Nella Larsen's Passing and the Theme of Cultural Assimilation

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This article discusses Nella Larsen's 1929 novel 'Passing,' which implores race and gender problems in the divided Americas of the 1920s. The novel reflects on passing as a central theme. Passing is a vogue social practice that was popular in the Americas in the 1920s. The author addresses this problem by juxtaposing two leading characters in the book, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Irene passes for her convenience, that is, she's undergoing a situational or practical passing. On the other hand, Clare's passing is due to a devotion to life, that is, a pathological passing. The novel ‘Passing’ is a story of the reunion of these two great friends since their childhood; Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. The story revolves around their reunion and how fascinated they become with each other’s lives. The title of the novel depicts the racial "passing, " and it is a fundament element of the novel. Clare Kendry attempts to pass as a white for Jack Bellew, and the attempt catalyzes the tragic events that later unfolds in the novel. The racial passing is a mulatto that is frowned upon in the social setting of the novel. The two women attempt to pass as white women as opposed to their originality of black for different reasons. The central theme; racial passing, is attempted by the two women friends.

The term “passing” resonates the practice of a person’s being regarded to belong to a social class which is not his or her actual one. The social classes can be a different race, gender, or disability status with the aim of gaining a social acceptance or to comport a person’s cultural identity. The term is a clipped form of the phrase ‘pass for' or ‘pass as' which connotes to an imposter passing for another person. Kelly Harrison, a critic, and scholar defines passing as a “fruitful self-presentation to match an identity that is socially favored at the expense of sticking with the ‘authentic’ identity.” For example, passing for white when one is originally black, or passing for heterosexual when one is homosexual, (Harrison 10). Passing is, therefore, an option for people who inhabit a "minimal space between the favored identity and the minority identity." Passing for white means “wearing a ‘mask’ to stimulate whiteness so as to hide one’s true identity with the false appearance” (Kawash, 126).

Passing can be conceived as a "practice which can be judged with moral disdain to accommodate oneself to a vicious reality" (Kawash 126). Passing is used to dismiss the traditional understanding of originality and replace the natural identity with an artificial one but the artificial identity is feigned to be the authentic identity. Harrison (33) argues that passing functions at an individual and a group level. The act of passing requires an actor to pass, a spectator; the one who is fooled by the feigned appearance and a witness; who knows the truth that the actor is feigning to be white is not but rather passing for white. The way Larsen deals with passing is quite challenging because of two reasons. First, the way she tackles the issue sheds some light on the psychic complexity that is associated with a novella. Secondly, the novel revises the meaning of passing as it is to a great extent restricted to passing for white may be because the phenomenon was much more compelling at the time of Harlem Renaissance although it is believed that the practice existed before this time. However, as the story goes, Larsen reveals that there are other forms of passing besides the common passing for white.

The biracial identification of the two types of passing articulate pardoning of the situational passing and perceives it as a mechanism to resist social and economic oppressions. These kinds of oppression were very common during this era when the book was written. The power of the author’s passing is embedded in a multi-layered passing that unfolds in the story as one reads the novel to identify the tropes of passing tackled in the novel. The passing that Clare is involved in, for white is to enable her to get the material and social privileges that the whites enjoy. Irene is attracted to Clare. Hence Irene is passing for heterosexuality. The other form of passing is embedded in the narrator's ingenuity. There are several textual clues in the novel that reveals Irene is attracted to Clare, but there is nowhere when the narrator explicitly mentions it.

Clare’s death has a symbolic correlation in passing as it signifies the eventual crossing over. The author’s use of passing suggests that the most pertinent and compelling aspects of the character’s lives are found in the subtext and imaginative constructs as opposed to the subplots. Both passing and queering as the major themes in the novel carry a seditious potential. Queering contests heteronormativity of the whites while passing ridicules the color line between races.

Passing and sexual orientations are clearly depicted in the novel. Homosexual subplots operate throughout the story. The vivid perception that Irene has on Clare borders an admiration that is sexually inspired. On the other hand, Clare behaves strangely in a coquettish and alluring manner. The behavior holds Irene’s desire for Clare high, possibly stemming from an inspiration as to have her or be her. There is skepticism on the side of Brian Redfield as his relationship with Irene is not quite affectionate. He prefers living with roommates more than with romantic partners. Brian is strongly inclined to his desire to go to South America because of its known sexual tolerance, particularly at the conception time of the novel. It would be much more plausible for Irene and Brain to feign a heterosexual relationship merely because homosexuality was not allowed in the US during that era. Larsen uses this relationship to illustrate how many people hide their true revelations from one another.

As Irene and Clare conduct themselves in a certain manner that would help them pass as white, they adhere to behaviors that make them accept in the social setting of the novel. Irene is most of the time annoyed with how Clare conducts herself, but she tries as much as possible to hide her irritation. She thinks it is impolite to express her irritations to her long term friend. This is an example of how great their friendship was; one could sacrifices her feelings just not to annoy her friend even though she feels much irritated. For instance, during a tea interview when the two were having an interview with Gertrude Martin, Irene is insulted and irked by most of the comments made by Clare and Gertrude, but Irene expresses her displeasure in the comments slyly and politely by use of social cues which the two come to detect.

The husband to Irene is Brian Redfield, a black man who is a doctor by profession. The family of the two belongs to the middle-class Americans, but in the black community, they are sufficiently affluent. Irene emphasizes this trait of her family when she describes her home life implying that it is of much importance to her. The characters not only operate by the racial guidelines but they are also motivated and restricted by social decorum.

