Passing Through

When reading The Passing by Nella Larsen and watching the movie adaptation directed by Rebecca Hall, I’ve always felt that I’ve been on the outside looking in. Through the two main characters Irene and Clare, we have seen blackness presented in two different lights. Blackness isn’t all about the shade of a person’s skin tone but an experience. Hence what I think the author was trying to convey throughout the movie and reading.

For example, Larsen conveys a trait that has shown up throughout black history, adaptability. Throughout the book and movie, we see the main characters Irene and Clare having to adapt to their environment in different ways. Irene symbolizes rebellion as she tries to fight against white supremacy by constantly reaffirming her blackness not only to herself but to others around her. However, Clare is more like a chameleon, as she leverages both white supremacy and segregation  for her own personal gain. She wants to pass as white so she can be with her husband and live a better life in a segregated society; however, she wants to acknowledge her blackness when she develops friendships with other Black people in her community.

These two different styles of adaptability show us how the author tries to convey black identity is presented not only in the book and movie but in society as well. According to THE MASQUE by Gale, “creative genius of stage designer Inigo Jones, the masque was transformed into an inspiring and educational marvel.” Clare embodies this by engaging in a racial masquerade that educates us about the privileges of a white-passing black woman. Clare is a black woman who was able to deceive her racist white husband by making him think she’s white due to her very light skin tone.  This decision allowed Clare to live a life of “freedom”, luxury and privilege.  One of my group members pointed out an excellent point that Clare gets to live a life of luxury. As she always brags about going to Europe in the book. Hence proving that Clare married her husband for not only just freedom but privileges. However, this decision has its flaws. Although Clare was free from the racial restrictions that society played on blacks in America, she ended up restricting herself in her own personal life. Clare understood her personal life had restrictions. The author emphasized this in the movie Clare told Irene that “I don’t have a proper moral or sense of duty like you. Why, to get the things I want so badly, I’d do anything. Throw anything away.” When Irene said she didn’t give anything up Clare stood there. As the movie progresses the more Clare becomes more self-aware. Aware that she gave up her blackness to be with her husband, luxury and financial freedom. While in the process giving up herself.

However, Clare has not used her privilege to make any political statement or advancement towards helping end white supremacy. This was one of contributing factors that caused her death because at the end of the day she was a black woman. Her husband treated her that way when he found out and lunged at her, causing her death.  Even though Irene didn’t take the same approach or fate as Clare, she constantly had to remind herself and others that she was indeed black.  For example, in the novel Irene said “it gave Irene a little prick of satisfaction to recall, hadn’t got that by passing herself off as white. She herself had always had it”.  This shows that she symbolizes rebellion because she didn’t want to submit to her segregated society by marrying a white man to obtain riches. Therefore, we must recognize these had their own ways of surviving the harsh social climate of segregation. Even though their paths were different, it didn’t change who they are.

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