Black and Queer Intersectionality in Nella Larsen’s Passing

Essay by Chase Thomson

Art by Ivy Zhan

Personal identity is one of the most complicated aspects of human sociality—the realms in which our identities exist, coexist, and intermingle are often responsible for the ways in which we interact with the world around us. In the twenty-first century, specifically the last decade, concepts of identity formation and intersectionality have been at the forefront of media and scholarship. While prevalent as of late, the concept of intersectionality is often credited as deriving from the work of Black feminists of the twentieth century—namely, Audre Lorde. As a Black, lesbian, feminist author, Lorde’s work emphasizes the importance of acknowledging our positions in society in order to handle social issues effectively: “it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences” (Lorde, Sister Outsider 115). While Lorde is credited with the conception of intersectionality, many early-twentieth century female writers display nuanced examples of concepts similar to Lorde’s future work. In particular, Nella Larsen’s seminal 1929 novel, Passing, offers insights into the life of Irene Redfield in 1920s New York and Chicago. Generally, Irene navigates society as a proud Black woman; occasionally, she must pass as white in order to ensure her safety, or comfort, in racially discriminatory spaces. While initial inspection of Irene points to her pride, Larsen crafts a queerness that bubbles underneath the surface of Irene’s identity. In subtle ways, Irene’s rekindled friendship with Clare Kendry also exhibits a kind of homoeroticism between them—presenting the subtle intersectionality of Irene’s being. Furthermore, Larsen uses Clare’s constant passing in every aspect of her life as a counterpart to Irene’s superficial passing. The subtle intersections crafted by Larsen lead me to believe that Irene would inhabit similar positions to those of Audre Lorde. Irene’s proud Blackness and shy queerness would have found the space to further develop had she existed during a more modern time. Through analyzing Irene’s explicit and implicit positionalities within Passing, one can ascertain who Irene Redfield would be today and gain insights into the social boundaries of self-expression in the early twentieth century.

I find it ineffective to analyze the positionality of Irene Redfield’s personal identity without acknowledging the position of the cultural milieu in which she exists. Between the Tulsa Race Massacres and the second rising of the Ku Klux Klan, race relations between white and Black Americans in the 1920’s had been tense. Felix Harcourt notes that the Ku Klux Klan rose in popularity once again by avidly publishing positive propaganda throughout American cities and their respective publications, namely in Chicago: “by June 1923, the Chicago Weekly claimed, with justification, to be ‘one of the strongest publications in the country supporting the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan,’” (Harcourt 33). Larsen’s decision to have Passing open with Irene Redfield navigating the social scene of 1920’s Chicago is no mistake, and it adds an emphasis on race relations at the time. As Lorde notes, American society exists within a sort of ‘mythical norm:’ “usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure,” (Lorde, Sister Outsider 116). Existing within both white and patriarchal power systems, Black women are forced to face oppression on two fronts: for their Blackness and their womanhood (Lorde, Sister Outsider 118).  In addition, as Lorde mentions, the heteronormativity, or as she describes it “heterosexism,” of white and Black society must be considered when understanding the safety concerns that come with people proudly owning their sexuality, as they are “caught between the racism of white women and the homophobia of their sisters” (Lorde, Sister Outsider 117). Consensual homosexual intercourse would not be legalized in the United States of America until 2003 (see Lawrence v. Texas), therefore, being openly queer in the 1920’s meant imminent danger to one’s safety and freedom. To belong to categories of “other,” as described by Lorde, in regards to your race (non-white), your sex (female), and your sexual orientation (non-straight) would place you in a complicated and dangerous position within society. To belong to two of these categories, or even three, would only intensify that threat. It is imperative to understand Lorde’s mythical norm as being the backdrop to Irene’s experiences to fully understand Irene’s inability to have pride over all facets of her identity. Taking into account the risks Irene would have faced from the dominant group in society, as well as her fellow marginalized citizens, makes clear the context in which Irene is never awarded the opportunity to accept and own all of the social categories to which she belongs.

