Excerpt from "The Production of Identity in the Harlem Renaissance"
Written by: Tamara Hollins, Former Consultant, CGU Writing Center
Part One: Introduction
The construction of a "minority" identity in the complex history of the United States is extremely challenging. Early America often hid its double standards under the cover of false political, social, and literary ideology. Miscegenation laws were passed in the 1800s even as white men continued to rape black women. The black group was declared separate but equal to whites while being denied political, economic, and social rights. This situation was exacerbated during ante-bellum black migration from the South to the North, or from the agrarian past to the modern, industrial present. Unable to fully fit in the restrictive American world and possessing a remnant cultural history from times past, the modern American black was alienated--a native of a land of which she or he was not a part (Huggins 139). The result of these events was a sense of "double consciousness" in the black group as it wavered between being "American, [and]...Negro" (DuBois 2). In the face of these tremendous obstacles, how has identity been established by black American writers?
One of the ways identity was constructed during the Harlem Renaissance is through literature. The Renaissance brought a change in the poetic and fictional form and theme of novels concerning the construction of a black identity. Previously defined by stereotypes and stock characters, black American Harlem Renaissance writers embraced the concept of the New Negro: an African and an American who recognizes ties with the past but moves, lives, and breathes in an industrialized, modern world. Black people were placed at the center of literary themes, their "cultural ideals, social and historical realities, and traditions" composing the literary content (Jones 153). Further, spirituality, repetition, call and response, and rhythm informed the texts along with the regenerative "power of African orature, the Spirituals,...the blues, jazz, ..and [the black dialect]" (Abarry 134). The task of the New Negro was to identify and articulate a community consciousness in addition to participating "in American civilization" (Locke 15). Thus, black ideology was combined with traditional tools from the white culture. This produced reconstructed literary forms and deconstructed traditional themes, resulting in a "minority" identity. The work produced by three major literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance evidences this tactical way of operating. Nella Larsen (1881-1964), Langston Hughes, and Jean Toomer (1894-1967) mix traditional forms with black-centered themes and tools. But their methods are different and so are aspects of the resulting identities. Regardless of these differences, all three authors focus on producing an assertive and intellectual blackness.
To produce blackness, Nella Larsen deconstructs an old theme. In this section, definitions and a brief history of literary passing are given after which the intricacies of passing and identity are explored in Larsen's Passing. Passing is an action which allows blacks to don white middle class values and participate in the white world. During the Harlem Renaissance, Jim Crow (1890-1940) was in full swing and the black world was one of difficulty, deplete of political and civic rights. American culture allowed for "no synthesis of black and white experiences, even when their actions are evident in the very body of the mulatta" (Kubitscheck 93). However, there was a crack in the wall. Situated between blacks and whites, mulattos straddled the invisible racial divider. Driven to drastic measures because of American racism and the need for economic survival, these people sometimes "fell" of the wall and passed into the white side. It is in this environment that passing became a major focus of early twentieth-century novels.
Expressing the complications and nuances of passing is the tragic mulatto theme. This theme was first introduced and developed by white American authors. Jacquelyn Y. McLendon notes that Sterling Brown has traced the first mulatto in American literature to Cora Munro in The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper (1826) (Berzon 53). Usually, the tragic mulatto is a woman, an intelligent beauty whose purity is always in conflict with savage primitivism (99). This marginal black woman is unwilling to conform to a circumscribed existence in the black world and tries to escape its miseries by passing for white and obtaining a white lover. The mulatto is unable to move freely in the white world due to fear of her identity being discovered. She can never really be white, and the only path to freedom lies in death. According to Starke, the mulatto archetype "appears to have been set by the middle of the nineteenth century" and was used by both black and white writers (90). Victor Sejour's The Mulatto (1837), which is about a male slave who murders his white father, employs the white tragic mulatto theme and is the earliest known work of black American fiction regardless of the fact that it was published in France (Gates, Jr. and McKay, 287).
