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Passing. By Nella Larsen. Nella Larsen. April 13, 1891 – March 30, 1964 Born in Chicago Her mother was a Danish immigrant & her father a West Indian who eventually left them.

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By Nella Larsen

nella larsen
Nella Larsen
  • April 13, 1891 – March 30, 1964
  • Born in Chicago
  • Her mother was a Danish immigrant & her father a West Indian who eventually left them.
  • Mother remarried a Scandinavian and the family decided to cross the color-line…without Larsen (she was too dark-skinned to follow).
historical context passing
Historical Context - Passing
  • 1920 census drops “mulatto” as a color option – must be either black or white (the one-drop rule still holds)
  • Policing the color line is obviously extremely difficult, especially with a large population of people are considered “black” because they have one drop of African American blood but can pass in society for “white.”
  • Due to better working conditions and opportunities, many who are able to “pass” for white decide to cross the color line, often leaving their pasts/families behind.
historical context passing1
Historical Context - Passing
  • passing was perceived to be on the rise in the 1920s
  • The New York World (1929) estimated that 5,000 black people a year crossed the color line
  • The Afro-American (1929) estimated 75,000 a DAY in Philadelphia
  • Sociologist Charles Johnson (1925) calculated 355,000 instances of passing between 1900-1920
  • Viewed with a certain amount of fascination and terror – racial anxiety shown in the heightened amount of lynchings during this time period – 51 in 1922. (less than a hundred years ago!!!)
a dangerous practice for women
A Dangerous Practice for Women
  • Passing is a dangerous practice, but can have especially negative consequences for women.
  • Women often passed in order to marry white men and thus have access to better opportunities, more wealth, status.
  • ……doesn’t always work!
rhinelander case 1925
Rhinelander Case (1925)
  • Millionaire Leonard “Kip” Rhinelander filed annulment on grounds that Alice Jones deceived him into believing she was white.
  • Case played on common stereotypes about hypersexual black women seducing young white men.
  • One of the richest women in the nation, Alice was forced to strip to the waist in court so that they could figure out whether Leonard could have been deceived about her race (by judging the color of her nipples, legs, back, breasts).
  • This humiliating spectacle threatens women who attempt to cross the color line. Case eventually ruled in favor of Alice. Jury found that no man could have been fooled that she was white.
  • Marriage upheld and Kip paid Alice a lump sum of $32,500 and $3600 per year for life.
Rhinelander Case(a potential fate for Clare? The case is directly referenced in the novel…alludes to the motif of ‘the tragic mulatta’)
tragic mulatta
Tragic Mulatta
  • A women of mixed race who is the victim of society
  • They fail to fit in adequately with either black society or white society & sometimes attempt to pass.
  • Divided by race, they usually endure tragic circumstances, die, or commit suicide at the end of the novel.
  • To what degree does this novel utilize or complicate this motif for women who decide to pass?
literary context harlem renaissance
Literary Context –Harlem Renaissance
  • Passing published in 1929 during the cultural and literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, a movement within literary Modernism
  • A group of black artists and writers (mostly working from Harlem in 1920s and 30s) trying to produce transformative art that would “uplift the race” – central purpose to promote integration, battle stereotypes, and empower and articulate a modern black consciousness.
  • Modernism tries to move away from Realism by focusing on fragmentation of the modern world - disjointed time, fragmented/fluid identities and narration, lack of a stable worldview. (Working towards more accurate portrayal of reality through anti-realist techniques.)
performative identities
Performative Identities
  • Novel is divided into three parts: Encounter, Re-Encounter, and Finale
  • Similar to a theatrical performance of three acts, characters pass into white spaces and perform “whiteness” to attain privileges (passing as racial and spatial gesture!)
  • Displacement can thus directly contribute to the construction (reconstruction?) of identity
  • If passing is a performance of race, what other aspects of identity are performative?
central questions
Central Questions
  • Questions the idea of race, exposing it as one of our most powerful (and dangerous?) fictions…what IS race?
  • If racial identity is fluid, what about sex/gender/sexuality? In a novel predominantly focused on women, the heterosexual binary breaks down for both Irene and Clare (we will look at this in detail).
  • How does class function here? If passing is attempted in order to gain opportunities for wealth and status, is this goal achieved, important?
  • What is the core of community in this novel? How does moving from community to community fundamentally change characters? And what is grounds for exclusion?