While establishing the societal limitations that hinder Irene from owning every aspect of her identity, Larsen does, however, illustrate a clear Black pride within Irene throughout Passing. This is particularly exemplified in Irene’s involvement with the ‘Negro Welfare League:’ “the Negro Welfare League, you know. I’m on the ticket committee, or, rather, I am the committee,” (Larsen 53). This aspect of Irene’s character points to not only a pride over her Blackness, but a certain community advocacy. I bring Lorde’s work into this analysis of Irene’s advocacy for multiple reasons. First and foremost, Lorde’s work is an act of activism and advocacy for Black, queer, and feminist rights. Furthermore, Lorde herself inhabits certain positionalities in society that place her in the category of ‘other,’ however, she does not let these positions hinder her work as an advocate for other marginalized groups. These personal and political facets of Lorde’s identity, and Irene’s for that matter, do not exist individually. As Lorde mentions, the personal is directly tied to the political: “in a world of possibility for us all, our personal visions help lay the groundwork for political action,” (Lorde, Master’s Tools 55). Though she exists far before Lorde’s time, Irene is unabashed in her Blackness by participating in an annual, public, and undeniably political committee dedicated to throwing Black-focused events within a white hegemonic society. As many acts of advocacy often are, this is a brave position for Irene to place herself in considering the social milieu of the times she lives in. Considering the moments that Irene owns her Blackness as a form of advocacy or protest begs the question of the meaning in the moments that Irene hides her Blackness by passing as white.

Essentially, passing is the act of Black citizens passing as white, and in the 1920s, the concept of passing became prevalent in New York as a source of fear amongst the white elite (Smith-Pryor 90). Passing had represented a threat to the ecosystem of existence and privilege for the dominant white hegemonic group. Many figured that, if  “coloured” citizens could find ways to infiltrate white social circles, they would pose a threat to the purity and security of white society. Furthermore, as Elizabeth Smith-Pryor notes, “passing as white challenged the belief in the existence of race by pointing out… the permeability of the boundary between… Black and white,” (Smith-Pryor 91). The notion of race as a fixed social category leads to comfort for the oppressors—white Americans—who presume that their race is superior. Passing as a concept flooded the national newspapers in 1924 when Leonard Rhinelander declared that his wife, Alice Jones, had passed as white throughout their marriage. The case against Alice led to New York being considered the “centre for passing” in America (Smith-Pryor 103). Once again, Larsen’s choice of setting is no accident in Passing: by setting Irene’s narrative within Chicago and New York, Larsen is placing emphasis on the white hegemonic society that Irene must face as a Black woman and the fears of passing that had been prevalent within white society. Smith-Pryor continues by presenting W.E.B. Dubois’ thoughts on Larsen’s novel in relation to the colour line: “the fear that large numbers of… ‘Negroes’ were ‘crossing over’ to become white tapped into the growing concern… with demarcating exact boundary lines between the races,” (Smith-Pryor 108). Under this social context, I want to introduce specific moments in which Irene actively passes as a white woman. 