The tragic mulatto theme was eventually revised by black American authors during the early twentieth century. Just before the Harlem Renaissance, Charles Chesnutt (The House Behind the Cedars, 1900) and James Weldon Johnson (The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, 1912) approached the theme with intellectual unrest and assertiveness. During the Harlem Renaissance, Jessie Fauset, Langston Hughes, and Jean Toomer explored the minds of intelligent mulattos as they identified themselves as black Americans and, as stated by Juanita Starke, conquered "their hatred of their black blood" (102). The basic features of the revised theme turned out to be the same as the white mulatto theme--the new mulatto conforms with the white ideal of beauty and upholds white middle class values. However, the black passing theme differs from the traditional theme in one respect: the new assertive protagonist becomes disillusioned with the white life and returns to the black world. While the traditional mulatto dies still believing that passing is the only way to achieve happiness, the new mulatto discovers happiness as she embraces the black culture.
In Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun, Angela feels confined by the rules of color prejudice. She lives on a segregated street and longs for "broad thoroughfares [and] large, bright houses" (11). Disillusioned with black life in Philadelphia, Angela decides to pass. However, the life she lives is not the one of her dream. Seeking status and security through marriage to Roger, a rich white man, she mistakes lust for love and the relationship fails. With the departure of Roger comes loneliness and a wish for the "peace, the security, the companionableness" of her roots (241). Eventually, Angela returns to the black culture. At that time, she is reunited with her true love, a poor mulatto she previously rejected for rich Roger. In Hughes' poem "Cross," the aggressive narrator condemns the hypocritical South which opposed interracial relationships but overlooked the rape of black women by white men. In his poem "Mulatto," the narrator, reeling from this southern history, proudly asserts himself as a black man. While Toomer's Louisa in "Blood-Burning Moon" does not pass, she is torn between her white and her black heritages. This is manifested in her romantic relationships with a white man and with a black man, both of whom fight over her. Louisa does not choose between them, and the story climaxes with the death of each lover. Failing to completely embrace the white culture and refusing to forsake her dark heritage, Louisa defies the traditional mulattos who yearned to be only white.
Part Two: Nella Larsen's Passing
This revision of the white mulatto theme continues in Nella Larsen's Passing when a passing character returns to the black community. In the book, two black friends from childhood, each light enough to pass, choose different ways to live. Clare Kendry passes physically and marries Jack Bellew, a racist white bigot. Irene Westover measures herself by white standards and marries a frustrated black man who desires to escape the racist American environment by emigrating to Brazil. One day Clare and Irene meet, renewing their acquaintance. Irene is conventional and jealous of Clare's freedom, finding Clare a threat to her marriage and the life she has constructed for herself. Clare is adventurous and jealous of Irene's connection to the black community. As a result, she manages to weave herself into Irene's life and back into the black culture. Her loneliness is abated as she happily "laugh[s]" at the thought of attending a Harlem dance with Irene (199). Eventually, Clare's husband discovers her identity and, in a hazy narrative description, she falls out of a window. It is implied that Clare was pushed, but who pushed her remains a mystery. Although the re-connection to the black life leads to violence for Clare, she does achieve momentary happiness after embracing blackness. The second way Larsen deconstructs the traditional mulatto theme is through an exploration of psychological passing. This type of passing is achieved through Irene's acceptance of white bourgeois values such as professional stature and conservative personal conduct. The acceptance of these values stem from a need for economic security and comfort as opposed to traditional mulattos who simply fall victim to inevitable biological events and a single desire to be white. Although the black identity is not asserted through psychological passing, the portrayal is important because it delves into the mind of the mulatto as opposed to the singular physical portrayal of the mulatto in the traditional mulatto theme.
