approach
    • “The Topsy-Turviness of Being in the Wrong Hemisphere” Transnationalizing the Racial Passing Narrative – Sinéad Moynihan
    • Passing, National Reconciliation and Adolescence in Beneath Clouds (Ivan Sen, 2002) and The Wooden Camera (Ntshaveni Wa Luruli, 2003) – Delphine David and Annael Le Poullennec
    • Transnational Gendered Subjectivity in Passing across the Black Atlantic: Nella Larsen’s Passing, Michelle Cliff ’s Free Enterprise and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time – Kerry-Jane Wallart
  • About the Authors/ Editors
  • Index
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Thinking In Colour

Posted in Audio, Biography, Media Archive, Passing, Social Science, United States on 2021-05-25 14:23Z by Steven

Thinking In Colour

BBC Radio 4
British Broadcasting Corporation
2021-05-10

Gary Younge, Professor of Sociology
Manchester University, Manchester, United Kingdom

Caitlin Smith, Producer
Tony Phillips, Executive Producer


Bliss Broyard and her father Anatole Broyard (photo: Sandy Broyard)

Passing is a term that originally referred to light skinned African Americans who decided to live their lives as white people. The civil rights activist Walter White claimed in 1947 that every year in America, 12-thousand black people disappeared this way. He knew from first-hand experience. The black president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had blonde hair and blue eyes which meant he was able to investigate lynching in the Deep South, while passing in plain sight.

In a strictly segregated society, life on the other side of the colour line could be easier. But it came at a price.

Here, Gary Younge, Professor of Sociology at Manchester University, explores stories of racial passing through the prism of one of his favourite books, Passing, by Nella Larsen.

The 1929 novella brought the concept into the mainstream. It tells the story of two friends; both African-American though one ‘passes’ for white. It’s one of Gary Younge’s, favourite books, for all that it reveals about race, class and privilege.

Gary speaks with Bliss Broyard, who was raised in Connecticut in the blue-blood, mono-racial world of suburbs and private schools. Her racial identity was ensconced in the comfort of insular whiteness. Then in early adulthood Bliss’ world was turned upside down. On her father’s deathbed she learned he was in fact a black man who had been passing as white for most of his life. How did this impact Bliss’ identity and sense of self?

Gary hears three extraordinary personal accounts, each a journey towards understanding racial identity, and belonging. With Bliss Broyard, Anthony Ekundayo Lennon, Georgina Lawton and Professor Jennifer DeVere Brody.

Excerpts from ‘Passing’ read by Robin Miles, the Broadway actress who has narrated books written by Kamala Harris and Roxane Gay.

Listen to the story (00:28:00) here.

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Walter F. White: The NAACP’s Ambassador for Racial Justice

Posted in Biography, Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Social Justice, United States on 2019-01-05 01:39Z by Steven

Walter F. White: The NAACP’s Ambassador for Racial Justice

West Virginia University Press
January 2019
468 pages
Cloth ISBN: 978-1-946684-62-2
eBook ISBN: 978-1-946684-63-9

Robert L. Zangrando, Professor Emeritus of History
University of Akron

Ronald L. Lewis, Stuart and Joyce Robbins Chair and Professor Emeritus of History
West Virginia University

Walter F. White of Atlanta, Georgia, joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1918 as an assistant to Executive Secretary James Weldon Johnson. When Johnson retired in 1929, White replaced him as head of the NAACP, a position he maintained until his death in 1955. During his long tenure, White was in the vanguard of the struggle for interracial justice. His reputation went into decline, however, in the era of grassroots activism that followed his death. White’s disagreements with the US Left, and his ambiguous racial background—he was of mixed heritage, could “pass” as white, and divorced a black woman to marry a white woman—fueled ambivalence about his legacy.

In this comprehensive biography, Zangrando and Lewis seek to provide a reassessment of White within the context of his own time, revising critical interpretations of his career. White was a promoter of and a participant in the Harlem Renaissance, a daily fixture in the halls of Congress lobbying for civil rights legislation, and a powerful figure with access to the administrations of Roosevelt (via Eleanor) and Truman. As executive secretary of the NAACP, White fought incessantly to desegregate the American military and pushed to ensure equal employment opportunities. On the international stage, White advocated for people of color in a decolonized world and for economic development aid to nations like India and Haiti, bridging the civil rights struggles at home and abroad.

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