Though Irene, as examined previously, owns her Blackness by taking part in public Black-focused events, there are moments within the novel where she  actively passes as white. Larsen presents two main circumstances in which Irene decides to pass as the dominant race in society: for comfort and for safety. Passing for comfort is the first example of situational passing that Larsen presents. In the heat of a 1920s Chicago summer, Irene finds herself in the backseat of a taxi, searching for a rooftop restaurant to grab a drink. Without hesitation, her driver suggests, “the Drayton, ma’am?” (Larsen 5). The Drayton Hotel, as we learn later, is a segregated whites-only establishment. Interestingly, Irene is not the originator of the suggestion to pass in this moment—although the taxi driver is clearly unaware that Irene is Black, he is the one who brings up the idea of passing in a whites-only space. Irene’s casual acceptance of this suggestion implies that it isn’t her first instance of passing for the sake of visiting a comfortable establishment that she would otherwise be barred from. While Irene visits the Drayton Hotel’s rooftop for a cool drink, she experiences a chance encounter with her old friend Clare Kendry. Before Irene realizes that the woman looking at her is her old friend, her inner dialogue offers insights into her anxieties in regards to being caught passing: “did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro?” (Larsen 7). As quickly as these anxieties enter Irene’s mind, she shrugs them off: “they always took her as an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy,” (Larsen 8). Irene’s inner dialogue points to two interesting aspects of her and the concept of passing. Irene is clearly aware of the dangers of passing—had she been found out to be Black at the Drayton, at best, she would have been thrown out and embarrassed. More interestingly, what this dialogue also points to is Irene’s familiarity with passing; she reflects on past times that she was mistaken for other races, thus implying that she is quite familiar with her ability to pass and has ample experience with passing in situations prior to the Drayton. Initially, this may seem like Irene trying to assimilate herself into white society, however, Larsen does an efficient job in ensuring that Irene has no interest in joining her oppressors: “white people were so stupid about such things,” (Larsen 7). In successfully passing as white without being detected, Irene holds a secret kind of subversive intellectual power, embodying the ambiguity of Black and white racial distinctions. The act of passing then undermines the hegemonic, white, and patriarchal system of oppression and imposed racial difference–Irene is showing that her passing for comfort is not simply superficial, but rather runs deeper as an example of her taking the power away from her oppressors. 

Clare’s individual form of passing counters Irene’s, and elaborates further on some of the reasons why certain Black individuals may seek to pass as white in regards to their safety and comfort. Upon the Drayton Hotel encounter, Irene discovers that Clare is also passing as white, but not only in moments that allow her security or comfort; Clare passes in her everyday life. When Clare had been shipped off to live with her white aunts after her father’s death, she had been forbidden by them to mention her “Negro” ancestry (Larsen 18). Eventually, she had married her wealthy husband and had a child, all under the facade of being a white woman. Clare’s commitment to this facade bears similarities to aforementioned comforts of passing as white, particularly when Clare asks Irene if she has ever considered passing:

“Tell me, honestly, haven’t you ever thought of ‘passing’?”

Irene answered promptly: “No. Why should I?… You see, Clare, I’ve everything I want. Except, perhaps, a little ore money.”

At that Clare laughed… “Of course,” she declared, “that’s what everybody wants, just a little more money… And I must say I don’t blame them. Money’s awfully nice to have. In fact, all things considered, I think… that it’s even worth the price.”

(Larsen 19)

Not only are facets of  Clare’s identity and desire revealed here, but this passage 

elevates the concept of passing for comfort and security. While Clare is displayed as mainly passing for prosperity, she also passes for safety. When Irene meets Clare’s husband, she learns that Clare is even passing in her private home life. Completely separate from the social scene, Clare had gotten married, birthed a child, and lives completely as a white woman—even her family doesn’t know her true race. Complicating the situation, Clare’s husband, Jack Bellew, is an avid racist and refers to Clare as ‘Nig:’ “I don’t dislike them, I hate them. And so does Nig… they give me the creeps. The black scrimy devils,” (Larsen 30). The discomfort and tension of this scene is palpable as Irene tries to hold back her reaction to such vitriolic language and rhetoric: “in Irene, rage had not retreated, but was held by some dam of caution and allegiance to Clare,” (Larsen 31). This tense interaction stands as an example of the second reason Larsen presents for Irene’s passing: safety. Irene’s ability to stand up and pronounce her Blackness in this moment is restricted by a very real risk to her livelihood; Jack is aggressive, vitriolic, and physically fit and there is no predicting what would occur had Irene revealed that she is a Black woman. Irene, in subduing her innate reaction to Jack’s racist remarks, echoes a similar concept in Lorde’s writing: “in order to survive, those of us for whom oppression is as American as apple pie have always had to be watchers… for some illusion of protection,” (Lorde, Sister Outsider 114). Adaptability is a skill, Lorde notes, that Black women have had to master for many years when navigating social and racial issues. Clare’s upbringing with her aunts reveals a toxic living environment in which her marriage to Jack had been her only way out. However, does Clare Kendry’s complete erasure of her Black identity qualify as adaptation or self-preservation? Furthermore, is it truly “worth the price”?

