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Nsikan Akpan
over 1 year Story
The Vine Series: Passing Strange as Nella Larsen

*Continuation of last week's post. Enjoy!]

Characters in stories are hardly given enough credit for their bravery of taking on the task of representing the idiosyncrasies and lifestyles that the public prefers to keep private. In Passing by Nella Larsen, the author utilizes euphemism, foreshadowing, and imagery to expose themes of hypocrisy, social passing, and the sacrifices made to achieve the false ideal called, "The American Dream." Passing was a phenomenon amongst peoples with lighter skin in the black community, and regrettably, "in her fiction, Larsen does not offer any final messages or truths that will clear away racial and social difficulties" (Little). Therefore, this written discourse will dive into deep waters of the case of various forms of passing and pull back the curtains and uncover the secrets of white America's dissatisfaction with its own invention.

            The term "passing" refers to someone of any race other than white who is light enough to appear white at first glance. Larsen's novel centers on a black woman, Irene, who is light enough to pass for a white woman but has made a choice to side with her true community. On the other hand, Clare, Irene's friend from childhood, is also light enough to pass for white and finesses this fact to the point of marrying Bellew, a white racist. Irene makes "strenuous efforts to repress" an "old, queer, unhappy restlessness" in her husband, Brian (Larsen, 1103). Though it is not the story's main focus, this same restlessness that Irene attempts to quell in Brian rises in her own soul, and in the souls of other characters who are living lavish lives and trying with all their might to put on a facade of perfection. As readers maneuver their way through the lonely, privileged lives of both Irene and Clare, it is easy to find that wealth and passing may not be worth one's peace of mind and can lead to a fatal end.

            Human beings are often a nonsensical species. When it is much easier to call a thing a thing—a popular saying in our society that has yet to be put into action—we go around in circles, putting on literate airs, exhibiting our astonishing vocabulary, only to get a point across that could have avoided dissection if honesty was priority. The word "passing" is a more attractive version of the term "self-hate." Of course, no one wants to utter the word "hate" due to its negative connotation and the word "self" just reminds the human race how selfish and overtly self-aware it is. Thus, "passing," is light, easy, and a little fun to say as it begins at our lips brings our front teeth together in a slither and ends with our tongues making a joyous leap in the back of our mouths, the way Clare leaps into her new, white life. Passing. This euphemism covers so much truth. Irene, the one who looks down on Clare for being a janitor's daughter and for the risk she takes by using her skin to get by, "wished to find out about this hazardous business of 'passing,' this breaking away from all that was familiar" (Larsen, 1090). The hypocrisy that lingers behind even the thought of passing is distressing. For one to leave their brothers and sisters for an idea of a better life that the color of their skin may allow is not only deceptive to society, but to one's own self.

            Irene must make up her mind. she needs to decide if black is beautiful or if it is a disease she is only coping with and just waiting for the right time to cure. Having black skin cannot be taken lightly. The narrative Larsen has created for readers represents her life, "working through her own anxieties about the rejection she experienced as a result of her racial identity. Her hazy origins and almost traceless 'disappearance' differentiate Larsen from the other authors of the Harlem Renaissance, but not from the characters of her novel" (Sullivan). Perhaps unknowingly, or very much deceitfully, Larsen exposed the practice of passing in the black community, disguising the case in fictitious characters because she was alleged to have embraced this method herself.

            The way euphemism brings light to hypocrisy, foreshadowing discloses the matter of social passing. Passing is a form of pretending, and when playing pretend, there are no boundaries, even when it comes to absolute flesh. Social passing has yet to be discussed in our society, but there is no doubt it plays major roles in the lives of the educated and elite in Larsen's novel and in actuality. Orenthal James Simpson—also known as O.J.—was a supreme football player in his time, the first to run over 2,000 yards in one season. It is easy to forget the accomplishments of Simpson, blinded by the 1994 murder case of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman. However, prior to that year, Simpson was an athletic mogul. He helped paved the way for subsequent athletes to not only play the sport of their choice, but to do so while starring in movies, commercials, and gaining fortune from various endorsements. Simpson starred in a famous 1978 Hertz commercial, running through an airport as people--all white--cheered him on. "Go Juice, go!" They hailed. Until they stopped.

