(Original Caption) The Most Populated Street in New York City – East 112th Street. General view of East 112th Street. (Getty Images)
In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term Intersectionality to expose how the “single-axis framework that is dominant in antidiscrimination law” is insufficient when considering the “multidimensionality of Black women’s experience” (139). However, the recognition of identities being complex and multivariable has been found throughout the twentieth century. This period in history includes segregation, homosexuality being illegal under law, and the exclusion of women from voting. Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing takes place when all of these were in action. Irene is a black woman with an anti-binary approach to race who can be read as queer. Her layers of marginalization are similarly found across different characters and challenge that single-axis framework recognized by Crenshaw. With this, I argue that Passing should be read as an early manifestation of intersectionality as it dismantles identity binaries while illustrating the multidimensional aspects of one’s self.
Harlem in the 1920s fostered the Black Renaissance. With hundreds of thousands of black Americans migrating up north from the south, Harlem received an influx of citizens looking to escape hostile inequalities of Jim Crow laws. The cultural movement was set on defining “an American culture distinct from that of Europe,” leading to an explosion of literature, jazz music, tap dance, and various other creative outlets (Hutchinson). However, it is not as if the north was free of racism or any other type of oppression. In fact, discrimination was still felt right in Harlem.
Despite Harlem being a black community, it is not as if white people were never there. The vast majority of workers from Harlem had to commute far to their laborious jobs and could not return until the later evenings, resulting in large daily periods without a major black presence (Robertson 225). Even when residents returned and social scenes came alive, the fact of the matter is that in 1929, “81.51 percent of 10,319 businesses in black Harlem were run by whites” who were allowed to refuse work for black jobseekers (Robertson et al. 867). It is not just white business owners who were found in Harlem but also service workers from taxi drivers, teachers, to police who often interacted with children, the unemployed, and anyone else who didn’t have to travel out of Harlem daily. Thus, a white presence was still there in the community that fostered the black renaissance.
With that white presence came racial inequality, power abuse, and the experience of segregation. Police brutality was not uncommon and sparked protests against white officers. For instance, Thomas Emanuel, a black labourer, was struck by a streetcar. When he and fellow bystanders asked the white driver for an explanation, it led a “wild brawl” and when police showed up, Emanuel was charged “with inciting a riot” despite him being the one who got hit (Robertson et al. 870). However, instances of inequality do not just end with race. Black women were approached by white men on the streets for sex (871), had fewer employment opportunities than black men (Robertson 225), and struggled to find and afford care for their children (226). With this, although black women also experienced the same racism as their male counterparts, they also were restricted by an additional layer of burdens due to their gender. Similarly, it is important to remember that during this time, even when considering the presence of some queer-accepting spaces like bath houses and nightclubs in New York, homosexuality was illegal and generally frowned upon. When considering the variety of identities found under the queer umbrella, experiences varied. While it was more common for gay men to be tolerated if they kept their sexuality concealed, anyone who identified as femme, “especially lesbian and bisexual” black women, were often more severely disrespected (Dean 98).
As Harlem in the 1920s hosted so many complex identities, it is the perfect backdrop for Larsen’s story. Passing showcases injustices occurring outside and within the community; from Irene fearing of being kicked out of an expensive Chicago hotel, to domestic issues inside her Harlem home. The story brings to light how one’s identity is multidimensional with the protagonist, Irene Redfield. She is a black woman who I advocate to also be queer, and Larsen makes it clear in several scenes that these identities are not separate but rather constantly interacting to shape her lived experience.
The very opening scene is Larsen making a statement on the diverse experiences found within a shared identity. Irene reads a letter from her childhood friend Clare, reflecting on her past as a child in poverty who lost her father during her teen years. The letter itself details Clare’s “[longing] to be with [Irene] again” and notes the “pale life” she lives, suggesting her desire to reconnect with Harlem and in particular, black culture (Larsen 3). Already, the attention to Clare’s fair features and her extravagance depicts how different the two women are, despite both being black women who grew up in the same neighborhood. It also prompts the question of if Clare ever truly left the black community, and if it is possible to escape being black. This early distinction is Larsen challenging that single-axis framework described by Crenshaw. Though the two share major parts of their identity, they clearly have different life experiences that are later revealed to be associated with how they transition across binaries.
Clare and Irene’s reunion emphasizes this point as it displays two components of their identity simultaneously engaging in a counteractive way. Irene feels the stare of the other woman, so much so that she begins to doubt her ability to pass and fears the embarrassment of being removed from the Drayton (8). Even though Irene has never failed at passing, it is the intimidating glare of what she believes to be a white woman that tears away at her ego and question her own racial presentation. This intense encounter is proof that identities are multidimensional, and how applying a single-axis framework would not do Irene’s experience justice. If one were to apply that single-axis framework to this scene on the basis of gender identity, it would fail at explaining one of the sources of Irene’s anxiety. This scene calls for a need of a multidimensional approach to recognize how Irene’s stress stems from the power a white woman would have over her as a black woman, even if women as a whole are a marginalized community. It is her race that made her question if she should be allowed in the Drayton’s tearoom, not the fact that she is a woman, an identity that comes with its other hardships.
