Harlem in the 1920s was a time of black empowerment, and a time for black culture to showcase the plethora of writers, artists and jazz musicians as homage to the beauty of African Americans. During this period Langston Hughes, one of the poster children for the Harlem Renaissance, said that "My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America and obliquely that of all human kind,” in defense for his integral writing about racial issues and prejudices (418). However, while some may have been ready to embrace “afrocentricism” others were disguising their race in order to achieve perceived class/racial favor within society.
“Passing,” defined as a black person using their lighter skin color and features to give the illusion of being white, was certainly a hot topic within Harlem because it was seen as an abandonment of one’s culture and heritage. One of the most powerfully moving literary representations of passing has been Nella Larsen’s novel Passing depicting the friendship between Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield. While some critics have embraced this novel as a representation of sexual passing, meaning gay passing for straight, it is more accurate to focus on the importance of race and class divisions that passing creates within Irene’s imagined cultural community and the effects of intersectionality as the central focuses of the novel. These class and race divisions represent the cultural rifts that were affecting Harlem at the time of the renaissance and inspired Larsen’s desire to symbolize them in the novel as a hope of preventing Harlem suffering the same fate as Clare.
In order to address the discourse surrounding the idea of sexual passing as the central theme of the novel, Deborah McDowell’s introduction to the story must first be addressed. McDowell suggests that Irene’s description of Clare’s beauty is an “awakening of Irene’s erotic feelings for Clare,” especially with the amount of attention paid to her facial features:
Her lips, painted a brilliant geranium-red, were sweet and sensitive and a little obstinate…tempting mouth..And the eyes were magnificent! Dark…Arresting eyes, slow and mesmeric, and with for all their warmth, something withdrawn and secret about them… Ah! Surely! They were Negro Eyes! mysterious and concealing. (Larsen 161)
Though it is interesting to look at this as a sexual awakening, it is more accurate to look at description of her features as Larsen making a statement about race in relation to passing. All of the features described are traditionally used when talking about African beauty: full, deep red lips, and dark “Negro Eyes”. Irene is appreciating the beauty that reflects the passion she feels towards her cultural identity rather than sensuously devouring Clare’s beauty as an early form of homosexual desire for her. Larsen herself (pictured) who struggled a lot with the idea of passing because of her family’s attempt to pass for Dutch despite her inability to pass with them, is using this moment to glorify African beauty. Larsen then creates a bi-lateral tension within Clare’s beauty as she contrasts her traditionally black features with her white ones. Larsen describes Clare as also having eyes “set in that ivory face under that bright hair, there was something about them something exotic” (161). This juxtaposition of both Clare’s “whiteness and blackness” creates an image of Clare’s exotic unmatched beauty that makes her unattainable for Irene in a sense that Irene will never be able to pass for white as well as Clare does. This wild, untamed beauty was the inspiration for the casting of Nancy Cheryll Davis, in the role of Clare for a production of passing. (Who is pictured here) The racial duality between Davis’s mixed facial features creates the same feeling of exotic tension that Clare is famous for. However Clare’s “exotic” look rests upon the fact that Irene doesn’t have the ability to pass for white the way Clare does, both because of her physical features and because of her emotional connection to her racial heritage.
It is more likely that McDowell’s suggestion that “Irene’s is an account of Clare’s passing for white and related issues of racial identity and loyalty,” is true, rather than her view that “underneath the safety of that surface is a more dangerous story…of Irene’s awakening sexual desire for Clare” (XXVI). Since humans tend to create imagined communities amongst themselves in order to create a sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself, it is more likely that Irene would have actually felt the extreme racial loyalty mentioned and would have stopped at nothing to protect her community. As described between Irene and her husband, “it’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it” (Larsen 186). This idea applies to the feelings Irene has towards Clare’s passing, and there are plenty of times when she decides to protect Clare from her husband because Clare is a part of the black community even if she doesn’t always choose to acknowledge her “blackness.” Simultaneously when Irene fears that Clare has slept with her husband, Irene chooses to focus on the fact that Clare’s passing puts her outside of Irene’s imagined black community in order to justify her feelings of wanting to eliminate Clare from her life.
The class issues between Irene and Clare could also account for some of the tension that was found not only in the novel, but in the time period as a whole as well. Larsen makes it very clear within the novel that Clare is married to a wealthy, white, man whose status is solidified in the community. This juxtaposition of the two characters that are within the same race but have distinct class divisions between them creates the basis for Larsen’s argument that race and class comprise a larger tension that occurred during the Harlem Renaissance.
Similarly the class distinctions between Irene and Clare are important because they show the intersectionality between race, class, and gender. Irene will do whatever she can to preserve her middle-class status, so she insists on being “allowed to direct for their own best good the lives of her sons and her husband” (Larsen 234). The threat of the affair between her husband, the person who solidifies Irene’s right to middle-class status, and Clare shakes Irene’s unstable sense of security with the possibility of her single status. This gives Irene a desperate need to preserve what she has going for her. The overwhelming desire of wanting drives Irene to a breaking point that causes her to kill Clare. It is more feasible that Irene eliminates Clare’s ability to take away her lifestyle, rather than McDowell’s reasoning of eliminating Clare as a viable sexual option. If Irene wanted to be with Clare that badly she would be more upset over Clare’s death because it eliminates the only sexual interest she has. Instead it is more viable that the intersection of Irene’s feminine desire for a husband to provide her with stability, her racial desire for higher class status, and her class desire for maintenance of middle-class status is ultimately what drives Irene into kill Clare. Clare’s passing was ultimately the final catalyst for the racial tension between the two women that led to other issues of class/gender roles, and because race is the catalyst for the tension between the two women it is accurate to say that the discussion of racial identities is Larsen’s central focus of the novel.
Though sexuality may have played a role within the novel, especially if there was an affair occurring between Irene’s husband and Clare, there is no way for sexuality to account for all of the other complexities that Larsen touches on within the story. Instead it is evident that the central theme of passing is racial tension and the reactions it sparks towards issues of sexuality, gender, and class. Ultimately Larsen’s novel creates a prime example of what happens when different identities overlap to create a certain response to an event. In this way Larsen was certainly a trailblazer to the theories of intersectionality and what their effect on a person’s identity could be.