The third way Larsen opposes the assertion of whiteness through the traditional mulatto theme is by showing how two characters pass into each other. Irene finds herself trapped in a situation where the lines of identity become dangerously invisible as her white ideology comes in conflict with Clare's passion and primitivism. The psychologically passing Irene is unable to control herself as she gives into her emotions, committing violent acts. On the other hand, Clare happily becomes an essential part of Irene's home life, almost replacing Irene as mother and wife. By passing into Clare, Irene unwillingly reconnects with elements of blackness formerly hidden under bourgeois values. By passing into Irene, Clare is able to affirm her blackness. Thus, both characters challenge the white mulatto theme by asserting the black identity through psychological passing. In passing physically, Irene and Clare acknowledge the possibilities and limitations inherent in racial and cultural boundaries. When Irene meets Clare for the first time in twelve years, she is sitting in the whites only Drayton rooftop restaurant. Her passing is partial because she is only temporarily taking advantage of the opportunity to rest from the cruel Chicago August heat in a white neighborhood. Still, it reveals the limitations of access to public places for black Americans while stressing the lack of limitations for white people. If it became known that Irene is black, she would have been "ejected" from the building (150). However, white characters have unlimited access to a dance located in Harlem and hosted by blacks later in the book. The white people attend the Negro Welfare League dance for various reasons, including to satisfy their curiosity, an act which would have had severe repercussions if committed by a black person at the Drayton restaurant. It seems that the strict color lines drawn in the world are momentarily suspended at the dance. White women rave "'about the good looks of some Negro, preferably an unusually dark one'" while Hugh Wentworth, a friend of Irene's, calls Clare a "blond beauty out of the fairy-tale" (Larsen 205). Interracial couples flirt with the possibilities of illicit relationships but when the fun ends everyone returns to their limited, segregated lives. It also seems that the possibilities continue in Clare. Hugh Wentworth believes that Clare is a member of his "superior race" and is interested in her, wondering if all the "'gentlemen of colour' have driven a mere Nordic from her mind" (205). Still, Wentworth questions whether Clare is at the dance because she is curious like other white people or because she is black. Whatever the possibilities, they are always curtailed by the limitations.
This phenomenon is further evidenced by the veneer of passing. Clare wears her skin as a cloak hiding her black self and as a costume to cover her real identity. Clare Kendry was once poor, motherless, and the daughter of a drunk. Now, married to a man who has returned from South America with untold amounts of gold, she conforms to the white ideal of beauty. Hugh Wentworth has already described her as a fairy tale figure with her "pale gold hair," a "sweet... mouth," and "ivory skin" (161). At the dance, Irene describes Clare as "exquisite, golden, fragrant, flaunting, in a stately gown of shining black taffeta" (203). Clare is a white princess, indeed. Betraying this image are Clare's eyes. Irene says the unrecognized Clare in the beginning of the novel has black and mesmeric eyes with something secret about them: they are "Negro eyes! mysterious and concealing... exotic" (161). Clare's eyes belie her cloak as her need to be among the black people at the Negro Welfare League dance belies her costume, evoking the suspicion of Wentworth. Again, another boundary raises its ugly head. Even with the possibilities inherent in racial and cultural boundaries that allow her to pass, Clare is l limited by the fact that she cannot ever truly be white; she can never be accepted by the white race without the employment of her white mask and even then she runs the risk of being found out and turned out of public places, house and home (Bone 126). Irene runs the same risk. While at the Drayton, she becomes increasingly uncomfortable under the stare of the unrecognized Clare. "Did that woman... somehow know that before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro?" Irene asks herself (Larsen 150).
Fear increases in Irene as the unrecognized woman approaches her. Irene's image as a woman with Spanish heritage dissolves, exposing her under the curious "white" gaze. Fear also pervades the atmosphere at Clare's tea party. Her husband refers to black people as "scrawny black devils" (171). There will be, Bellew cries, "No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be" (171). The revelation of Clare's and Irene's true identities surely would have resulted in, at the very least, both of them being tossed out of the apartment. Humiliated, Irene would have lost face, or dignity. Irene is not "ashamed of being a Negro, or even having it declared. It was the idea of being ejected from any place" that caused her to keep her identity a secret. But by denying her own origins so not to be humiliated, Irene loses the face of her black heritage. While the white mask barely manages to render Clare opaque in the white world, it renders her completely invisible to the black world simply because she denies the black face by passing. Irene was not happy to make her reacquaintance at the Drayton. Reminiscing over tea in the restaurant, Clare speak of friends from the past. She states that Margaret Hammer looked "right through" her when they met at Marshal Field's, preventing Clare from speaking. Clare became so invisible that even she wondered if she "was actually there in the flesh or not" (154). Unable to fully penetrate the white and the black boundaries, Clare become a limited and native stranger in the midst of each population. To fulfill the black mulatto theme, Clare must completely return to her black culture and not just delve into it when chance permits. Like James Weldon Johnson, Angela, and Louisa, she will have to choose one heritage.
