Passing By Nella Larsen

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Passing By Nella Larsen Essay, Research Paper

Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing, provides an example of

some of the best writing the Harlem Renaissance has to

offer. Nella Larsen was one of the most promising young

writer’s of her time. Though she only published two novels

it is clear that she was one of the most important writers

of the Harlem Renaissance movement. Her career as writer

probably would have lasted longer, but she was accused of

plagiarizing her short story, “Sanctuary.” She was

eventually cleared of any wrong doing, but the accusation

deeply tarnished her reputation as writer. It is truly a

shame that the first African-American woman to win the

Guggenheim Fellowship was forced out of writing by scandal.

Before being haunted by scandal, Nella Larsen played

an intricate role in the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem

Renaissance was a movement that started toward the end of

World War I and lasted through the mid 1930’s. It was the

first notable movement of African-American writers and

artists in the United States. It was given the name

“Harlem Renaissance” because the movement was centered in

the Harlem district in New York City. More

African-American writers and poets were published during

this period in the United States than ever before. Not

only were African-American writers being published more,

but they were also getting a great deal of recognition for

their work. The body of work characteristic of this time

period showed a heightened sense of racial consciousness.

African-American writers during this time were not only

seeking to counteract racial prejudice, but were also

perpetuating the cultural heritage of Africa. Some of the

major writers born from this period include Langston

Hughes, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Neale

Hurston and of course, Nella Larsen.

The writing of the Harlem Renaissance explored a

variety of themes and genres. The writer’s experimented

with a wide variety of styles as well. Langston Hughes for

instance explored the lives of working-class

African-Americans. Jean Toomer explored what life was like

for very poor African-Americans. Countee Cullen on the

other hand explored the problem of racism and the

definition of Africa for African-Americans. Nella Larsen

explored the restrictions faced by African-Americans

according to their skin color.

Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing was her second as well

as last novel and was published in 1929. To get a better

idea of what this novel is about, one must understand what

exactly “passing” is. Passing is when African-American men

or women with light skin pass themselves off as white in

order to enjoy the privileges that were afforded to white

people during this period in American history. The Plessy

vs. Ferguson ruling of “separate, but equal” was still in

effect at this time in history. Therefore, one could

understand why it could be advantageous for

African-Americans who had light enough skin to pass

themselves off as white.

Passing is narrated by the character, Irene Redfield,

who is a middle-class, light-skinned African-American woman

who deplores “passing.” She is married to a doctor, with

whom she has two sons, who is too dark to “pass.” Irene is

somewhat self-consciously proud of her African heritage.

Irene’s life is going along as usual when she runs into a

childhood friend. Her old friend’s name is Clare Kendry.

Clare Kendry is a light-skinned African-American woman who

“passes” for white. In fact she is even married to a white

doctor. Ironically, Irene runs into her at a rooftop

restaurant where she herself is “passing” to evade the heat


The characters in Passing, are faced with the

confusion of which race to identify with. They are trapped

in limbo between two worlds: white and black. These

feelings of being denied privileges if they identify with

African-American society and being allowed privileges if

they “pass” as white causes them to feel lonely and feel as

though they are not truly part of either race. If they

“pass” they will be allowed to exercise all the privileges

that come along with being white during this period of

history in America. If they decide to identify themselves

as African-American they will be denied many of the most

basic privileges given to American citizens.

This book explores the trap that light-skinned

African-Americans are put in by the Plessy vs. Ferguson

ruling of “separate, but equal.” This ruling is in

reality, separate, but not anywhere near equal. Passing

proves this to be true. African-Americans would not even

entertain the idea of “passing” if they were not being

denied certain rights and privileges.

This book is a valuable account of the tragic

consequences of being denied racial identity due to a court

decision and a society which perpetuates this unfounded

prejudice. Is it better to deny one’s racial heritage or

accept it and identify with it. This book shows how both

choices are loaded with a number of adverse consequences.

After reading Passing, the reader will see that this is by

no means a black and white issue, but rather a complex

series of stages of gray. Whether you are familiar with

Harlem Renaissance and this period in history or this is

your first journey into exploring what society was like in

the 11920’s you stand to learn a lot from Nella Larsen’s

classic, Passing.


Larsen, Nella. Quicksand and Passing. Rutgers State University, 1986

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