Passing by Nella Larsen
This review was originally written in September of 2011. I’m going back through my old GR reviews to post a few of the best books I read in the past year or so.
First of all, please, for God’s sake, if you’re thinking of reading The Help, just fucking stop yourself and read something that’s about the actual effects of real racism on real people, and not engineered to make white people feel good about themselves. In Passing, even many of the most enlightened folks carry some bigotry around, and the most horribly racist character is still, terrifyingly enough, a human being.
Passing is a hard book to review comprehensively because it’s so short, with so much going on, that to touch on all of it would require a piece nearly as long as the novel itself. Larsen gets in, effortlessly makes each of her points, and then gets out while the getting’s good. But what she mostly does is show, extremely well, why it is that even in a perceived golden age of black cultural consciousness, in a place that must’ve felt like a whole different planet from what was going on in the south at the time, there would still be black women who would wish to be seen as white, either in certain situations, or all of the time. It’s a painful reminder of how entrenched racism works even in the better times, and probably a useful one for people who think we can stop worrying because we live in a “post-racial” America.
But Passing isn’t just that, because it’s a novel, not a diatribe. It’s also about marriage, and sex, and passive aggression, and jealousy, and awkwardness, and, at the center of it all, how extremely toxic friendships form and play out.
Look, it’s really great, and reading it won’t take much longer than reading a long-winded review of it. You can do it in an afternoon.