Irene done a psychological as well as a physical disguise to hide her black self. In accordance with black passing novels designed to prove racial civility, Irene is depicted as intelligent, refined, and morally upright. Business success, professional stature, an outward display of wealth, and strict codes of personal conduct are tools employed by Irene and the black middle class to make it in white racist America. This is seen in the costumed Irene wears to the Negro Welfare League dance. Dressed in a "rose-coloured chiffon frock" ending at the knees and wearing cropped curls, her appearance reflects her status as a doctor's wife (203). Irene is the photographic negative of a conservative white society matron and her passing depends on her "ability to keep up appearances" (124). Irene keeps up appearances even to the point where she is psychologically affected. IN a conversation with her husband as she prepares to host a tea party, Irene thinks that Brian is having an affair with Clare. Minutes later, her attention is focused on pounding the tea "properly and nicely" (218). Following bourgeois codes of conduct, Irene tries to present a dignified image, refusing to "think yet" lest she appear uncivilized (219). Attending and giving tea parties, being a wife and a mother have become occupations in which work is done in accordance with certain protocol.
Because she takes her role to an extreme, Irene goes beyond imitating to being. She penetrates the white ideological boundary on a psychological level, and her life is based purely on image. She views her husband Brian not as a sexually desirable man but as a status symbol. Her description of him is cold, lacking warmth and passion. Irene states that Brian is "extremely good-looking" but his physical appearance evokes no emotion in her (183). Irene has become so moral and prudish that her husband now considers sex a "grand joke" (189). When Brian touches her, it is merely to "[pilot] her round" the staircase (184). They speak of inconsequential things at the breakfast table, Irene "[i]gnoring Brian's references to Brazil (186). Brian blames her for failing to encourage his dream to live in Brazil while Irene congratulates herself on this fact, stating that his success in the United States has proven her right. Her demand for "security of place and substance" has produced a family life in which no one is content (190). These problems do not matter to Irene if not one knows about them and everything can "go on as before" (222). Clare may play her masquerade with great flair, but Irene's methodological performance is just as successful. Clare is white in color, but Irene becomes white in mind.
Not only do Irene and Clare experiment with their own places in society, they experiment with each other's. Their psychologies change to the point where Clare becomes an escort for Irene's husband and Irene becomes like Clare, malice rising in her to the point of explosion. Clare wants to kill Jack for denying her things. Disillusioned with her white life, Clare yearns for " 'my own people' " and thinks that Irene's psychological passing "may be the wiser and infinitely happier one" (182, 178). She wants to "see Negroes, to be with them again, to talk with them, to hear them laugh" (200). She desires spontaneity, intangibles of the black spiritual heritage and the primitivism Irene tries to avoid (Little 176-77). Clare found security in the white culture but is no longer free or happy; her identity and ability to express herself are stifled. Clare seeks happiness by reclaiming the black culture, but reclaims it by delving into Irene's life. She invites herself to the Welfare League Dance. Ted and Junior, Irene's children, admire her to the point of "adoration" (Larsen 208). Clare interacts well with Zulene and Sadie, Irene's hired help, and even accompanies Brian in lieu of Irene to bridge parties and benefit dances. Irene is Clare's alter libido, a connection to her cultural past.
