The Pleasures and Perils of Passing
In her novel Passing, published in 1929, Nella Larsen delves into the identity struggle experienced by some African Americans who possess the same outward appearance as Whites. Clare Kendry, a protagonist in the novel, permanently crosses the boundaries of the color line in order to escape confinement and gain White privilege. I argue that Passing provides a critique of racial passing and of the arbitrary and deceptive construction of one’s race. Through an investigation of whether or not Clare Kendry’s African American heritage is an escapable aspect of her human nature, it becomes evident that Clare’s feigned way of life in which she conducts herself as a White member of society ultimately results in her personal destruction as symbolized through her tragic death.
After experiencing a childhood characterized by poverty and a lack of security, Clare yearns for a more luxurious life. Following her father’s death at age fifteen, Clare lives with her racist White aunts who require her to fulfill the domestic duties of the household, reinforcing society’s perception of her position in the inferior race. Clare explains her motivation to escape this inhibiting atmosphere when she comments, “I was determined to get away, to be a person and not a charity or a problem. Then, too, I wanted things” (Larsen 27). Given that there was “nothing sacrificial in Clare Kendry’s idea of life, no allegiance beyond her own immediate desire,” not even the perilous act of passing dissuades her from satisfying her longings (Larsen 10). As Peggy McIntosh asserts, “White privilege [is seen] as an invisible package of unearned assets which can [be] cashed in each day, but about which [people] remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” (165). It is these automatic benefits and advantages that members of the White race experience on a daily basis that drives Clare to pass.
By concealing her racial identity through her deceptive outward appearance, Clare marries John Bellew, an upper class White doctor, and assumes a new racial identification. Ironically, John endearingly refers to his wife as “Nig” and feels comfortable using the term only because of his belief in the impossibility of having a Black family member. Clare’s instantaneous leap up the social class ladder into the top rank of society successfully resolves her motives for passing. Significantly contrasting with her impoverished upbringing, her affluent life now revolves around indulgences such as an extensive wardrobe and frequent travel. Clare’s continued existence is predicated upon her preserving her artificial identity. Ultimately, Clare’s life of riches and White privilege enabled by the façade of her “ivory mask,” interrupts life’s natural order, resulting in a sense of instability (Larsen 24).
Despite Clare permanently crossing the color line, she does maintain a sense of belonging within the African American race rather than a complete rejection of her racial heritage. While Clare passes for the purpose of securing the “conditions of daily [White] experience,” enabling privileges such as mobility, flexibility, and dominance, she retains a connection and predilection for her own people (McIntosh 166). Her frequent and dangerous trips to Harlem, hidden from her husband, exemplify the uneasiness she faces as an outsider in the White community. Clare’s African-American friend, Irene Redfield, voices her concerns to Clare about these regular visits and the relationships she has maintained with Black people. Though Clare recognizes her self-induced endangerment, her response, “I’ve been so lonely! You can’t know. Not close to a single soul. Never anyone to really talk to,” exhibits her heedlessness and aching to reconnect with African-Americans (Larsen 67). Unfortunately, she is incapable of maintaining her White privilege and affluence while also reintegrating herself in the lives of her people. Her attendance at the Negro Welfare League dance, the anger elicited in her by racist references, and her assertion, “I want to see Negroes, to be with them again, to talk, to hear them laugh” all manifest Clare’s yearning to submerge herself in the Black community (Larsen 71).
Because Clare’s priorities rest in occupying a position of ascendancy within society, however, she recognizes the necessary sacrifices she must make in other aspects of her life. For example, she says that Bellew prevents her from fulfilling many of her desires and that she could kill him (Larsen 71). Pursuing “unearned advantage and conferred dominance” over her heritage eventually results in Clare’s downfall (McIntosh 168).
Clare can never fully assimilate into the White race, regardless of her actions or appearance. Her recognition that her White racial identity could be completely nullified through her offspring provokes immense distress in Clare when she learns that she is bearing a child. Her comment, “I nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born for fear that she might be dark,” accompanied by her subsequent avowal that she would never jeopardize her societal position again through another pregnancy, reveals her trepidation (Larsen 36). She recognizes the fragility of her current position, as demonstrated through her remark, “It’s only deserters like me who have to be afraid of freaks of the nature” (Larsen 37). Fortunately for both the child’s welfare and the family’s cohesiveness, Clare’s daughter appears light-skinned. For fear of disclosing her true racial identity and reverting back to her old way of life, Clare resolves to eliminate all occasions for biological proof which could expose all the deceptions of her fabrications in order to safeguard her position in the superior race where “many doors open for people through no virtues of their own” (McIntosh 166).
As Clare continues to lead a duplicitous life, the personal consequences she suffers from assuming a new racial identity are quite evident. Clare’s comment to Irene, “it may be, ‘Rene dear, it may just be, that, after all, your way may be the wiser and infinitely happier one” provides the grounds to support the idea that opulence and happiness often fail to correlate (Larsen 47). Sadly, Clare recognizes that the abandonment of her community inevitably led to the resignation of her personal well-being. She manifests this realization to a friend when she pronounces that “you’re free. You’re happy. And safe”—none of which were characteristics she could utilize when describing herself (Larsen 67). As previously mentioned, Clare longs to be with Black people. No matter the pretense she holds, her ancestral past draws her back to Harlem frequently, where she can drop her guard, her life is not fabricated, and her interactions occur naturally. Clare imposes upon herself her alienation from the African-American community and her dissatisfaction associated with being a member of the White race. As a breaking point is reached, Larsen employs the metaphor of passing to indicate not only Clare crossing the color line but also to mean approaching her death and subsequent liberation from her manufactured identity.
Clare’s downfall lends itself to various interpretations, although much evidence exists that Irene murders Clare by pushing her out of the window. Clare poses a major threat to Irene’s way of life. Irene is motivated by her need for the security of keeping her family intact, her jealousy of Clare, and her suspicion of an adulterous relationship between Clare and Bellew. Several instances occur where Irene demonstrates premeditation for killing Clare such as when she has “a thought which she tried to drive away. If Clare should die! Then—Oh, it was vile! To think, yes, to wish that!” (Larsen 101). Irene mulls over the possibility of kililng Clare and ultimately decides that her life cannot go on as desired until Clare is gone. By interpreting her death as murder, Larsen makes a powerful statement about one’s self-defined social and economic goals. Clare faces extreme repercussions for her pursuit of the “freedom of confident action,” with the worst being her personal demise (McIntosh 169). Her death can also be considered a moral judgment on shaping a life because of pursuit of economic wealth. Her luxurious life, predicated on false beliefs and pretenses, could not be maintained.
Regardless of the cause of Clare’s death, Larsen clearly reveals the personal destruction that materializes from racial passing. Because crossing the boundaries of the color line requires the renunciation of one’s community, the contrived existence inevitably becomes miserable. One’s biological make-up is firmly rooted in his or her kindred of centuries before and is an enduring characteristic of identity. While Clare’s light-colored skin permits her to pass, her identity struggle between the White and Black communities prevents her from successfully achieving permanent integration within the “superior” race and ultimately ends in her ruin. Her shocking and sudden expiry exposes the consequences of the deceptive construction of one’s race, or living a life of misrepresentation and the desertion of all that is familiar, in pursuit of gaining white privilege.
Larsen, Nella. Passing. New York: Penguin Group, 2003.
McIntosh, Peggy. “White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack.” Race, class, and gender
in the United States: An integrated study 4 (1988): 165-169.
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