Crossing Over: Racial Passing and Racial Uplift in Nella Larsen's Fiction

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Karly, Beavers
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Department of American Studies, University of the South , Sewanee, Tennessee , Racial Passing , Racial Uplift , Race , African American literature , Nella Larsen , Gender
Fundamental to the American myth is a juxtaposition of the “civilized†or “superior†majority with the “inferior†other. By classifying African Americans as inherently different from and inferior to whites, the white majority justified the enslavement and, later, the political and social oppression of black Americans. Our concept of race relies heavily on the visible differences between whites and African Americans. Interracial couples posed a threat to the socially constructed color line almost immediately, producing offspring who did not fit under the simple label of black or white. Although legally considered African American because of their “Negro blood,†some individuals found it possible to pass for white. Passing began long before emancipation, but it became a prevalent topic in African American fiction during the early twentieth century. Nella Larsen in particular explores the idea of passing in her two novels Quicksand and Passing. As her main female protagonists search for their true identity within a racist and patriarchal society, they struggle with DuBois’s idea of “double consciousness.†Within the African American community during the early twentieth century, middle class blacks sought to uplift the race through upholding and exemplifying white middle class values. Larsen’s characters are thus trapped in a complicated system that rails against social inequality while it espouses the oppressive structures of the dominant white culture. From various newspaper articles and book reviews, one sees a varied reaction to passing within the African American community. For men, racial passing rendered them more effeminate in the eyes of black Americans. Larsen focuses more on the experiences of black women, who found themselves forced into an oppressive domestic role in an effort to uplift the race and reaffirm the masculinity of black men.