In Clare, Irene's middle class consciousness deteriorates. Irene's description of Clare as "[c]atlike... sometimes... affectionate and rashly impulsive [with]... an amazing soft malice, hidden well away until provoked" turns out to be a description of herself. Irene's feelings toward Clare are ambivalent (144-45). At one moment she feels "disdain and contempt" for Clare, tossing her letter in the wastebasket (191). Hours later, gazing at Clare, she has a "sudden inexplicable onrush of affectionate feeling" (194). These "catlike" symptoms of transformation climax as Irene begins to agree with Clare "that no one is completely happy, or free, or safe," rejecting the foundation of the society matron role she has striven so hard to achieve (196). Irene no longer has a clear role. References to Clare become references to Irene. For instance, when questioning Clare's reasons for passing, Irene comes to the conclusion that she could not betray Clare, "couldn't even run the risk of appearing to defend a people that were being maligned, for fear that that defense might in some infinitesimal degree lead the way to final discovery of her secret" (182). Although the "her" is meant to be Clare it could just as easily refer to Irene. Irene hovers between her black self in Clare and her white self as a society matron. She is caught between "two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. . . . Whatever steps she took, or if she took none at all, something would be cursed. A person or the race. Clare, herself, or the race. Or, it might be, all three (225). Irene's world is barely more secure than that of Clare's. When it is threatened, she becomes as dangerous as Clare. Clare is dangerous because she rejects the middle class values of safety, bringing the undesirable element of primitivism into Irene's over- emphasized, racially-uplifted life. She is also a threat because her alleged seduction of Brian threatens Irene's carefully structured world. Upon realizing the possible link between Clare and Brian, Irene wants to "laugh, to scream, to hurl things about . . . to shock people, to hurt them, to make them notice her" (219). These actions would undermine her "natural and deeply rooted aversion to the kind of front page notoriety that Clare" attracts (157). Regardless, rage boils up in her and there is a crash as she drops a teacup, fulfilling her wish for violence and attention. Irene begins to act as devious as she thinks Clare is. Irene does not mention that she saw Bellew while she was socializing with a black woman in public: no one would "know from her that he was on his way to suspecting the truth about his wife" (236). Irene realizes that the only way to keep Clare from risking her marriage and assuming her identity is to make Bellew aware of the amount of time Clare spends in "black Harlem" while he is away (225). Bellew not only becomes aware of this, but makes a surprise entrance at a house party and calls Clare a "damned dirty nigger" (238). He rushes toward Clare, Irene reaches out, and Clare suddenly falls out of the window.
Briefly happy during her field trips into the black culture, Clare dies because she fails to completely chose one identity over the other. Irene, Clare's double, experiences psychological suicide because she also fails to chose one identity, physically living in the black world while operating from white ideology. Passing is both figuratively and literally a transitory state. Always in the process of going from one side to the other, Irene and Clare exist as ghosts, seeking to escape the black world with roots too entrenched in blackness to allow them to fully exist in the white world. They seek to escape the black world not because they are victims of miscegenation but of inequality (Washington 95). If the security and social status of the white middle class had been readily available to Clare and Irene, they would have been able to fully express all sides of their selves; they would not have needed to take the tragic journey from their roots by passing. The book would then have been only about rivalry and sexuality. Nella Larsen deconstructs the "master" mulatto narrative to inscribe realistic mulattos and interrogate traditional assumptions about color and class while embracing blackness (Washington 27). Thus, the novel passes from one tradition to another. The assertive Irene and Clare, who are aware of the dangers of transgressing racial boundaries, internally manipulate a system to defeat the established order on its "home ground" (de Certeau 126). The "black blood" in Clare and in Irene is supposed to prohibit any access to their white heritage. By using her appearance, which conforms to the white ideal of beauty, Clare manages to gain the material comforts and social status denied to her as a black person. By revising her value system and passing occasionally, Irene gains the same. Through the subversive use of multiple layers of passing, the established order of Jim Crow is defeated as black people gain the very things being withheld from them while maintaining a black consciousness and returning to the black community. In this way, Larsen deviates from the unhappy traditional mulatto narrative to cleverly embrace the black identity. In rethinking form, Nella Larsen produces a work which offers a solution to DuBois' double consciousness.