Clare Kendry’s “True” Colors: Race and Class Conflict in Nella Larsen’s Passing

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2012-05-28 01:37Z by Steven

Clare Kendry’s “True” Colors: Race and Class Conflict in Nella Larsen’s Passing

Volume 15, Number 4 (Autumn, 1992)
pages 1053-1065

Jennifer DeVere Brody, Professor of Drama
Stanford University

Interpretations of Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) often have failed to explain the complex symbolism of the narrative. Indeed, dismissive or tendentious criticisms of the text have caused it to be eclipsed by Larsen’s “earlier and more intriguing” book, Quicksand (1928). This essay reexamines Passing as a work concerned with the simultaneous representation and construction of race and especially class, within a circumscribed community. As such, my paper contributes to debates within Black feminist criticism about the value of these aspects of identity in relation to the production of black female subjectivities. I contend that the novel’s main characters are neither purely “psychological” beings, as Claudia Tate asserts, nor are they essentially “sexual” creatures, as Deborah McDowell argues. Rather, I read Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry as representatives of different ideologies locked in struggle for dominance.

In her introduction to Passing Deborah McDowell one of the most astute critics of Larsen’s work, states that “many critics have been misled by the novel’s epigraph … [since] it invites the reader to place race at the center of any critical interpretation.” It would appear that McDowell herself has been misled by Passing’s obviously unreliable narrator. So too, McDowell seems to agree with Claudia Tate’s belief that, “Race is peripheral to Passing. It is more a device to sustain the suspense than a compelling social issue.” I disagree with these assertions because it seems to me that the text is “all about race” or rather, the mediation of race in relation to sexuality and class.

McDowell recognizes certain tropes employed by Larsen and, like many other critics, she maintains that Irene Redfield is the primary referent of the novel’s title. Ultimately, however, McDowell is unable to give a full explication of the texf s meaning since she tries to read/uce the text as a tale of latent sexual passion without discussing the key issues of race and class. Thus, while her discussion is certainly valuable, one might also say that it reifies sexuality at the risk of not exploring how sexuality is connected inextricably with other historically produced phenomena such as race and class. In order to sustain her ingenious reading of Passing as a tale that “passes for straight” and sublimates lesbian desire, McDowell misses the more intricate implications addressed by Larsen’s work. The iconography McDowell reads as sexual is simultaneously racial: it also expresses class positionality. For example, the objective correlative envelope used in the first paragraph of the novel signifies not only the “sexual” (McDowell reads it as a “metaphorical vagina”) but also the sender’s race (alien) and class (elite). Thus, my reading emends McDowell’s by insisting on the importance of race and class in Passing.

If race as well as class conflict must occupy a primary position in any discussion of…

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