Passing and Human Relationships

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Passing and Human Relationships

The Harlem Renaissance was a turning point for many African Americans. A vast amount of literature was created specifically for this group during this era. For the first time, African Americans were being told that it was okay to be proud of who they were. This new consciousness and self-awareness was prominent in many works of literature, but several writers began exploring the darker side of this movement with literature that concentrated on the negative aspects of race relations in America. Nella Larsen's novel Passing concentrates on this theme with the story of Clare, a tragic mulatto who "passes" as a white person. Not only is Passing representative of the plight of the tragic mulatto, it is also a novel that explores the complexities of human relationships.

As defined by critic Claudia Tate, a tragic mulatto is a "character who passes [as a white person] and then reveals pangs of anguish resulting from forsaking his or her black identity" (142). Clare Kendry's life is a perfect example of the plight of the tragic mulatto. In Passing, Clare seems to have "one overriding urge: to return to the [African American] world she left" (Davis 98). Clare tells her friend Irene Redfield that "she can't know how in this pale life of mine I am all the time seeing the bright pictures of that other that I once thought I was glad to be free of…It's like an ache, a pain that never ceases" (Larsen 145). She also realizes how much she wants to see African Americans, "to be with them again, to talk with them, to hear them laugh" (Larsen 200). Although Irene feels that there is "nothing sacrificial in Clare's idea of life, no allegiance beyond her own immediate desire," it is apparent that Clare's desire to return to her African American race is honest, even if the motives seem one-sided (Larsen 144).

Irene considers Clare to be "selfish, cold and hard" (Larsen 144). Irene also feels that Clare does not have "even the slightest artistic or sociological interest in the race that some members of other races displayed. [She] cared nothing of the race, she only belonged to it" (Larsen 182). Although there may be some truth to this statement, it does not diminish Clare's own pain at having to deny her African American heritage, and her desire to return to it. Irene represents a portion of society who feel that people who pass must have a morally acceptable reason to return to their African American roots such as a desire to rebel against a white society that has forced them into the role of a white person. Just because Clare feels "no permanent allegiance to either the black or white worlds or any of the classic anguish of the tragic mulatto" does not mean that she is not a tragic mulatto (Washington 48). In her own way, Clare Kendry belongs with "that group of tragic mulattos…emerging as an individual, not as a stereotype" (Davis 98). Her desire to return to her own race on her own terms illustrates her individuality in the face of a stereotypical tragic mulatto. Clare may not be the typical tragic mulatto, but her actions prove that she belongs in this group of literary figures. Clare Kendry passes in order to secure a more stable life. Her desire to do this begins when she is young, after her African American father dies and she is left with her white aunts. While there, Clare begins to want more than what she has as an African American. She "used to go over to the south side, and used to almost hate all [African Americans]. [They] had all the things she wanted and never had had. It made [her] all the more determined to get them" (Larsen 159). In order to get what she wants Clare marries a white man, John Bellew, under the pretense that she is white. Clare is then required to "deny everything about her past-her girlhood, her family, her language, places with memories, folk customs, folk rhymes, and the entire long line of people that have gone before her" (Washington...
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