Racial allegiance is very evident is the novel. Except for Bellow, most of the characters in ‘Passing' have problems with their racial identities. There is a sentimental racial allegiance among most of the characters. The majority of the blacks holds on the feeling that they are never fully accepted by the whites. Despite Irene using her European appearance to her advantage on several occasions, she is very loyal to her black roots and chooses to live as a black citizen in her marriage and to children. During the tea interview with Clare and Gertrude, she talks defensive of the black people and is not happy when the two and Jack Bellew talk ill about blackness. She is disgusted at the willingness of Clare to hide behind the white veneer because of the social and material privileges that come with being white. Despite Clare’s passing for white to win over Jack Bellew, she feels obligated to her black folks. She reaches out for the blacks who know the truth about her origin and interacts with most of the blacks. However, both Irene and Clare do not deny the privileges that come with being white their society.

Cultural assimilation is also one of the major themes in the novel. Cultural assimilation refers to practice in which the language of a person or a group of people gradually resembles that of another group. Cultural assimilation arises when people leaving together or interacting on several occasions start to imitate other people's culture. The American society is largely divided into mainly the white and black Americans. To a large extent, the two American groups tend to have a somehow different culture, especially in the language and lifestyle. The blacks were initially known for their harsh talking and their accent is very much different from the whites. As interactions prevail between the two groups, there are several things that each group happens to copy from the each other. The whites are known to live affluent lifestyle while the blacks are used to live a life full of economic struggles. For this reason, the whites happen to have many privileges over the blacks. Many blacks especially during the early 20th century used to admire the privileges that come with being white. Passing for white resonates from such desires and consequently there happen to be some cultural assimilations particularly for those who pass for white.

From the novel, Clare who passes for white because of her desire to enjoy the social and materialistic privileges that the whites do enjoy must assimilate the cultural practices of the whites for her to conceal her true identity. She does lots of things that the whites do for her to perfectly fit into the white society. Double consciousness seems to rattle both Clare and Irene in the novel. The double consciousness is because of the cultural assimilation that comes with the passing for effect. They identify themselves with both black and whites. While there is clear distinction between those who reserve their authentic identities as either black or white, Clare and Irene find it difficult to identify themselves with only one group. Although Irene undergoes a situational passing, the privileges that accrue to her because of her European appearance makes her torn between the two groups. She associates with the whites freely, and for those who fail to recognize her as black, she does not reveal her identity to them but instead keeps the secret to herself so as to enjoy the white privileges.

‘Passing’ focuses largely on the effects of double consciousness on racial identities that results from the passing effect practiced by the many of the African-Americans. Irene has an internal conflict that stems from her racial identity because of the moral paradox in her conscious because of the double consciousness. The internal conflicts arise from her perception of her racial identity. She has a skin color that is light enough for her to pass as white (Larsen 11) but she considers herself to be black. She is married to Brain, a black man and one of her children are very dark-skinned. She involves herself ion many of the black community’s social activities. She takes pride of her taking playing the role of household caretaker in her marital home as she believes in the Africa American way that it is her responsibility to take care of the house as a wife. She is proud of her "special talent" of understanding her husband (Larsen 58) and believes that the understanding keeps their marriage successful.

The skin color of Irene depicts a half-caste woman of white and black, but she seems to have assimilated the African culture of submitting to her husband and taking care of the household. Her homosexuality traits that are depicted in her admiration of Clare is not the African way. Homosexuality is usually associated with the whites and rarely do blacks engage in it. This shows that she holds both to the African American and white cultures. She happens to mingle the two cultures although she leans much on the African American way in most of the cases. It takes someone a cultural assimilation to be what Irene is in the novel. She interacts freely with the whites who recognize them as one of their own while at the same time associating and behaving herself the African-American way. This suggests that she has probably assimilated the two cultures.

Clare is a black woman who is passing to hook with Bellew who marries her without knowing that she is black. Her ability to live with a white man in marriage for that long before him finding the truth about the authentic race to which she belongs suggests that she was acting in the way whites behave. This means that she must have assimilated to a white culture for her to fit into a marriage with a man who hates blacks so much. It is not only Bellew who has the difficulty of recognizing the true racial identity of his wife, Clare but also Irene who grew up together with her in a black community. Clare's passing for white is very permanent, and although it upsets Irene, she is less bothered with others thinks of her.

Larsen’s novel on passing explores the racial survival that some black had to forge because of the racial discrimination that existed in America in the 1920s. The whites hated on the blacks and were not respected in the American society at that time. Some women like Irene are originally black, but because of their light skins, they are considered whites and get the privileges of being white. However, some black women like Clare admire the white privileges, and they pass for white because of their materialistic desires. Clare successfully passes for white, and it becomes very difficult for many people to identify her as black including those very close to her like husband and Irene with whom they grew up together in a black community. Cultural assimilation helps these people passing to fit in their new racial identities perfectly. Their cultural behaviors changes and helps them to fit well in the new race.

Works Cited

Larsen, Nella. The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand, and the Stories. 1928. Ed. Charles Larson. London: Anchor Books, 1992. Print.

Harrisson, Kelby. Sexual Deceit: The Ethics of Passing. UK: Lexington Books, 2013. Print.

Kawash, Samira. Dislocating the Color Line: Identity, Hybridity, and Singularity in African- American Narrative. California: Stanford UP, 1997. Print.

October 12, 2022
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