The Performance of Racial Passing

This article is part of T’s Book Club, a series of articles and events dedicated to classic works of American literature. Click here to R.S.V.P. to a virtual conversation, led by Brit Bennett, about “Passing,” to be held on March 9.

There’s a scene in the 1959 melodramatic film “Imitation of Life” that I have seen dozens of times, but it’s not the one you’re probably imagining: the climatic funeral scene where Sarah Jane Johnson, a young Black woman passing for white, flings herself onto the casket of the dark-skinned mother she has spent the entire film disowning. Instead, the scene that sticks with me is halfway into the movie, when Sarah Jane meets up with her white boyfriend, who has secretly discovered that she is Black. “Is your mother a nigger?” he sneers, before beating her in an alley.

I’m not proud to admit that in elementary school, my best friend and I used to watch this scene over and over again, not because we thought it was tragic, but because we found it funny. The frenetic music in the background, the melodramatic slaps, Sarah Jane’s slow crumple to the asphalt. We knew we were wrong to laugh, but we were too young to take much seriously, let alone a character like Sarah Jane, whom we found more pitiful than pitiable. We’d watched her mope through the whole movie about not wanting to be Black. Well, fine. Go see how she likes it over there.

In a strange way, the beating scene itself is almost structured like a joke. Part of the pleasure of a passing narrative is watching the passer fool her audience; in this scene, however, the audience is aware while the passer is not. Sarah Jane asks her boyfriend to run away together, the boyfriend pretends to consider it. He only has one question: Is it true? Sarah Jane laughs, unsuspecting. Is what true? But of course, we already know the punchline.

I FIRST READ the 1929 novel “Passing” by Nella Larsen in college, and no wonder I was so taken by Clare Kendry. Given that my first introduction to a passing character was the whining Sarah Jane, Clare struck me as beguiling and sympathetic. She grows up poor in Chicago, raised by a raging alcoholic father, and after he dies, she is sent to live with her racist white aunts, who force her to work to earn her keep. She seizes her chance to escape at 18 by marrying Jack Bellew, a wealthy white man who knows nothing of her Black heritage. But her disappearance into white society is interrupted when she recognizes, by chance, Irene Redfield, a childhood friend, on the rooftop of a Chicago hotel one summer day. The novel centers on the tension between these two old friends — one who chooses to pass and the other who chooses not to.

What’s most surprising about this reunion is that both women are actually passing at the same time. Irene has slipped up to a whites-only rooftop to escape the stifling heat; passing, to her, is a tool of convenience, not a way of life. As she enjoys a glass of iced tea on a breezy roof, which feels as relaxing and luxurious as her temporary vacation into whiteness, she suddenly notices a white woman staring at her. Even then, she is so confident in her ability to fool white people that she feels indignation, not fear. “White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell,” she thinks. “Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro.”

From the novel’s opening, race is slippery, uneasy and unstable. Irene is the model Black wife and mother: She lives in Harlem with her husband and sons, and she serves on a committee for the Negro Welfare League. Yet, because her husband is too dark to pass, when she is alone, she is occasionally white. Clare is white on the rooftop until she calls Irene by her childhood nickname, ’Rene; the intimacy of her language, not her physical appearance, transforms her back to the Black woman Irene once knew. That Clare airs her biggest secret on the rooftop of a hotel feels right. Passing is a performance that, like any other, requires an audience. What makes Clare so fascinating is that she revels in the nearness of getting caught. Clare claims that she passes only for financial freedom, but what she actually seems to enjoy is, as Irene puts it, “stepping always on the edge of danger.” Not the performance itself but the possibility that the audience may peek behind the curtain. Racism is tragic but it is also a farce. If Sarah Jane was treated as a joke, then at least Clare is in on hers.

One of the most stressful scenes in the novel is when, shortly after their reunion, Clare invites Irene over for tea. When Irene arrives, she finds Clare entertaining a former classmate, Gertrude, who is passing as well, although her white husband is in on the secret. Clare’s husband, however, is not. He returns home in the middle of tea and greets his wife with two unforgettable words: “Hello, nig.” At first, Irene wonders if Clare’s husband knows that she is Black after all, but of course, Jack explains, the nickname is a joke:

Well, you see, it’s like this. When we were first married, she was as white as — as — well as white as a lily. But I declare she’s gettin’ darker and darker. I tell her if she don’t look out, she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger.

That Jack imagines sudden, involuntary Blackness when whiteness is what is easily slipped into and out of in this novel is ironic enough; that he imagines this in the company of three Black women pretending to be white ratchets up the joke even further. But the humor doesn’t release the tension, it only increases it. Clare’s husband, who doesn’t know that she’s Black, is so virulently racist that he calls her a slur as a pet name. Knowing this, she’s invited two Black friends over. Clare is a provocateur and a manipulator, yes, but she is also a performance artist. No wonder she’s thrilled to reconnect with Irene. To pass successfully is to perform so seamlessly that nobody appreciates your craft. Clare is an actress who has finally found herself an appreciative audience.

