Thinking About Passing
Conyers and Kennedy define passing in ‘Negro Passing: To Pass or Not to Pass’ (1963) as ‘the entry into the white group of Negroes whose appearance is such that they can make this transition intentionally or unintentionally, permanently, temporarily or partially’ (215). It refers to subjects ‘who are identifies as white without initiative being taken by them to conceal their racial identity’ (215). I want to consider here definitions of passing and to discuss how the original context of “passing for white” in African American literature has been extended to apply to other situations. A classic reading of passing is presented in Cheryl A. Wall’s chapter on Nella Larsen in Women of the Harlem Renaissance (1995). Wall gives a typical plot summary, referring to Larsen’s story, ‘The Wrong Man’, as ‘the female protagonist, alternately paralyzed by fear of being unmasked and desperate to ward off discovery, commits an act that jeopardizes the life that she has carefully constructed for herself’ (85). These stories and the later novels are bound up with ‘issues of marginality and cultural dualism’ (88).
Both Quicksand and Passing contemplate the inextricability of the racism and sexism that confront the black woman in her quest for selfhood. As they navigate between racial and cultural polarities, Larsen’s protagonists attempt to fashion a sense of self – free both of suffocating restrictions of ladyhood and fantasies of the exotic female Other. They fail. The tragedy for these mulattoes is the impossibility of self-definition. Larsen’s protagonists assume false identities that ensure social survival but result in psychological suicide. In one way or another, they all “pass”. Passing for white, Larsen’s novels remind us, is only one way this game is played’ (89).
A more positive reading of passing is presented in Martha J. Cutter’s essay, ‘Sliding Significations: Passing as Narrative Strategy in Nella Larsen’s Fiction’ (1996). Cutter begins her essay by noting that all of Nella Larsen’s heroines ‘want to “pass” ’ and that the strategy of “passing” is ‘more than just a racial strategy: it is a strategy to be a person’ (75). In fact “passing” is ‘a subversive strategy for avoiding the enclosures of a racist, classist, and sexist society’ (75). In novels like Quicksand (1928), Larsen uses “passing” as ‘a way of finding a unitary sense of identity – a sense of identity structured around one role, a role that somehow corresponds to her “essential self” ’ (75). However, in Passing (1929), “passing” becomes a way to ‘not be confined by any one signification, be it of race, class and sexuality’ (75). The heroine of Passing, Clare, ‘founds her identity not on some sense of an “essential self” but rather on a self that is composed of and created by a series of guises and masks, performances and roles’ and in doing so, Clare discovers that she ‘transcends the labeling of society, for the more she passes, the more problematic and plural her presence becomes’ (75). Cutter suggests that “passing” in Larsen’s body of work acts as ‘a subversive narrative strategy and […] an artful method for keeping open the play of textual meaning’ (75).
In the galaxy of signs that is the novel Passing, Clare functions as a signifier whose meaning cannot be stabilized, fixed, confined limited; and the “passing” becomes the ultimate mechanism for creating a text that refuses to be contained, consumed, or reduced to unitary meaning. (76)
Cutter compares this positive view of “passing” with more negative views, such as that of Cheryl A. Wall who suggests that the problem of “passing” is ‘the impossibility of self-definition’ (76). While Cutter recognises that “passing” can be read negatively, she suggests that in Larsen’s novels at least, ‘it is not the assumption of a false identity per se that causes Larsen’s protagonists to fail’, but ‘the assumption of only one guise or form of passing causes Larsen’s characters to become stable, static, fixed in their meaning, entrapped within social definitions’ (76). Cutter suggests that a homogenous identity can be a negative one: ‘To assume a single identity in a world in which identity itself is often a performance – a mask, a public persona – is to ensure psychological suicide’ (76).
Cutter’s remarks suggests that “passing” is not simply concerned with race, but with other factors of identity too, and this view is supported in Marion Rust’s definition of passing in the essay, ‘The Subaltern as Imperialist: Speaking of Olaudah Equiano’ (1996). Rust notes that passing has many manifestations such as ‘impersonation, masquerade, drag, crossing over’, but she wonders why passing has been adopted as a term that applies to other contexts too (22). She concludes that the term, passing, ‘evokes something the others, with the possibility of crossing over, revoke: namely, a quality of loss’ (23).
Like overlapping signs, passing describes an act of simulation, in which two states, being and non-being, assumption and revocation, inhere. But although words like the above synonyms enfranchise the former – the act of putting on, be it a mask or a pair of women’s stockings or men’s suspenders – it is the melancholy privilege of passing to foreground the latter – what is lost that’s there.
Rust cites Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter in which Butler suggests that passing ‘also signifies the ultimate turning away, death’ (Rust, 23). Rust suggests that in a more general sense the act of passing ‘mocks our melancholy, ridiculing essentialist notions of a “true” self preceding, and corrupted by, its subsequent enactments’ (23).
In ‘Passing and the Spectacle of Harlem’ (2000), Maria Balshaw also sees passing in Larsen as being bound up with ‘a non-absolutist attitude to identity, particularly racial identity’ (45). Balshaw argues that visual spectacle is intrinsically important to passing and in Larsen’s work, she sees ‘attention to the construction of the self as a spectacle and through the repeated use of the motif of the exchanged glance between women in a public space’ (55). Larsen’s novels are, in Balshaw’s view, ‘negotiations of visual economies, economies that are bound up with the representation of very specific forms of difference’ (63).
Balshaw, Maria. ‘Looking for Harlem Urban Aesthetics in African American Literature. London: Pluto Press, 2000.
Conyers, James E. and T.H. Kennedy. ‘Negro Passing: To Pass or Not to Pass’. Phylon. Vol. 53.6 (1963). 215 – 223.
Cutter, Martha J. ‘Sliding Significations: “Passing” as a Narrative and Textual Strategy in Nella Larsen’s Fiction’. Passing and the Fictions of Identity. Ed. Elaine K. Ginsberg. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996. 75-100.
Rust, Marion. ‘The Subaltern as Imperialist: Speaking of Olaudah Equiano’. Passing and the Fictions of Identity. Ed. Elaine K. Ginsberg. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996. 21 – 36.
Wall, Cheryl A. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Indianopolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.