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Lessons of Passing: Remembering Nella Larsen on her birthday

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A guest blog post by Nsikan Akpan

Nsikan Akpan serves on the board of HoCoPoLitSo and is a student at Howard Community College. She is a writer, actress, and future lawyer for black rights. She enjoys reading big books and watching long movies. To read more of Nsikan’s work, visit her blog: onmogul.com/nsikan-akpan.

Characters in stories are hardly given enough credit for their bravery of taking on the task of representing the idiosyncrasies and lifestyles that the public prefers to keep private. Clare and Irene in Nella Larsen’s Passing are appropriate examples. Irene’s complexion is light enough to pass for a white woman but makes the choice to side with her true community. On the other hand, Clare, Irene’s friend from childhood, is also light enough to pass for white and finesses this fact to marry Bellew, a white racist. As readers maneuver their way through the lonely, privileged lives of both Irene and Clare, we find that wealth and passing for the sake of wealth may not be worth one’s peace of mind. It can lead to a fatal end.

Passing by Nella Larsen examines themes of hypocrisy, physical (racial) as well as social “passing,” and the sacrifices made for the American dream. Passing is a form of pretending, and sometimes we cross boundaries when playing pretend. What makes Larsen’s work significant is that it displays passing as an example of natural human desire to survive. Judging Clare equates to judging anyone that has been put in a situation where the only way out is to be something they are not. Humankind has done worse for survival. Still, Clare’s life is a lesson: one can make it to the other side and realize there is nothing there for them.

I am reminded of O. J. Simpson’s story. Simpson, a black man, had been a supreme football player, the first to run over 2,000 yards in one season. He was an athletic mogul. He helped paved the way for athletes to not only play the sport of their choice, but to do so while starring in movies, commercials, and gaining fortune from various endorsements. He was treated as an American hero and embraced by white America. If Larsen’s Clare had her pale skin that allowed her to pass as white, Simpson had wealth and his white wife that made up for his chestnut skin color and allowed him to pass in white society. In 1978, Simpson starred in a famous Hertz commercial, running through an airport as people – notably, all white people – cheered him on. “Go Juice, go!” They hailed. Until they stopped. In 1994, Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman. When Simpson was accused of murder, he became black again.

Passing is seductive. Joe Bell, a childhood friend, said of Simpson, “He is seduced by white society.” In Larsen’s novel, Clare was seduced enough to want to be a part of that society, so much so that she became a part of it. As examples of passing – physical and social – Clare and Simpson demonstrate that passing does not turn out well in fiction or in real life. In Larsen’s words, Clare “had been there, a vital glowing thing, like a flame of red and gold. The next thing she was gone.”

While reading Passing, I realized that there are many types of passing. I have come to recognize my own privilege of intellectual passing. I am an educated and cultured black woman who has sat next to distinguished authors and poets. These stimulating cerebral experiences allow me to go into spaces where my color is not considered because my ability to articulate trumps any stereotype that is connected to me. Or so it seemed. It turns out that intellectual passing connects very much with racial and social passing. We must put an end to associating intelligence with whiteness.

I have made a conscious choice not to give into passing. What Clare showed me is this: One can fool people with skin but not with soul. Throughout high school, despite my dark skin, I made myself “more palatable” for my white counterparts. Every time I had an opinion on something, I tried my best to express it very nicely, or sometimes I’d say nothing at all, knowing people might take it the wrong way. Fortunately, I have grown out of that nonsense. I am who I am. An exit is always available, but for me, passing is never an option. It’s too exhausting. In my own skin, I am at rest.


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