In the decades following the Great War, a cultural, artistic, and economic revolution took place in Harlem. A reactionary movement to the failed programs of Reconstruction and the need for long overdue civil rights reform, the Harlem Renaissance spread to to major cities including Chicago and Atlanta. The movement set the stage for the later Civil Rights Movement, as a time of violence, vast economic change, and reform. Written at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen’s Passing considers the key issues of the time period: racial identity and the development of a black hierarchy. Larsen explores Irene’s secret love for the developments of marked African American social stratification and “black aristocrats” that emerged during the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, suggesting that this lack of racial conscience sets her up for failure. Throughout the late twenties, the conflict between those individuals who passed and those who did not gradually grew. Simultaneously, a distinct line developed between those African Americans who were wealthy and those who were not. These conflicts directly manifest themselves in Clare and Irene, leading to the novel’s tragic end. Larsen repeatedly juxtaposes Irene’s desire for financial security, a white bourgeois life, and her ultimate dismissal of black heritage with Clare’s pursuit of racial candor and happiness to emphasize the importance of staying true to oneself. Larsen suggests that it is not racial passing that is the sin but it is denying one’s roots and by extension, mimicking white aristocracy, as was often done in the peak of the Jazz Age, that is a transgression.
Irene stands as the ultimate hypocrite: a woman who represents the emerging African American middle class, a group of liberal, progressive, culture embodying citizens, yet, she harbors a strong desire to be a white bourgeois women. Her constant critique of Clare, coupled with her blatant disregard for her own race exposes Irene’s secret hatred of African American culture, and consequently, her secret desire to be a part of the white bourgeoisie class. An indicator of Irene’s distaste of her African Americans roots is in her pronounced loathing of blackness. With the Christmas season approaching, Irene is aggravated, frustrated, and confused. Silently thinking about her own unhappiness, she unfairly attributes this to race, rather than her insecurity: “ She suffered and rebelled because she was unable to disregard the burden of race..It was a brutality, and undeserved. Surely, no other people so cursed as Ham's dark children” (Larsen 181). Irene’s contempt directly relates to her desire to be a white women, becauses she hopes to become free of her African American heritage. After racistly describing Black culture as the “race problem,” she proceeds to think the following about her own position as a black woman:
"Since childhood their lives had never really touched. Actually they were strangers...Strangers even in their racial consciousness. Between them the barrier was just as high, just as broad, and just as firm as if in Clare did not run that strain of black blood. In truth, it was higher, broader, and firmer; because for her there were perils, not known, or imagined, by those others who had no such secrets to alarm or endanger them." (Larsen 192)
Pondering about her life, and trying to distance herself from Clare, Irene gives a confession, ultimately revealing her that she has perilous “secrets.” Through her reference to “racial consciousness,” it is clear that these mysteries are centered on racial identity- Irene’s secret desire to be white. Jennifer DeVere Brody of Stanford University, the author of “Clare Kendry's ‘True’ Colors: Race and Class Conflict in Nella Larsen's Passing,” an insert in Callaloo literary journal, supports this interpretation, claiming Irene’s aforementioned confession reveals that “..it is she[Irene] who harbors a secret desire to be white, and not Clare” (DeVere Brody 1055). Lastly, Irene’s satisfaction in gazing at Clare, the attractive, white Clare emphasizes how desperately Irene desires to be white. Rather than loving her ethnicity, Irene succumbs to the emerging trend of “whitewashing” oneself.
Irene’s extreme desire to become a white Bourgeois women, rather than simply a well off black women, therefore, is representative of a group of select Black individuals, who in the twenties, began to mimic the elitist white society. W.E.B DuBois, famed historian and Civil Rights Activist discusses African Americans who desire detachment from their ethnicity, in his study The Philadelphia Negro: “They[African Americans] do not relish being mistaken for servants; they shrink from..worship of most of the Negro churches, and they shrink from all such display and publicity as will expose them..as the [black]masses”(180). Shying away from their black roots, they essentially fear any association with their ethnicity. Similarly, Archibald Motley, renowned painter, criticizes full black assimilation into white culture, in his painting Cocktails. Depicting a group of rich black women drinking and being served by an elderly African Americans servant, Motley places a bright opulent lamp directly near the women. As the light highlights and illuminates the women, they look almost white, or essentially “whitewashed.” By extension, it is the black servant who represents the majority of black African Americans, whereas the women, signify a very small group of “whitewashed” Blacks. Although both Clare and Irene are light enough to pass, Clare, by embracing her black roots, is similar to the servant. On the other hand, Irene who shies away from her African American ethnicity, is similar to the culturally assimilated women depicted in the painting. Ultimately, Larsen critiques and highlights the negative effects of whitewashing through Irene’s downfall and Clare's death. Dr. Thadious M Davis, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of English at University of Pennsylvania comments on Larsen’s position in the Introduction to Passing. She states: “Nella Larsen explores the problematic attraction to whiteness on the parts of who...DuBois identified as the ‘talented tenth’ of the race who, while manifesting pride in their racial heritage attempt to whitewash themselves” (Davis, xix).This trend of “whitewashing” resulted partly from, as well as increased racial conflict.