Larsen uses Clare Kendry’s total transformation into a white woman to contrast Irene’s more selective passing. In addition, Clare’s extreme act of passing emphasizes that Irene’s passing does not negate her pride as a Black woman. Joona Taipale, in her essay about Tove Jansson’s story, Invisible Child, reflects on characteristics prevalent in Clare: 

Even if there is no doubt that Ninny is alive in the biological sense, she does not properly feel alive and real. It is as if she was not fully in touch with her life, and therefore when she perceives others, she cannot grasp herself as being seen by them with such an internal reservoir… she is like a ghostly incarnation of ‘anyone,’ an anonymous X without any individualizing content… she is not active but passive in relation to the social environment.

(Taipale 15)

I bring Taipale’s analysis of Ninny from Invisible Child into discussion to show the similarities it shares with Clare, in the way that their identities are inextricably linked to their passing existence as white women. Clare’s acceptance of her husband calling her racially derogatory terms shows her complacency in her own degradation in order to assimilate into privilege. Furthermore, Clare’s willingness to bring her two friends to meet her husband knowing that they are Black women and that Jack is a racist shows a lack of attunement with reality and her life. The interaction between Clare, Jack, and Irene shows Clare’s passivity; her only real moment of interjection comes when she playfully tries to quiet her husband’s racist remarks: “‘Really, Jack!’ Clare’s voice was on the edge of temper,” (Larsen 31). While this remark comes after countless derogatory racist comments, Clare’s persona never crosses over that edge of temper, but rather passively toes the line. It appears as though Clare has crafted a comfortable, yet entirely unstable, life for herself where she can exist as a quiet, complacent, white housewife.. Later in Passing, it appears that Clare realizes her desire to break out of the constraints she’s grown accustomed to: “Clare Kendry had said to her, for whom safety, security, were all important: ‘Safe! Damn being safe!’ and meant it,” (Larsen 51). Clare continues to express her desire to reconnect with her “people,” and seems to express remorse for the life she’s created for herself: “if it hadn’t been for that, I’d have gone on to the end, never seeing any of you. But that did something to me, and I’ve been so lonely since! You can’t know… never anyone to really talk to,” (Larsen 52). Clare’s self-erasure of her Blackness has created a “ghostly incarnation” (Taipale 15) of the childhood friend that Irene knew many years prior. Instead, what remains, is a ghostly shell of a woman longing for her old identity, but stuck in a strange invisible life that she’s created for herself.

Irene’s reactions upon discovering that Clare is living her life wholeheartedly as a white woman acts as further indication of the Black pride within Irene. Once Irene leaves Clare’s home, her anger rears its head, albeit in a subtle way: “‘I was more than a little angry myself’… That, Irene pointed out, was exactly like Clare… Taking a chance, and not at all considering anyone else’s feelings,” (Larsen 33). Irene is proud of being Black and, therefore, would never imagine sacrificing that part of her identity in order to marry a white man. Her disdain over Clare’s life choices, once again, parallels with the writings of Lorde: “for the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change… this fact is only threatening to… women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support” (Lorde, Master’s Tools 54). Irene appears to share similar sentiments in her disapproval of Clare’s consistent passing, apparent when she vows to not see Clare again after meeting Jack. While these sentiments may not seem as surefire as Lorde’s potent essays, I urge you to recall the time differences between Irene and Lorde. Had Irene lived in a more modern time, based on the connections I’ve presented thus far, she may very well have been a more outspoken activist for Black civil rights. Furthermore, Irene seems to silence her response to Jack’s racist rants for the sake of her own safety, as well as Clare’s. Could Irene’s protection of Clare imply a connection beyond platonic friendship?