The act of passing itself is a protest against racial binaries. Clare and Irene have the ability to simultaneously be black and white. While Irene utilizes passing for short-term events such as visiting the upscale Drayton hotel, Clare does so over the course of her adulthood, even going as far as to marry a man who doesn’t know her true race. Schalk makes the argument that “Clare deeply challenges the solidity of identity binaries” (152) as she desires “for both/and, to live on or have consistent access to both sides at once,” to which I emphasize (153). When the women inhabit their passing identity, it is not as if they are no longer black. Larsen supports this by connecting aspects of their black identity while the characters pass: Irene questions per passing ability when Clare stares at her, and Clare writes Irene a letter from her white-passing life about her longing to return to Harlem. Even to momentarily only consider race, it is evident that placing the two women on a binary is not a simple task. Their identities are fluid and to restrict their identity to only one category makes telling their story impossible.
With this, I disagree with the idea that Clare abandons her blackness by marrying a white man. Although he may believe she is white, she cannot escape racism while with him. In front of Clare’s own friends, she is “[ridiculed] of her race” (Larsen 28) by her own husband, who then tells the other ladies that “she’s getting’ darker and darker” and will turn black (29). When she asks him what would it matter if she had distant black ancestry, he assures her that she can be as black as she wants as she is not actually black. Even though her husband is aware of her black features, he is certain that she is not actually of African descent. However, what he thinks of her race does not change the fact that Clare experiences daily racism just on the basis of her given nickname, “nig” (28). This presents a racial duality that challenges a firm racial binary that implies one must only be black or white. Although Clare is white and fits in with a white social sphere, she cannot escape her blackness in these spaces due to racism being so normalized and ingrained in this part of society. It is important to recognize the parallels between Gertrude and Clare. Both women have passing capabilities and are married to white men, however, Gertrude’s husband is aware of her race whereas Clare’s is not. This applies to my early argument regarding that even those with a similar identity will still have varying experiences, relating back to intersectionality as it illustrates the need to consider more aspects of one’s self to understand their situation.
The discussion the women have regarding Claude Jones is undeniably one of Larsen’s most direct arguments on multidimensional identities. Before he is brought up, Gertrude states that “coloured people- we- are too silly about some things,” implying her own internalized racism (26). Her correction of her wording implies that she to some degree sees herself as different from other black people. Given her subtle disapproval of her own race, it explains why she is judgemental of Claude’s conversion to Judaism. Through laughter, she tells a “story of how he was no longer a Negro or a Christian but had become a Jew,” which sparks a negative reaction from Irene (27). Gertrude conveys the single-axis framework and applies to Claude while Irene’s rebuttal serves as Larsen’s disagreement with this mentality. Irene challenges Gertrude by asking is she considered if his conversion was honest, to which she admits she has not. This scene is essential for setting up the point that someone can occupy multiple marginalized identities at once. Claude is as much black as he is Jewish. These parts of his identity do not clash and instead, are simultaneously active.
The Harlem renaissance fostered an abundant of sexist stereotypes against black women, depicting them as “hysterical unstable lovers” while pressuring them to be “respectable middle-class women” (Knadler 103). Navigating through these labels, I argue that Irene is purposefully created to inhabit parts of these stereotypes. Larsen then uses Irene’s gender identity to illustrate the misogyny she experiences in her own domestic space to bring to light the injustice felt by black women in Harlem, illustrating the inescapability of her reality. Apart from Clare and her husband, marital tension can also be found between Irene and her partner, Brian. During these tense moments, it is apparent how Irene struggles not to make herself a stereotype. Swearing to herself in anger when recalling Clare, Brian calls out her language, exclaiming that she is “the mother of sons too!” (Larsen 39). Even if Brian means it in a joking manner, the subtle misogyny is felt by Irene, who then feels pressured to hurry getting dressed as she does not want to anger him over being late. She is scared of expressing her emotions to not anger her husband. When Irene confronts Brian regarding their son Junior’s sex jokes, Brian’s response is in a stand-off tone: he “threw [his words] at her” which leaves a “piercing agony of misery in her heart” (45). Irene and her children are all aware of Brian’s outbursts. Her sons know to “keep out his way when possible” as they “drove his nerves,” as if Brian was a ticking timebomb (67). This stress makes Irene exhausted, making her resort to taking naps while her kids are at school, only to be awaken by Brian and now having to worry about being late to their event. The belittling and anxiety experienced in Irene’s relationship is unfair to her own wellbeing. Despite her distant relationship with her husband and her awareness of his longing to leave for South America, she stays with him, trying to keep the family together by bottling up her emotions. Irene restricts her feelings to not let herself become a stereotype and in return, feels constantly frustrated and uncomfortable around her husband.
