Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative

Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative

African American Review
Volume 35, Number 2 (Summer, 2001)
pages 205-217

Juda Bennett, Associate Professor of English
The College of New Jersey

Passing for white, a phenomenon that once captivated writers as diverse as Charles Chesnutt, Sinclair Lewis, Nella Larsen, and Mark Twain, no longer seems to engage contemporary novelists. The long list of authors from the first half of the twentieth century, which includes canonical writers like William Faulkner and forgotten stars like Edna Ferber, is hardly balanced by the short list of contemporary writers who have addressed this figure of racial ambiguity. In considering the relative disappearance of the passing figure from contemporary literature, this essay begins with neither a clear and substantial presence nor a complete absence of passing in the work of one of our most important novelists, Toni Morrison.

In each of her seven novels and in her sole short story, Toni Morrison invokes the passing myth, sometimes in only one or two paragraphs and often with indirection. The Bluest Eye, for example, features a dark-skinned child who cannot possibly pass for white, yet Pecola ignores biology and becomes (if only to herself) a blue-eyed Shirley Temple. Although some might consider Pecola’s delusion a weak or perhaps specious representation of passing for white, The Bluest Eye artfully reinforces its interest in racial passing by alluding to Peola, the passing figure in Imitation of Life. This intertextual play effectively evokes the myth without actually representing the phenomenon of passing, and in this way
Morrison decenters and deforms the traditional passing figure. Why?

It is my hope that this overview, although focused on Morrison, will be suggestive of larger shifts in culture, politics, and aesthetics. Why, for example, has the passing figure, after holding a central place in the imaginations of early-twentieth-century writers, been consigned to the margins of late-twentieth-century novels concerned with race? Why did Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes address the subject directly, even entitling works Passing and “Who’s Passing for Who?” while Morrison approaches the subject indirectly and often in a subplot or through an allusion? Are there certain stories that are considered embarrassing, passe, or even dangerous? Are there stories, furthermore, that simply cannot be told or, rather, cannot be told simply?…

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