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October 8, 2011

THE NOVEL “PASSING” – LIGHT SKINNED ENOUGH TO PASS AS WHITE

by profbartling1

October 8, 2011

Recently a program that reviewed new books in the Becketwood library one in particular caught my attention.  Immediately I understood it to be the flip-side, or northern racial version of the novel and movie “”Help” set in the South. (See blog – Aug 21: HELP WANTED – MAIDS OF HONOR  and “KILLERS OF THE DREAM”) The novel “Passing” was written in 1929 during the Harlem Renaissance by the mixed-race novelist Nella Larsen. Her literary output was scarce but her work  was recognized by both contemporaries and present day critics. Today her novel has canonical status in university literature courses.  It is a quick read of eighty some pages and was republished in 2010 by Wilder Publications. 

It is the story of two childhood friends  both of mixed African and European ancestry. One marries a prominent Harlem doctor and she lives a life of racial uplift.  The other has chosen to “pass” marrying an insufferable white racist bigot.  The experiences of mixed race women with skin light enough to “pass” is critically outlined. The deception of  white people by those of mixed-race is the drama of  “passing “, that is,  black folk of mixed race  at the color line passing between the black world into the  white world. The novel described how people pass for differing motivations of race, class, and gender, or for social and economic reasons.   “Passing”  may be done in many ways and levels and sometimes acceptable. Larsen’s novel, however, ends in disaster.

The period from 1900 to 1920 experienced The Great Migration of African-Americans from the deep South to the Northern industrial cities.  Living in the context of “de facto” (in fact) segregation the ghetto most typcally developed.  This context created a color line of racism and discrimination where “passing”  became a larger reality.  That same period in the South “de jure” (according to law”) seregation was reality. Lillian Smith, a contemporary of Nella Larsen,  in her classic “Killers of the Dream” rehearses the result of racism and legal segregation as ” Ghost Stories” having to do with the “race-sex-sin-spiral”  and mulatto children as the result..  Racism, ignorance, discrimination, and violence are the result.  Both black and white are victimized by the results of racism and inability to embrace racial equality..

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