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Passing (1929)

by Nella Larsen

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2,178765,991 (3.83)2 / 320
First published in 1929, Passing is a remarkable exploration of the shifting racial and sexual boundaries in America. Larsen, a premier writer of the Harlem Renaissance, captures the rewards and dangers faced by two negro women who pass for white in a deeply segregated world.
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English (73)  Spanish (2)  Italian (1)  All languages (76)
Showing 1-5 of 73 (next | show all)
This was a really good book!

Passing follows a character named Irene Redfield, who is a Black woman living with her husband and children. One day she encounters her childhood friend Clare Kendry, who has been passing as white, and they both reconnect and start to spend time together. Clare admires how comfortable Irene is with her Black identity and longs for that community. Irene is both captivated and repulsed by Clare as she finds more about her.

This story, as the title says, focuses on the complex subject of passing as white and on the reasons why that happens. It contains some racist language, but the subject is explored in a careful way.

The characters of Irene and Clare are really complex and, to be honest, their interactions felt homoerotic at times. Each woman admires the other and the language used to describe Clare is fascinating.

I liked the subjects explored, the characters and some reveals. However, I didn’t love the subject of jealousy even though it kept reminding me of the song “Jolene”.

This was close to being a perfect book for me, but there was something missing. It’s still a great short book and one I think everyone should read at some point in their lives. ( )
  elderlingfae | Aug 11, 2022 |
Clare Kendry is passing. She is pretending to be white and has married a white racist who is completely unaware that his beautiful wife has black parentage. Clare has been successful at establishing her deceptive life, but she is not satisfied. She wants to keep one foot in the black community, and the way she opts to do that is through her friend, Irene.

Irene is happy in her black life. She could pass as well, but she is not interested in doing so. She is proud of her heritage and active in her community. She does not want to re-establish her relationship (that is rooted in their childhood together) with Clare. She distrusts her and is repulsed by her deception.

You can feel from the beginning that this relationship is a fireball of danger. There is nothing in Clare’s bouncing between the two worlds but risk. There is nothing in this for Irene but involvement with a person she does not wish to know.

I expected a strong statement on race and racism, and that it is. The attitude of the white husband makes you cringe seriously. But, what it speaks to more profoundly is the deception itself, the rejection of self, and the fear of one woman regarding the intentions of another, who is known to her to be a liar who will do anything to get what she desires.

Both of these women are drawn clearly and each of them carries her own secrets to her own detriment. Nella Larsen spins her story deftly and carries her reader along on a river that picks up momentum as it flows. She obviously knows the world of which she writes and understands the subtlety of racial identification in Harlem in the 1920s. ( )
  mattorsara | Aug 11, 2022 |
This short classic, set in New York City, was originally published in 1929 during the Harlem Renaissance. It examined the phenomenon of “passing” – a black person acting as a white person. Of course, the American context has changed significantly since 1929. The concept of race is now, thankfully, widely considered a social construct, without any biological merit. The concept of passing, though still present on occasion, is less of an issue.

Nonetheless, Larsen gives us insight into how a culture obsessed with race, as early twentieth-century America was, can sometimes devolve into strange scenarios. In this particular scenario, Irene Redfield lives a comfortable life in Harlem with her physician-husband and children. Notably, she has light skin, but lives as an African American. She becomes reacquainted with a childhood friend Claire Bellew/Kendry. Claire, likewise, has light skin, but effectively “passes” as a white woman with a white husband. Even Claire’s husband does not know of her black lineage.

By resuming a loose friendship with Irene, Claire realizes a spiritual longing for the black community in Harlem. Perhaps this is innate, due to her upbringing; perhaps this stems from living some kind of inauthentic existence. Nonetheless, Claire begins to spend time secretly with Irene whenever Claire’s husband is out of town on business. The husband, however, is openly racist and routinely uses the n-word. The obvious instability in this scenario ends up playing out in a shocking manner.

In a post-George Floyd era, this book addresses timely issues such as how race affects how we interact in the world. Race in 1920s America is different than race in the 2020s, granted, but we aren’t so far as to be fully colorblind. To cite Cornel West, race still matters. Thus, contemporary readers should not treat this classic as a mere relic of the past.

Should people be made to feel ashamed of their race? Is it all about how one presents one’s self? What role does authenticity have to play with the construct of race? This book’s style is easily accessible by many, even youth (though it does contain the n-word). At around 150 pages, it doesn’t take long to read either. In perusing it, perhaps we will find out that the world of the 1920s isn’t all that much different from today’s inequities. ( )
  scottjpearson | Jul 21, 2022 |
I had heard about this novel for a while so I was interested when it was picked for book club. At first I was unsure about how it was proceeding with the long flashback in Chicago but I became totally engrossed with it quickly. It was fascinating and I thought Irene in particular was a very real and interesting character. I knew of the practice of passing but I don't think I realized what kinds of issues it would bring up and how fraught it could be. A really fascinating read.
  amyem58 | Jul 17, 2022 |
What a powerful book! I knew nothing about Nella Larsen before I read this - in fact a assumed she was Scandanavian. In fact she was of Scandanavian, but also of African-American, descent. Passing is an extraordinary novel of mixed race women in post-WWI America, one of whom spends her life "passing" as white, married to a white racist. It tells the story of Irene. A pale mixed-race woman who is not "passing" - well only occasionally "fr convenience" and her childhood friend Clare, their reunion and its consequences. This short book is gripping and shocking. Highly recommended. ( )
  Estragon1958 | May 23, 2022 |
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» Add other authors (27 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nella Larsenprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bernard, EmilyIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Davis, Thadious M.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Greenridge, KaitlynIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Henderson, MaeForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Klett, ElizabethNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rogers, T. N. R.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Shange, NtozakeIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Torriglia, Anna MariaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
-Countée Cullen
Dedication
FOR
Carl Van Vechten
AND
Fania Marinoff
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It was the last letter in Irene Redfield's little pile of morning mail.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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First published in 1929, Passing is a remarkable exploration of the shifting racial and sexual boundaries in America. Larsen, a premier writer of the Harlem Renaissance, captures the rewards and dangers faced by two negro women who pass for white in a deeply segregated world.

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