            That being stated, a large part of Passing is told through foreshadowing; every dangerous dialogue or secret setting has an undertone of warning. Larsen is up to something throughout the narration. It is out of societal order for Clare, a janitor's daughter, to be passing so successfully all while being married to an affluent, white man. For Simpson it was a similar case: he was America's hero. Though, to some, he's not even American; he's African-American. Simpson's career and the way white America embraced him was unimaginable for any black man, let alone one who grew up in poverty. The glory and exaltation he was given are what led to his demise. The media constructed a certain image of him, put him on a pedestal, and it was the same media that was happy to bring him down.

            Though Clare relied on pale skin to get by in white society, Simpson had wealth and his white trophy wife to make up for his chestnut coating. "Passing, challenges the visibility of race and the conception of racial identity as intimately connected to one’s essential self" (Nisetich). When Simpson allegedly committed an act any human would find unredeemable, he became black again, something close to an animal in this white supremacist society. Perhaps this country has been immensely harsh to Simpson, not because he may have killed two people, but because white America cannot fathom the fact that it let this ape loose from its San Francisco cage in the first place. Simpson's persecution is white America's redemption, however, not without his help. Joe Bell, a childhood friend, says of Simpson, "He is seduced by white society” (Edelman, OJ Simpson: Made in America). Clare was seduced enough to want to be a part of that society, so much so that she actually was a part of it.  Either way, tragedy struck both Clare and Simpson: he has been socially exiled and Clare "had been there, a vital glowing thing, like a flame of red and gold. The next thing she was gone" (Larsen, 1139). Examples of passing - physical as well as social - do not turn out well in fiction or in real life.

            Social passing requires a profuse place of residence to match simply because the décor of a home says a lot about the people who live in it. A house with cracked walls and a creaking staircase reveal that the residents do not make much money, otherwise, they would have such damages repaired. The home of the Redfields is quite the opposite. Every morning, Irene has the privilege of sitting behind a “fat-bellied German coffee pot” that sends out a usual “morning fragrance, mingled with the smell of crisp toast and savory bacon,” while her husband, Brian, gets to “pick up a morning paper from his own chair” (Larsen, 1106). All this takes place as their maid, Zulena, brings them grapefruit. Though grapefruit is not an exclusive morning delight, sitting down to read the paper, drink coffee and have a piece of fruit at the same time is a comfort only the upper-class can afford. Still, before anyone wishes to wear the shoes of Irene, beware of the distance she has walked in them. The lifestyle she sustains comes with an inconspicuous price, and imagery must not take precedence over reality.

            Furthermore, from the outside looking in, Brian and Irene may come across as a happy couple with two wonderful boys, residing in one of the best brownstones in Harlem. As readers scrutinize the text, the exact happenings of that brownstone are revealed. There is unfulfilled love between Brian and Irene as they sleep in separate bedrooms. "In conventional works, the passer learns that, regardless of the motivations for passing, such a choice has overwhelming costs" (Little). As Irene attempts to pass socially, the cost is never having a husband that wraps his arms around her as the two of them read in bed; her husband does not look at her lovingly as she sits at her vanity, moisturizing her hands; lovemaking is strained due to the effort it would take to walk down the hall to your spouse’s bedroom.

