Judging by the fact that this book has an introduction by the awesome Ntozake Shange, extensive notes and a detailed critical foreward by Mae Henderson loaded with references to related books and other critics who have written on Larsen, and that Bitch magazine devoted a feature to the book in their early 2015 issue, Passing has only become, if anything, increasingly relevant over the decades since its publication in 1929. The explanatory power of the concept of ‘passing’ has been utilised to make sense of the experiences of a wider range of marginalised groups thanks to the networks formed by social media activism. It seems particularly relevant for trans people who until recently were advised by medical care providers to conceal their trans histories (see, for example,
by Susan Stryker). Inspiring author Janet Mock has often spoken about this issue and her complicated relationship with it as a trans woman, but not, to my knowledge, as a woman of colour.
The slippage in the specificity of ‘passing’ produces both light and heat – fresh insight and fresh rage, maybe fresh confusion. I remember seeing a young journalist concerned with social justice issues giving a paper and noting among her privileges ‘I pass for straight’: most of the time I am read as straight, whether I am straight or not. The same seems to be true for me. I am also aware that I ‘pass’ as middle class, and that I sometimes take advantage of this quite unthinkingly – I adjust my accent before I am aware of doing it. There is a parallel here with Irene’s ‘passing’ in the whites-only hotel where she meets Clare. It is clear that she thinks nothing of this, and is able to un-self-critically disapprove of Clare’s more consistent ‘passing’ which has to be maintained in private due to her deliberate deception-by-omission of her extremely racist white husband. Irene’s disapproval is rooted in her uneven racial solidarity, but it also grows out of her fearful need for security.
This need is corrosive. The tense, trammelled atmosphere of the book, reflecting the limitations imposed on black lives by segregation and white supremacy, is, for me, created largely through the uncommunicative relationship between Irene and her (visibly and attractively black) husband Brian. The narration never strays from Irene’s consciousness (Mae Henderson argues that Clare is a double of Irene, a possible ‘passing’ self), and the distance between her desperate, passionate thoughts and her words is a chasm. She thinks of Clare as an actor, as artificial, exaggerated and provocative, but her own performance, one of calm and middle-class convention, is dramatic and unbroken. She thinks that Clare expresses more than she feels, but she herself expresses less. Her erotic attraction to Clare is one object of this repression. Brian is relatively taciturn, but nonetheless an attractive character, whom I found more sympathetic than Irene. Wanting to know what he felt and thought drew me closer to her, longing for openness and togetherness between them against the hostility of whiteness ‘outside’.
To come back to Mock, the weirdness of ‘passing’ for what you are (a woman) underlines precisely what Larsen succeeds in conveying here, that race, despite its currency (hard and soft) is nonsense, a delusion in the mind of the racist. What makes it stick for Larsen’s extraordinarily compelling characters is that the delusion is inscribed in law. Clare Kendry, ivory skinned, blond, read as white by everyone who sees her, is legally a ‘Negro’ because of the ‘one drop rule’. The legal frameworks of segregation have since been ostensibly dismantled, yet, since Euro-USian settler colonial capitalism still requires white supremacy to sustain itself, race retains its deadly currency, and Passing as a text of race continues to speak with the pressing voices of living histories. Clare’s longing to participate in blackness – in the vibrant middle-class black circles of Harlem that Irene and Brian move in – also speaks, I think, especially as the changing conditions of capitalism have worked so vigorously and insidiously to dismantle community and mutuality, especially among black people, at all levels of society.
Stylistically, as Mae Henderson points out, the text is fragmentary, full of lacunae that require the reader to supply meaning and synthesis. This necessity is underlined by Irene’s positioning as the reader of the texts of Clare and of her husband. She does not read well, and Clare in particular makes herself difficult to read, as her tricky handwriting emphasises, and so we are adrift in ambiguities, like Clare, with everything at stake.