Passing By Nella Larsen Essay

Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing, provides an example of
some of the best writing the Harlem Renaissance has to
offer. Nella Larsen was one of the most promising young
writer’s of her time. Though she only published two novels
it is clear that she was one of the most important writers
of the Harlem Renaissance movement. Her career as writer
probably would have lasted longer, but she was accused of
plagiarizing her short story, Sanctuary. She was
eventually cleared of any wrong doing, but the accusation
deeply tarnished her reputation as writer. It is truly a
shame that the first African-American woman to win the
Guggenheim Fellowship was forced out of writing by scandal.
Before being haunted by scandal, Nella Larsen played
an intricate role in the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem
Renaissance was a movement that started toward the end of
World War I and lasted through the mid 1930’s. It was the
first notable movement of African-American writers and
artists in the United States. It was given the name
Harlem Renaissance because the movement was centered in
the Harlem district in New York City. More
African-American writers and poets were published during
this period in the United States than ever before. Not
only were African-American writers being published more,
but they were also getting a great deal of recognition for
their work. The body of work characteristic of this time
period showed a heightened sense of racial consciousness.
African-American writers during this time were not only
seeking to counteract racial prejudice, but were also
perpetuating the cultural heritage of Africa. Some of the
major writers born from this period include Langston
Hughes, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Neale
Hurston and of course, Nella Larsen.
The writing of the Harlem Renaissance explored a
variety of themes and genres. The writer’s experimented
with a wide variety of styles as well. Langston Hughes for
instance explored the lives of working-class
African-Americans. Jean Toomer explored what life was like
for very poor African-Americans. Countee Cullen on the
other hand explored the problem of racism and the
definition of Africa for African-Americans. Nella Larsen
explored the restrictions faced by African-Americans
according to their skin color.
Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing was her second as well
as last novel and was published in 1929. To get a better
idea of what this novel is about, one must understand what
exactly passing is. Passing is when African-American men
or women with light skin pass themselves off as white in
order to enjoy the privileges that were afforded to white
people during this period in American history. The Plessy
vs. Ferguson ruling of separate, but equal was still in
effect at this time in history. Therefore, one could
understand why it could be advantageous for
African-Americans who had light enough skin to pass
themselves off as white.
Passing is narrated by the character, Irene Redfield,
who is a middle-class, light-skinned African-American woman
who deplores passing. She is married to a doctor, with
whom she has two sons, who is too dark to pass. Irene is
somewhat self-consciously proud of her African heritage.
Irene’s life is going along as usual when she runs into a
childhood friend. Her old friend’s name is Clare Kendry.
Clare Kendry is a light-skinned African-American woman who
passes for white. In fact she is even married to a white
doctor. Ironically, Irene runs into her at a rooftop
restaurant where she herself is passing to evade the heat
The characters in Passing, are faced with the
confusion of which race to identify with. They are trapped
in limbo between two worlds: white and black. These
feelings of being denied privileges if they identify with
African-American society and being allowed privileges if
they pass as white causes them to feel lonely and feel as
though they are not truly part of either race. If they
pass they will be allowed to exercise all the privileges
that come along with being white during this period of
history in America. If they decide to identify themselves
as African-American they will be denied many of the most
basic privileges given to American citizens.
This book explores the trap that light-skinned
African-Americans are put in by the Plessy vs. Ferguson
ruling of separate, but equal. This ruling is in
reality, separate, but not anywhere near equal. Passing
proves this to be true. African-Americans would not even
entertain the idea of passing if they were not being
denied certain rights and privileges.
This book is a valuable account of the tragic
consequences of being denied racial identity due to a court
decision and a society which perpetuates this unfounded
prejudice. Is it better to deny one’s racial heritage or
accept it and identify with it. This book shows how both
choices are loaded with a number of adverse consequences.
After reading Passing, the reader will see that this is by
no means a black and white issue, but rather a complex
series of stages of gray. Whether you are familiar with
Harlem Renaissance and this period in history or this is
your first journey into exploring what society was like in
the 11920’s you stand to learn a lot from Nella Larsen’s
classic, Passing.

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