When I started writing my own novel, “The Vanishing Half,” about passing, I imagined my passing character as a sort of fugitive, always hunted, always hiding. In some ways, this is the more obvious choice. The brilliance of “Passing,” to me, is that Larsen reverses the game of cat-and-mouse. Clare hunts, not hides. She reveals, rather than being discovered. From the moment they reunite on the roof, Clare inserts herself into Irene’s life, pursuing the Black world she has purportedly left behind. She invites herself to Irene’s home, introduces herself to Irene’s husband, crashes Irene’s social engagements in Harlem and charms Irene’s friends. She does, in other words, exactly what a passing character should not do. This is what’s frustrating about Clare — her “having way,” as Irene describes it. She wants to spend Jack’s wealth and party in Harlem. She is a Black woman who simply wants too much; in other words, to Irene, she is a problem.

What I love most about Clare is exactly what enrages careful Irene the most: her sense of playfulness. She doesn’t take anything seriously enough. She is in the middle of a high-stakes poker game but she’s off building a house of cards. She is a tragic character who believes that she is in a romp. And why would she not? Irene feels burdened by the yoke of race, but Clare recognizes that race itself is a joke. Why should she not have fun with it? And aren’t both women sort of right? When Jack launches into his racist diatribe, everyone in the room laughs along, Irene laughing harder than anyone. She is the character furthest outside of the joke, the one the joke is intended to wound, and yet she laughs until she cries, her stomach aching and throat burning. A good laugh always hurts.

THAT CLARE KENDRY’S life ends tragically should come as no surprise. The narrative penalty of passing is often misery or death. James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” ends with the passing narrator’s wife dying in childbirth, as well as his realization that he “has sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.” In both the 1934 and 1959 film versions of “Imitation of Life” (originally a 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst), the passing character does not die but loses her long-suffering mother without the chance to say goodbye. The grand, weepy funeral scene is a repudiation of the prodigal daughter, denied forgiveness, but it also serves as a return to the racial status quo. By publicly claiming her mother at her funeral, the daughter reclaims her Blackness. Now that racial order has been properly restored, the passing character chastened, the film can reach its Hollywood ending.

What is more interesting about the end of “Passing” is exactly how ambiguous it is. “What happened next,” Larsen writes, before Claire plummets to her death, “Irene Redfield never afterwards allowed herself to remember. Never clearly.” Clare’s death, filtered through Irene’s repressed memories, is deliberately obscured. (Does Clare fall out the window? Does Irene push her?) But the novel’s ending is also unclear textually. “Passing” has two slightly different final paragraphs: The first and second printings end with a police officer declaring Clare’s “death by misadventure,” while that paragraph disappears from the third printing, which ends with Irene collapsing into darkness. Larsen scholars have speculated about why the multiple endings exist. Did Larsen cut the final paragraph because she was dissatisfied with her book’s ending? Was it an editor’s choice? A printing error? Either way, the instability of the text itself mirrors the instability within a story where no identity ever feels certain. Race is remade and reinterpreted and revised. After all, how stable can race possibly be if you can step onto a rooftop as a white woman and leave as a Black woman?

When I was writing “The Vanishing Half,” my family thought it would be funny to watch the Netflix documentary about a former white NAACP president passing for Black. What I remember most are the shots of her artwork, many pieces of which featured Black subjects in pain. Oh, I thought, she thinks Blackness is suffering, and because she has suffered, she feels that she is Black. It didn’t help that after she was discovered, many Black folks seized on pain as a reason her masquerade was offensive. If she hasn’t suffered from being Black, the argument went, then how dare she take part in the beauty and joy?

One of the purest moments online was right after this story first broke and Black Twitter dissolved into gleeful memes. That silly, fleeting moment of communal amusement — before the analysis began and the news cycle dragged on — felt like the only reasonable response to such a bizarre story. Why would we not laugh? In fact, the one constant of my Black life is that I have always laughed when I should not have. To laugh at the absurdity of race comes naturally; what feels strange is the insistence from white people that I should weep. Like in Paris once, when a white photographer instructed me not to smile in my portrait.

“No,” he said, aiming the camera. “Pose like a Black American. Sad and strong.”

Clare Kendry is a tragic figure, but she is not sad and strong. In fact, what makes her so alive to me is that in spite of the danger she faces, she laughs. She does not fling herself, weeping, onto a casket; she does not apologize for wanting. She does not beg anyone’s forgiveness. In fact, before she plunges to her death, she actually smiles. How fitting, then, that in the opening scene, Irene only recognizes her old friend by her beautiful laugh.

“You are changed, you know,” Irene tells her. “And yet, in a way, you’re just the same.”

Brit Bennett is the author of “The Mothers” and “The Vanishing Half.”

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