            Irene is not the only one that has been tricked by the American dream. Sacrificing true fulfillment to fit in with this country’s standards is not an isolated incident. During the 1950s, there was a theme of alcoholism, infidelity, and suicide as a result of chasing perfection. Take Mr. Smith, for instance, the title character of Louis Bromfield’s 1950s novel. Mr. Smith despised his perfect life, especially his perfect wife, who was only pretending to be perfect. “She play-acts even in bed so that there is no satisfaction in any relationship with her…That is why I gradually stopped trying to talk to her about anything…When I tried I found myself talking, not to a warm and honest human being, but to an attitude, a pose, a character part in a play, in a setting behind which there was nothing” (Bromfield, 38). Though the setting of Mr. Smith takes place in the fifties, it goes to show that the white, all-American life that Irene and Clare were chasing was not worth it; white people, themselves, figured it out. Existing thirty years prior to Mr. Smith, Irene Redfield is one who sacrifices peace of mind for a palace and a German coffee pot. In this palace, she is no longer a person but a character playing a role to perform in the life she believes she wants, a life that, even the ones who wrote the script, have realized such a production is only a flat tragedy, and have attempted to toss it aside for a story with a permeable plot.

            As identified in this article, there is more than one form of passing. Over time, I have come to recognize my privilege of intellectual passing. I am an educated and cultured black woman who has sat next to distinguished authors and poets. The stimulating cerebral experiences I have had allows me to go into spaces where my color is not considered because of my ability to articulate trumps any stereotype that is connected to me, or so it seems. Intellectual passing connects very much with social passing as the higher the acumen the greater chance of opportunity. Intellectual passing cannot be helped. An individual of color must not stop themselves from reaching for higher education. However, society has the power to put an end to associating intelligence and the ability to form a coherent thought with whiteness.

            I have made a conscious choice not to give in to intellectual or social passing because I am more myself when amongst my people. Consider Clare, for instance. When she made it to the other side with a white husband to veto any doubts, she still chooses to mingle amongst the black elites Irene introduces her to. This is not because Clare is a lonely and bored housewife, it is because one can fool people with skin but not with soul. Being with her own people was a magnetic experience for Clare, constantly pulling her back to the community. I do not wish to fool myself; I do not wish to be pulled. Throughout high school, despite my dark skin, I made myself "more palatable" for my white counterparts. Every time I had an opinion on something, I tried my best to express it very nicely, or sometimes I'd say nothing at all, knowing people would take it wrong. Fortunately, I have grown out of that nonsense. I am who I am, and if someone cannot handle my opinion, they cannot handle me. An exit is always available, but for me, passing is never an option - too exhausting. In my own skin, I am at rest.

            Passing by Nella Larsen examines themes of hypocrisy, physical as well as social "passing," and sacrifices made for the American dream by using euphemisms, imagery, and foreshadowing as disclosures. What makes Larsen's work significant is that it displays the natural desire humans have to survive. Judging Clare equates to judging anyone that has been put in a situation where the only way out was being something they are not. Humankind has done worse. Clare can be used as a lesson: one can make it to the other side and realize there is nothing there for them. Clare is an example of white life not living up to the standard it has rubbed in the faces of other races. Having the privilege to not only stay in the house but to be served in the house, Clare chooses to run around in the fields with the rest of her people who do not have the skin color that can get them through the door. It is unfortunate that Larsen offers no remedy for the situation, nevertheless, she leaves readers with more questions due to the fact that “her narrative stops abruptly, presenting no viable solutions, and remain dominated by dissatisfaction: it reflects an accurate and honest perception of the subject matter, but, despite an adept framing of character and incident, Larsen's narrative does not finally penetrate the meaning of that subject" (Little). It can be seen as respectable that Larsen allows readers to decide for themselves whether passing is worth it, surrendering the black soul to a white lie because it is easier, or her instant ending can be viewed as an evasion from the author's personal stance of the matter. 

Works Cited

Bromfield, Louis. Mr. Smith. Spellman Press, 1951

Edelman, Ezra. OJ Simpson: Made in America. ESPN Films, 05/20/2016

Little, Jonathan. "Nella Larsen's Passing: Irony and the Critics." Academic Search Complete.      African American Review, 1992

Nisetich, Rebecca. "Reading Race in Nella Larsen's Passing and the Rhinelander Case."                Academic Search Complete. African American Review, 2013

Sullivan, Nell. "Nella Larsen's Passing and the Fading Project." Academic Search Complete.        African American Review

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