One such conflict was the murder of a Black teenager by a group of white men in the summer of 1919. His brutal death by stoning was a result of strong racism, economic disunity, and the influx of Blacks to white communities. His death led to one the greatest racial conflicts of the 20th century, the 1919 Chicago Race Riots. Broadcasted, and extensively studied, hundreds of articles were released during the week-long chaos. One in particular highlighted the large role that racism played among law enforcement: “Shortly after that the plate glass window..was crushed and the police instead of condemning the affair, said that it was caused by his having rented property to colored people. Such things incite lawlessness and incite race riots.” (“28 DEAD” 3). Although historians disagree about the factors that led to the Race Riots, two facts are considered to be indisputable: the true horror and violence that occurred, as well as the large role that economic change played.
This economic boom of the roaring Twenties, with the growth of bourgeois African Americans, brought very significant economic distinctions stratification among Blacks. Motley’s painting Cocktails emphasizes the hypocritical nature of this economic system, in which bourgeois African Americans are served by other Blacks. He critiques this cultural division through varying skin colors in Cocktails. The elderly black servant is by far darker than the women, who are to varying extents, therefore significantly lighter. Similarly, the women wear light, pastel-colored dresses, while the servant is dressed in black attire. The differences in colors surrounding the hired help and the wealthy women parallel the wealth gap between African Americans. W.E.B DuBois, in The Philadelphia Negro, also refers to the bourgeoisie as “the germ of a great middle class,” but ultimately as ” the aristocracy of their own people” (DuBois 180). Developing due to a post war economic boom, a new class of bourgeois Africans Americans emerged. Wanting the same rights and elite cultural status that was granted to whites of the very same income, the growing trend of “whitewashing,” among these “aristocrats” developed during the Harlem Renaissance. Although both Clare and Irene are light enough to pass, Clare freely embraces her black roots, whereas Irene shies away.
Clare’s identification with her race is evident in the direct manner she asserts herself in the African American community. Upon her very first re-encounter with Irene, Clare responds to her summary of life within the Black community: “I know just as well as if I'd been there and heard every...word. Oh, I know, I know” (Larsen 29). Although she passes, Clare reveals to Irene, at this very same encounter, that she does so for economic factors: “ I wanted things. I knew I wasn't bad-looking and that I could 'pass'” (Larsen 18). On the other hand, Irene cannot comfortably participate in this aforementioned conversation, and feels as if “ she were the prey of uneasiness” (31). Additionally, Clare’s converses with Zulena and Sadie, Irene’s black servants, with ease. Even more so, she takes pleasure from doing so: “Clare could very happily amuse herself with Ted and Or, lacking the boys...spend her visit in talk and merriment with Zulena and Sadie” (Larsen 144). Irene’s conversations with her servants however, never exceed that of formula commands, “ Take the message, Zulena, please” or "Thank you, Zulena" (189-190). In the end, it is Clare who breaks social and racial norms by embracing and enjoying her African American ethnicity, regardless of classes. In contrast, Irene’s interactions with other African Americans, especially those who are economically below her, are very limited.
Lastly, Irene's mixed feelings towards her own race, and tepid support for Mr. Bellow’s racist remarks indicate her lack of care and empathy for her own race. In fact, she justifies his rude behavior, when she urges Clare to take responsibility for Bellows’ use of the nickname “Nig”: he's got no way of knowing about this hankering of yours after Negroes..As far as I can see, you'll just have to endure some things and give up others” (129). Larsen juxtaposes Irene’s apathy with Clare's passion for Black culture, ultimately emphasizing the negatives of whitewashing. She demonstrates Clare's obvious love for her race: “‘You can't realize how I want to see Negroes, to be with them again, to talk with them, to hear them laugh.’” (129) . Ultimately, while Clare dies, it is Irene who ends up in the place she dreads most: on the street below the “tower” of bourgeois capitalism. Through the novel’s ending, Larsen suggests that adapting white hierarchy and culture, but not necessarily passing, is truly the issue of the decade.
Through Irene’s vague racism, strong desire to be white, and dismissal of her own ethnicity, Larsen deprecates the trend of whitewashing, which gained steam at the height of the twenties. She further juxtaposes Irene’s abandonment with Clare’s embrace of black culture to emphasize the importance of staying true to one’s heritage. A social critique, Larsen highlights the issues with mimicking white supremacist culture, and reflects on the growing economic and social stratification amongst Blacks. Almost a century after the publication of Passing, significant barriers have been broken between African Americans and Whites. Yet, setbacks to full racial equality are still very much an issue. One recent issue; police brutality has come to light. Many cases where innocent Black citizens have been killed or beaten, due the racism of white supremacists, very much like Bellow, have been documented. From Rodney King to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, innocent deaths have inspired violence on both sides. Centuries of enslavement and segregation cannot be erased, but it ultimately up to the current generation to eliminate all traces of racial inequality from society. Whether it be through writing, civil disobedience, or simply time, the end of inequality will perhaps, finally bring peace.