Racial and Sexual Ambiguity in Passing

Nella Larsen was such an elusive figure from the Harlem Renaissance. Not too much was known about her personal life so it would be inaccurate to claim that she was queer but her novel Passing is often read as possessing queer depictions. The concept of racial passing invites an air of ambiguity to the work that provokes scholars and myself to wonder what else stirs in the subtext. If we observe Passing from a queer lens, it radically changes how we understand the novel and Blackness as a whole.

Passing with queer identity in mind becomes allegorical for living a closeted life and its restrains on one’s happiness; this becomes clear when we close read the two female protagonists meeting after a long time of not seeing one another. Irene and Clare’s relationship is never mentioned in an explicitly sexual or romantic nature but the language that is used to describe their relationship can still apply to sexual or romantic desire. Within the first few pages of the book Irene opens a letter from Clare that begins: “For I am so lonely, so lonely…cannot help longing to be with you again, as I have never longed for anything before; and I have wanted many things in my life, (Larsen, 8)” It’s moments like this throughout the novel where Irene and Clare show such grand affection for one another that it seems almost intimate. Also it wasn’t uncommon for sapphic relationships in literature and media to exist under the veil of a “really close” friendship.

This novel entertains the idea of murkiness; every interpretation of it is speculative. I agree with literary scholar Lori Harrison-Kahan on her view that the characters of the novel are “moving back and forth between racial and sexual passing (Harrison-Kahan, 2002)”. Both kinds of passing seem to be sharing space in this narrative. Irene’s feelings toward Clare alternates from feelings of disgust, enticement, admiration, and fear all throughout; I can’t help but connect all of these emotions to a desire and sexual frustration. Irene’s interiority and discomfort with Clare around could denote shame for her sexual attraction toward Clare.

Queering Passing also shifts the lens of the novel’s tragic ending. It’s my opinion that Irene pushed Clare out of the window as an act of love. Another text where I’ve seen this was Safe by Georgia Douglas Johnson. The main character murders her infant moments after delivery because she was afraid that her son would eventually be lynched anyway. The play ends with the devastating words: “Now he’s safe––safe from the lynchers! Safe!” (Johnson, 1929). It could very well be that Irene had the same attitude when pushing Clare out of the window; she might’ve thought that Clare falling to her death was protecting from a much more vicious fate. It’s my assumption that Larsen is contributing to a history of Black literature that imagines death as an escape from racial cruelty. Reacquainting novel with queer identity colors this moment as an action made out of romantic love for Clare.