“Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away.”

Brown Baggers book club met on Thursday, June 16th to discuss Passing by Nella Larsen. This classic work was originally published in 1929. Larsen, a mixed race woman herself, was the first black woman to graduate from New York Public Library’s library school and was the first black woman to win a Guggenheim Award for creative writing (1930). 

The novel focuses on two childhood friends, reuniting after many years of living completely different lives. One friend, Clare, chose to pass for white, and the other friend, Irene, became an integral part of her black community. According to our book club members, this topic was considered sensationally popular to write about back in the 1920s, and remained through the years a topic that intrigued consumers of books, television, movies, and other media. 

When it was first published, people did not respond favorably to the work. We discussed that this was likely because it revealed that racial “trickery” is possible, which would have made white readers very uncomfortable. In addition, the erotic subtext between Clare and Irene is another instance of passing presented (very subtly) in the novel; it can be argued that the women pass as heteronormative, when in fact, sexual ambiguity may be at play. 

One of our most interesting discussions revolved around how the movie, released in 2021 and currently available to watch on Netflix, differs from the book. Readers noted that in the book, all the information presented comes straight from Irene’s head – there is no omniscient narrator here, much to the displeasure of some readers, who wanted more from Clare. To me it almost sounds like Larsen has written the book in a way that pushes readers to pine for Clare’s point of view more…intimately. Maybe in the way Irene secretly pines for more intimacy with Clare? 

In the movie, this isn’t possible in the same way. So much of the ambiguity from the book is lost (although the ambiguous ending remains intact). In the book, Irene is a classic unreliable narrator. There is so much at stake for her as her suspicions surrounding her husband’s fidelity and even his sexuality mount – her social status, even her homeland. Readers also noted that the movie doesn’t hint at a potential lesbian attraction between the women. 

For our readers wondering why the movie was shot in black and white: for director Rebecca Hall, “shooting Passing in black and white was a non-negotiable request from her end” as a “black-and-white filming approach would blur these lines [of the segregated society], strengthening its intended message…” Hall also added, “The irony of black-and-white films is they’re gray, there’s nothing black or white about it, ever.” Black-and-white filming places more emphasis on light, shadow, and camera exposure; the screen becomes more textured, creating more depth. This depth mirrors the heaviness of life as a black, non-heterosexual in America in the 1920s….and even today. 

To read more about the movie, check out this article

Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, July 21st at noon to discuss News of the World by Paulette Jiles. 

Other books: 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson 

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Jeffers

My Monticello by Jocelyn Johnson 

Blindness by José Saramago

Show Boat by Edna Ferber 

A Chosen Exile by Allyson Hobbs 

The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher 

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