Book Notes: Nella Larsen’s Passing

Nella Larsen is a Harlem Renaissance writer who published two short novels in the late 1920s. I read one of them, Passing, for my book club.

I have to confess, I was reluctant to read Passing. It’s billed as a novel about a black woman who passes for white, which makes zero sense to anybody on the planet except for Americans who are into “one drop of blood” theories. You’d say that it was a real issue in the 1920s, and I agree, but it’s not like anybody got over it since. The worldview in which Megan Markle is black, a very white Argentinean actress is “a person of color” and a man with a beard and in a skirt is a woman because he says so makes zero sense.

Thankfully, there’s a lot more to the novel than this. Once you get past the first 30 pages, it gets really good. It is as if Larsen got the requisite racial admonishments out of her way and became free to talk about what really interested her, which was the nature and the complexity of marriage. This is one of the deepest reflections on marriage I have ever read. And it’s very beautifully, masterfully done.

This is a very short novel, and still it feels as if Larsen were trying to write two novels at the same time. Or maybe we can offer a more generous reading, which is that the topic of marriage, which concerns everybody, wins over narrow racial obsessions as it well should. In the end, race becomes completely unimportant to the characters who were obsessed with it at the start, and Larsen’s novel turns from a narrowly parochial manifesto into a work of art.

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