Within Irene and Brian’s domestic sphere, Zulena poses another dynamic that challenges simplified concepts of marginalization. Described as “a small mahogany-coloured creature,” the Redfield’s servant is not even referred to as a human. Wilson draws attention to the relationship between Irene and Zulena in comparison to Irene and Clare, noting how two light women occupy the narrative’s spotlight while Zulena worked in their shadow (980). It is the introduction to how “skin color encodes class privilege at home and in the world” where I argue that Larsen challenges the whole idea of a binary as it shows that there are still power differences within the same race (981). Unlike Clare and Irene, Zulena does not have the privilege to temporary leave her black identity and pass as white, she is forever confined to the continuously working expectations for women of color. The expectations set for Zulena clearly contrast to someone like Clare, who despite coming from poverty, is able to marry into a comfortable lifestyle as she is able to access white spaces and now has the luxury of being served by other black women. By presenting differences in privilege within the black identity, the idea of mutualistic experiences amongst all black women is disproven, suggesting a need to consider more variables of one’s self which defines the very basis for why intersectionality was coined.
The presentation of sexuality is anti-binary when considering the separation of desire and marriage. Irene’s marriage is in many ways, platonic. They did not sit together for dinner nor sleep in the same way, and Brian continuously grew more distant as his desire to move to Brazil increased (Larsen 77). Although the first impression of his reasoning to move may be to escape racism, it is important to note that Brazil was also known as being a safe haven for queer individuals. Furthermore, Clare and Irene can be read to be in a queer relationship. Beneath Irene’s protests against seeing Clare and her ambition to be a respectable black woman, she accidentally reveals her true emotions for the other woman. McDowall notes how “Irene’s awakening sexual desire for Clare” can be best noted through the use of “eroticism in spatial terms,” “sexual overtones in Clare’s letter,” and metaphorical use of heat to represent sexual desire (xxvi). I will apply McDowall’s analysis on Irene’s sexuality to suggest both her and Brian to be queer individuals married out of necessity. The mismatch between the characters’ attraction and their marital status contradicts the binary. However, as this is the 1920s, there would not be an actual way for their sexuality to exist in law as same-sex romance would still be illegal for nearly a century longer. This displays that to even have a position on a sexuality binary would require the privilege to not be a sexual minority.
The glares and subtle in-text descriptors that hint toward Clare and Irene’s relationship is a parallel to tensions surrounding queerness during the era (Dean 97). Dean notes that “queer women sat at the bottom of the hierarchy of respectability” in Harlem, forcing them to be obsessively self-aware of their actions (99). Not only does Irene have to be constantly aware of her passing capabilities, she too has to hide her attraction for Clare. Rather than arguing that Irene’s glare is split between her race and sexuality, I state that she has to continuously surveillance herself at twice the effort than someone who were to only occupy one of her marginalized identities. This recognition of Irene putting in more work to keep herself safe is exactly why Crenshaw developed intersectionality. Reflecting back to the “multidimensionality of Black women’s experience,” Irene is actively dealing with concealing her race, being queer, and a woman which makes her less favourable in terms of respect for sexual minorities in Harlem (Crenshaw 139). If Irene’s identity is multidimensional, then she must consist of multiple binaries, proving that a single-axis framework cannot fairly describe her as these hardships interact together.
The presentation of Harlem in Passing is in itself a multidimensional community. Clare grew up in a rundown apartment with an alcoholic father who worked as a janitor and was eventually murdered when she was just fifteen years old. In that same neighborhood lives the present-day Irene, who is middle class and married to a doctor. Irene can further be compared to Zulena to show current-day economic variation. Clearly, a dichotomy of income is found in the neighborhood. Historically, Harlem is known to have been a historically black area, albeit not exclusively black. Hugh Wentworth displays a white presence in Harlem as he is found both at the parties and is a member of Irene’s friend group. Furthermore, John Bellew can be considered a part of Harlem when considering the impact he has on the community after his scene at the Freeland’s party. The pressure to stay content and not reveal her emotions presents the sexism in Irene’s life, right in her own Harlem home. There are even variations in sexuality when contrasting the more contempt heterosexual couples to those who are queer-coded. For every aspect of identities, from race to income, there are characters scattered across the binaries. As well, Larsen makes it clear that these aspects are never acting independently. Setting the tone with Irene’s brutal self-awareness at the Drayton, she illustrates how her stress comes from the fear of being kicked out for her race while also becoming infatuated with the other woman, all while considering the oppression queer women face over men.
The theme of ambiguity riddled throughout the novel is in itself a stance against the binary. There is no conclusion on how Clare died, she exists somewhere between a suicide and a murder that depends on the reader’s interpretation. This integrates the audience’s own intersectional identity to the story, showcasing how different minds will come to different conclusions. The act of Passing is ambiguous. Irene makes herself out to be “an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or even a Gypsy,” leaving her race to be questioned (Larsen 8). Even her sexuality is ambiguous as it is presented in a queer-coding matter. Beyond the actual narrative, the short length of the story does not quite qualify it as a novel, however, it is too long to be considered a short story. The actual book exists in a literary middle-ground between these two, being labelled as a novella. With this, I argue that all of Passing is purposefully ambiguous to counter the binary.
The dismantling of binaries is in support of intersectionality as it describes how simplified approaches to the human experience will result in injustices. A binary cannot recognize that someone experiences hardships for multiple conditions; they over generalize and assume that parts of an identity do not interact. Therefore, Passing works in support while also providing history to Crenshaw’s framework.
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