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'Passing' Across The Color Line In The Jazz Age

Heidi W. Durrow is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and Yale Law School. Her debut novel is The Girl Who Fell From The Sky.

There are novels that are enjoyable to read and others that say something about the world. And sometimes there are novels that are both. Passing by Nella Larsen is one of those books.

Passing is set at the height of the Jazz Age — when Harlem was in vogue. It's the story of two light-skinned black women whose comfortable lives unravel when they are reacquainted in a whites-only restaurant: Irene, the wife of a prominent African-American doctor and the mother of two boys; and her childhood friend Clare, who is passing as white.

Clare longs to be among black folks again. And at the risk of her racially intolerant husband discovering her real identity, Clare secretly joins Irene and her husband at the best clubs and parties where the Harlem literati and intelligentsia meet. Larsen's slim book reads like a literary page-turner. Will Clare's secret be exposed? Will she return to Harlem? Will the women's friendship survive Clare's renewed interest in her African-American roots?

Larsen's prose is spare and elegant, and the dialogue is smart: when Irene asks her husband why the folks who cross the color line always yearn to return, he answers, "If I knew that, I'd know what race is." Exactly!

Larsen herself — one of the most prominent Harlem Renaissance writers — for a time led a glamorous life before she died in obscurity in 1964. Married to a well-known black physicist, Larsen initially enjoyed a front seat to the Harlem Renaissance and then a place on center stage as the author of two highly acclaimed novels and the first woman of African-American descent awarded a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship.

But Passing wouldn't still be meaningful if its main theme was the danger of crossing the color line. Not even the tabloids are interested in running "alarming" headlines like this one, which appeared in a 1928 New York World: "Crossing the Color Line: Social and Economic Ambitions Lead Negroes to 'Pass' at Rate of 5,000 a Year to White Fold."

Passing is among my favorite books because it's about being defined by what other people see and the desire to transcend that.

You may not identify with being a light-skinned African-American, but you have probably felt at some point that what was most important about you wasn't visible.

I have read and re-read Passing more than a dozen times. Each time I think I can hear Larsen's own voice more clearly: asking, demanding really, that each of us abandon the labels we've been assigned and celebrate the story that we are.

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Heidi W. Durrow