While I’ve analyzed Irene’s relationship with her racial identity, there is an undeniable queerness bubbling beneath the surface of Passing that points to an intersection in Irene’s sexual identity. From the moment Irene spots Clare on the rooftop of the Drayton Hotel, Larsen uses an array of romantic language to describe their interactions: “an attractive-looking woman, was Irene’s opinion, with those dark, almost black, eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin” (Larsen 6). Irene explicitly expresses admiration of Clare’s mouth and figure through her summer clothing. As Elizabeth Dean points out in her queer reading of Passing, gazing seems to be a tool Larsen uses to “explain the central tensions of queerness and respectability in the novel” (97). Furthermore, when Clare begins to gaze at Irene, Irene seems more concerned with how her attire looks than if she’s being exposed as passing: “had she, in her haste in the taxi, put her hat on backwards?… Perhaps there was a streak of powder somewhere on her face” (Larsen 7). Irene continues to describe Clare as “lovely” or the mood around their interactions as “seductive.” When Irene swears to never see Clare again after meeting her husband, this oath may be viewed as Irene’s repression or shunning of her feelings for Clare. However, the oath lasts no longer than a couple weeks. When Clare shows up at Irene’s home unexpectedly, one would expect Irene to be angry, instead, she asks for Clare’s forgiveness for shunning her (Larsen 52). Certainly, if we are to view Passing as a subtle queer novel, it is imperative to acknowledge the complexities that queerness adds to Irene’s personal and social identity. Dean makes clear that “queer women sat at the bottom of the hierarchy of respectability” (Dean 99). For Irene to acknowledge, or succumb to, any sort of sapphic tension with Clare, it would mean placing herself in a detrimental and dangerous social position. Irene’s denial of her connection with Clare has two-fold implications: she is uncomfortable with how Clare lives as a white woman, or she is uncomfortable with the queer feelings that Clare evokes in her. Interestingly, these two possibilities represent the two important aspects of Irene’s intersectional identity. It would be unjust to analyze Irene’s queerness as separate from her Blackness, as both of these aspects directly impact the way she navigates the world. 

As Lorde makes clear, “refusing to recognize difference makes it impossible to see the different problems and pitfalls facing us,” (Lorde, Sister Outsider 118). Accepting Irene’s queerness and Blackness presents new potential motives for the ways in which Irene acts throughout Passing. Does Irene have a difficult time forgetting Clare because of her romantic feelings? Is Irene’s resentment towards Clare caused by Clare’s interference in Irene’s Black pride? Irene’s actions point to the possibility of these realities. Had Clare not been considered during Irene and Jack’s tense interaction, Irene could have simply left or revealed her Blackness in a show of pride to combat Jack’s racism. Irene’s potential romantic interest in Clare further complicates the situation. Had Irene displayed her Blackness, she would have risked never seeing Clare again or causing Clare serious harm. Perhaps Irene’s feelings for Clare interfered with her ability to be proudly Black in this moment, establishing another cause for Irene’s attempt to ostracize Clare from her life. In her review of Lorde and Jansson’s work, Hallie Wells raises interesting points in regards to the concealment and revealing of one’s queerness: “effort [is] required both to conceal and to reveal. Neither of these processes are discrete events; rather, they require ongoing effort and vigilance” (Wells 227). Irene’s refusal to see Clare, under Wells’ analysis, can very well be seen as an active vigilant effort to conceal her queer desires. In addition, Wells notes that concealment and disclosure require a “negotiation [with] a primarily heterosexual social world, as well as a relation to an ‘other’ who is desired” (Wells 227). Brian, Irene’s husband, becomes the  negotiator within their heterosexual world as their marriage is primarily void of intimacy. As for the desired “other” that Wells mentions, I argue that this is represented in Clare: Irene’s desire for Clare peeks through clearly when Clare asks, “you mean you don’t want me, ‘Rene?” To which Irene responds, “no, Clare, it’s not that” (Larsen 50).

