For the category “Classic with a Single Word Title” in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate I chose to read Passing by Nella Larsen. This book had been on my list for quite a while now so I was really glad to use this excuse to get to it. Passing is one of my favorite kind of books in that it is a novella that reveals multitudes in just over 100 pages (114 in the pictured Penguin classic that I read). I am always in awe of authors that can successfully pull that off.
The story is told from the point of view of Irene Redfield, an African American who is light-skinned enough to pass as “white”, though she only occasionally chooses to do so for small things where this gives her an small advantage, such as having a glass of iced tea in a Chicago hotel restaurant that would normally not allow blacks in. In all other respects, Irene lives what she considers to be a fulfilled life in 1920’s Harlem, NY, an active member of the growing black middle class. However, while having her refreshing glass of iced tea one hot afternoon, she runs into an old school friend, Clare Kendry. What Irene soon discovers is that Clare doesn’t just "pass" from time to time but lives permanently as a white woman. No one in Clare’s social circle, particularly not her white husband, knows about her true origins, which means that she has had to cut off all ties with her former black neighborhood and friends. This chance encounter brings Clare back into the orbit of Irene’s life which has both seductive and dangerous consequences for both women.
As previously stated, there is a lot packed in these pages. Clearly the construct of race and racism, both overt and internalized, is the main focus, but there’s a lot of other subtext that can be read between the lines. The introduction by Thadious M. Davis emphasized repressed sexuality between Clare and Irene which isn’t something I picked up on personally, but I did think there were interesting intimations about marrying for security and the roles one plays in marriage as a woman that one can also tease out of the narrative.