Essay on ‘Passing’ by Nella Larsen

The novel “Passing” by Nella Larsen, is an emotional and yet real story about the life of ordinary African American women whose success in life was determined by the color of their skin. The title of the novel refers to the passing or the self-presentation of the African American men and women as whites in order to enjoy the same privileges as people with white skin. The black or dark skin was perceived as a disadvantage. The novel is narrated by Irene Redfield while is a middle-class African American woman with light skin. Passing herself as white, Irene marries a doctor and gives birth to two sons who are too dark to pass as whites. From one side, Irene is very proud of her African heritage even though the society dominated by whites does not give her a chance to express this pride. Clare Kendry, the childhood friend of Irene, is another character in the story who passes herself as white. Clare is also married to a doctor but his skin is white and he believes that Clare is also white.

This book is in reference to African American class because Larsen explores the moral dilemmas the African American women had to deal with due to the color of their skin. The book was written in late 1920’s, the time when African Americans had no legal rights. The characters presented in the “Passing” are proud of their ethnic background; nevertheless, those of them who had lighter skin preferred presenting themselves as whites in order to avoid racial and ethnic discrimination. From one side, passing as whites, African American women gained opportunity to take advantage of equality with others. From the other side, it caused loss of identity and loneliness. Thus, the book explores the theme of racial identity in discrimination-based society.

I liked the book because it is well-written and covers one of the most important themes in American history: the struggle of African American people for their rights and freedoms. While today Americans with dark skin do not have to deal with legal racial discrimination, only 70-80 years ago they were put into position to deny their identity in order to have normal lives.

According to inferiority model, “Passing” is the story about embracing ethnic pride and resisting assimilation into the mainstream white culture. The African American women were treated as subordinates both to men and whites. Therefore, the representing themselves as whites, these women avoided their inferior status.

From the perspective of deficit-deficiency model, African Americans in the novel defined themselves within the majority culture of whites. Exploring the relationship between the self and the mind, identity and social standing, rights and race, Larsen uncovers deep psychological dilemmas of African Americans who deprived themselves of their own identity for the sake of social benefits.

Finally, the multicultural model of psychology, the study of human behavior within the setting where people of different backgrounds encounter each other, suggests that “Passing” represents the cultural clash and the adjustment of minorities to the dominating values. By passing as whites, African American women escaped poverty. People were judged by the color of their skin and the passing as being white gave African American women an opportunity to enjoy the rights and privileges that were otherwise not available to them.

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