Clare began to talk, steering carefully away from anything that might lead towards race or other thorny subjects. It was the most brilliant exhibition of conversational weightlifting that Irene had ever seen.”
If ever there was a thorny subject that could benefit from conversational weightlifting, it’s race, whether we’re discussing the singing of the national anthem before an NFL game or who gets to do the Wakanda salute. When I was a child, I was taught not to see differences. Now differences are emphasized. The world has changed.
In Reader, Come Home Maryanne Wolf says that as today’s youth grow up and confront a world grownups like me cannot imagine, they need “ever more sophisticated forms of cognition and imagination.” She adds that they will need “a range of very different brain circuits.”
“Can an individual reader consciously acquire various circuits?” Wolf asks.
Yes, we can. And one of the best ways to acquire those circuits is to read books by authors with backgrounds different than our own. Not because we should or because it’s good for us but because there are excellent books by authors who fell outside the academic canon, like Nella Larsen. Her slim novella, Passing, published 90 years ago, upends whatever scripts you may have regarding race.
The title comes from the practice among some light-skinned blacks who could “pass” among whites, when doing so in America was a crime. The two central characters, Irene and Clare, can both pass. Clare left behind family, culture, and society and married a racist white man. Irene married a prominent dark-skinned doctor in New York City, but passes when it’s convenient or advantageous. After the two old friends reconnect in a whites-only Chicago restaurant, Clare starts to pursue her heritage, which means pursuing Irene. Trouble ensues.
This is fiction. There is a plot, which builds slowly and lethally. As in the best novels, there is foreshadowing everywhere, but it’s so muted you think it’s only description. Then you reread a single sentence about the ash of a cigarette and your eyes widen at Larsen’s genius.
The story is full of color, and I don’t just mean skin color. There are “pink women, golden women.” It’s as if Larsen thought to herself, Do you really want to talk about color? Well, then, I’ll give you some color to talk about.
For Irene, beige: “‘Not another damned thing!’ Irene declared aloud as she drew a fragile stocking over a pale beige-colored foot.”
For blonde-haired, black-eyed Clare, any bright color, especially blue: “Entering, Irene found herself in a sitting-room, large and high, at whose windows hung startling blue draperies which triumphantly dragged attention from the gloomy chocolate-covered furniture. And Clare was wearing a thin floating dress of the same shade of blue.”
Larsen was a member of the Harlem Renaissance. Passing is one of two novels she wrote, along with a few short stories. After a divorce she returned to her first profession, nursing. Her depression put an end to her writing. When she passed away in 1964,The New York Times passed her over. In 2018 they printed a much-delayed obituary for her.
I first heard about Passing on a podcast, then read it, then listened to another podcast about it, then read it again. It made me aware how much I attempt to categorize people by how they look, like the time I was handing out school supplies with a charity and tried to guess which parents spoke only Spanish and failed. To use Wolf’s language, my life experience has not always provided me with the necessary brain circuits to live in 2019. (I don’t think I would’ve done so well in the New York City of 1929 either.)
Clare and Irene share tea more than once in the book. They share cake. But even conversational calisthenics can’t change fate.
The trouble with Clare was not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.”
Darwin’s Daughter, Faith Shearin
Early Readers and Picture Books
Gingerbread Friends; Home for Christmas; The Mitten; The Night Before Christmas; The Wild Christmas Reindeer, Jan Brett
Nine Days to Christmas: A Story of Mexico, Marie Hall Ets & Aurora Labastida (Caldecott-winner)
The Upside Down Boy / El Nino de Cabeza, Juan Felipe Herrera (Join us for next week’s Children’s Book Club, January 11!)
1. What fiction have you read by an author of a different racial category that connected circuits for you or even laid new ones?
2. Did you make some time for deep reading this month? What stories stirred your soul?
3. Share your December pages. Sliced, started, and abandoned are all fair game.
Browse more Reader, Come Home
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro