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Book Club Wed Apr 15 2009

May 2009 Selection: Passing by Nella Larsen

In Chicago in the 1920s, two women sit down at separate tables at a fancy hotel dining area, sipping cool drinks on a hot day. Both are elegantly dressed, are of upper middle-class appearance, fair-skinned women, comfortable at their tables and both are certain that no one at the hotel will suspect that they should feel otherwise. But when the two women recognize each other as childhood friends, the truths about their pasts and the presents, however well they are concealed from the unknowing eye, can no longer remain secret. Both women are African-American and both are "passing" as Caucasian, but with one key difference between the two: one has chosen to leave her home community to "pass" as Caucasian permanently.

For Irene Redfield, Clare Kendry's decision to "pass" is baffling. She's always wondered what became of Clare after Clare's father died and she was pulled away from the community in which she grew up to live in the care of her aunts. Irene, who maintains that she has always been proud of her heritage, is living in New York in Harlem with her black husband and their two sons and she is surprised to learn that the rumors she's heard of Clare's life are actually true: she has married a white man, together they have a fair-skinned daughter and she consistently upholds the appearance of being white, even to her husband who has no knowledge of her racial background. Irene is extremely curious about Clare's life under these circumstances, she "wished to find out about this hazardous business of 'passing,' this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one's chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly. What, for example, one did about background, how one accounted for oneself. And how one felt when one came into contact with other Negroes." Though Irene does not get up the courage to ask Clare these questions at their first meeting, she soon finds herself exposed to parts of Clare's life that make her wonder which one of them has truly got the right idea about race, identity and the need to belong.

Passing's ending remains ambiguous and arguments for various interpretations can be seen as equally valid. As Clare begins to insert herself into Irene's life, without Irene's willing invitation, Irene begins to begrudge the ease with which Clare seems to regard the problem of their shared race: "What she felt was not so much resentment as a dull despair because she could not change herself in this respect, could not separate individuals from the race, herself from Clare Kendry." Though the truth about Irene's and Clare's final actions are never revealed by the author, they are fraught with the anguish and hopelessness reflected by a society who has yet to find a place for all those they deem as "other."

Born in Chicago in 1891, Nella Larsen was the product of an interracial union, with a Danish mother and a father from the Virgin Islands . As a brown-skinned child born to fair-skinned parents, Larsen's ideas on race were heavily influenced by her parents' decision to refashion their family as part of the white American majority. As a result, Larsen's novels depict the challenges facing women of color in the twentieth-century, exploring ideas of biraciality, the denial of existing racial mixes and the psychological conditions of women of color in modern society. For this, Larsen was nominated for a Harmon Award for Distinguished Achievements Among Negroes in 1928 and Passing was heralded as "new and thoroughly modern" in its representation of races and its opposition to racial stereotypes.

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