The subtle romantic interactions between Irene and Clare further establishes Irene’s shy queerness throughout Passing. I’d like to extend Wells’ framework of concealment versus disclosure to cover the moments when Irene and Clare conceal or disclose their racial identities as well. Passing requires active concealment of one’s race, a negotiation of the white hegemonic society in which you are passing, and the desire for some sort of “other,” whether that be embodied by a person or a form of prosperity. This then echoes the idea that we cannot consider one part of someone’s identity without taking into account all parts of their identity, thus proving the intersectionality that is at the heart of Passing.

Although her classic novel, Passing, is a mere ninety-four pages long, Nella Larsen is able to weave a nuanced story of racial tension and queer desire, and display the social limitations of Black queer people in the 1920s. In connecting Irene’s proud Blackness and shy queerness with the writing of Audre Lorde, it becomes clear that Irene is limited in owning her intersectional position within a white, heteronormative world. After examining Irene’s multifaceted identity, it becomes clear that she could have very well inhabited similar positions to those of many Black, lesbian, feminist women had she existed in a more modern time. Between the advocacy she partakes in to the romanticism she displays with Clare, Irene Redfield is a pillar of Black feminism in Passing—whether she is aware of it or not. While Irene’s voice may have been louder and prouder had she existed in a more modern context, Black, queer, feminist voices are still erased and ignored in contemporary movements such as the LGBTQ Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter. As Jade Petermon and Leland Spencer explain, “#BlackLivesMatter is, at its core, a movement rooted in queer Black womanhood. Its founders, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, all identify as Black women, and Cullors and Garza identify as queer” (Petermon and Spencer, 340). While the movement itself had been created by three Black women and two queer women, all too often the representation of Black Lives Matter “erases the founders’ identities,” (Petermon and Spencer 339). In regards to the LGBTQ Rights Movement, many critics point out the “white hegemony and transphobia” within the movement itself (Petermon and Spencer 342). Just as it had been important to understand the 1920’s social milieu in order to understand how Irene navigates it, it is important to understand today’s social milieu to understand how Black, queer, feminist women are still marginalized. America in 2020 is a potent example of the ways in which Black and queer lives are still in danger. While Irene does not exist in a modern time, to speculate on who she could have been allows for a kind of introspection into ourselves: we could all use a bit of Irene Redfield and Audre Lorde’s bravery in combating our hegemonic and heterosexist society.

Works Cited

Dean, Elizabeth. “The Gaze, The Glance, The Mirror: Queer Desire and Panoptic Discipline in Nella Larsen’s Passing,Women’s Studies, vol. 48, no. 2, 2019, pp. 97-103, Accessed 15 Dec 2020.

Harcourt, Felix. Ku Klux Kulture: America and the Klan in the 1920s. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Larsen, Nella. Passing. New York, Dover Publications, 2004.

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” Sister Outsider. Crossing Press, 2007. 

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the House,” Gender Space Architecture, no. 1, 2000, pp. 53-55, Accessed 15 Dec 2020.

Smith-Pryor, Elizabeth M. “Passing and the ‘Seemingly Absurd Question” of Race.” Property Rites, 2009, pp. 89-111. Project MUSE, Accessed 15 Dec 2020.

Taipale, Joona. “Social Mirrors. Trove Jansson’s Invisible Child and the importance of being seen,” The Scandanavian Psychoanalytic Review, vol. 39, no. 1, 2016, pp. 13-25, Accessed 15 Dec 2020.

Tribe, Laurence H. “Lawrence V. Texas: The ‘Fundamental Right’ That Dare Not Speak Its Name.” Harvard Law Review, vol. 117, no. 6, 2004, pp. 1893-1955, Accessed 15 Dec 2020.

Wells, Hallie. “Between discretion and disclosure: Queer (e)labor(ations) in the work of Tove Jansson and Audre Lorde,” Journal of Lesbian Studies, vol. 23, no. 2, 2019, pp. 224-242, Accessed 15 Dec 2020.