Nella Larsen’s critique of Harlem Renaissance in Passing
How Nella Larsen criticizes Harlem Renaissance in her novel Passing. Use the resources i attached. You can also refer to the sources used in the articles attached. Use quotations properly precisely to support your analysis.
Transing: Resistance to Eugenic Ideology
in Nella Larsen’s Passing
University at Albany – SUNY
Nella Larsens Passing can be seen as a critique o f early-twentieth-century eugenic
ideology. Race, class, gender, and sexual binaries were mutually constituted in eugenic
ideology and practices o f the period and, therefore, cannot be separated or hierarchically
ranked in any analysis o f the character Clare Kendry. Clare challenges these identity
binaries by attempting to not simply cross over them, but to live on both sides o f them. The
both/and nature o f her actions and desires makes Clare a trans- figure, one who passes
over, across, within and between categories, thereby defying and critiquing the eugenic
ideological notion that identity categories are discrete, natural, andfixed.
Keywords: Nella Larsen / Passing / eugenics / trans- / Harlem Renaissance
Originally published in 1929, Nella Larsen’s Passing is a slim novel focused
on the phenomenon of race and racial passing in the context of 1920s
urban bourgeois life. The plot unfolds around the adult reunion of two
light-skinned black women who are former childhood acquaintances: solid, predictable
Irene, the “race woman” who passes occasionally for white, and beautiful,
impetuous Clare, the supposed “race traitor” who regularly lives as a white
woman. The book is narrated through the perspective of Irene, but is particularly
fixated on Clare. Through the representation of Clare, who defies not only the
black/white racial binary, but also class, gender and sexual binaries, Passing critiques
the eugenic ideology of the period popular among the black bourgeoisie
and intelligentsia. By representing Clare as a character who can move between
identity categories, Passing challenges the eugenic notion that race, class, gender,
and sexuality are natural and knowable categories which can be controlled for
eugenic purposes. The action referred to by the novel’s title, therefore, should
Sami Schalk ([email protected]) is an assistant professor of English at the University
at Albany- SUNY. She received her PhD in gender studies at Indiana University, Bloomington
and her MFA in creative writing at the University of Notre Dame. Her research
focuses on the representation of disability and ability in contemporary black women’s
literature. Her work has also appeared in the Disability Studies Quarterly.
Transing: Resistance to Eugenic ideology in Passing 149
not be read as a singular act moving toward a dominant identity, but rather as a
form of transing: an active movement “that takes place within, as well as across or
between” race, gender, sexuality, and class lines (Stryker, Currah, and Moore 13).
Much has been written about the novel since it was first released. Early
on, most contemporaneous reviews addressed Passing’s representation of uppermiddle
class black people, while later criticism often focused on the novel’s
depiction of the trope of the tragic mulatto/a. (Larsen 85-103; Tate 142). More
recent criticism has shifted to interrogate the novel through others lenses, such
as gender, sexuality, and class. However, many scholars focus on one of these
issues without taking into full consideration the influence of the others, attempting
to make one area the single, most important, determining lens for analyzing
the novel.1 As Corinne E. Blackmer argues, “exclusive focus on one category
of difference tends to inhibit analysis of how overlapping differences operate in
syncopation” (232). For example, in “Black Female Sexuality in Passing,” Deborah
McDowell criticizes previous literary scholars who do not recognize the existence
of same-sex desire in the text. McDowell insists that the “dangerous” sexual
subplot of the novel, exhibited by Irene’s attraction to Clare and the envelope as
a metaphoric vagina, is the real point of the novel and the racial passing merely
a safe cover-plot (374-77). Jordan Landry makes a similar argument in “Seeing
Black Women Anew through Lesbian Desire in Nella Larsen’s Passing,” except
Landry additionally insists that Irene and Clare’s same-sex desire is an instance of
black racial pride, a critical move that prioritizes the black side of the racial divide
over the white side, upon which both women live—Irene occasionally and Clare
more regularly/permanently (26-28). Even when multiple aspects of Passing are
analyzed together, as in Jennifer Devere Brody’s “Clare Kendry’s ‘True’ Colors:
Race and Class Conflict in Nella Larsen’s Passing,” various identity categories
are mentioned at the beginning of the piece, but not kept collectively central
throughout the analysis.
The difficulty in sustaining critical engagement with the multiplicity of
identity categories at play in Passing is symptomatic of a larger scholarly failure
to connect discussions of the Harlem Renaissance and the coterminous intellectual
movements of modernism and eugenics. In her article “Selecting the
Harlem Renaissance,” Daylanne English claims that major black literary critics
problematically present the Harlem Renaissance as an optimistic arts and culture
movement of social change and racial uplift2 that ultimately failed. These critics,
English argues, give too much credence to self-proclaimed intellectual leaders of
the Harlem Renaissance, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, and overlook
the less positive artistic productions of the period, including Larsen’s Passing
(“Selecting” 814). English insists that scholarly emphasis on the optimism of the
Harlem Renaissance allows the movement’s artists and artistic productions to
be treated as distinct from other aesthetic and intellectual concerns of the time
(“Selecting” 813-14). English proposes a new genealogy of the movement that
begins not with the return of black male soldiers from World War I, but with the
issues and concerns of black women, many of whom were less optimistic about
150 Journal o f M odern Literature Volum e 3 8, N um ber 3
the racial uplift ideology of the Harlem Renaissance (“Selecting” 815). In her
more recent book, Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the
Harlem Renaissance, English challenges “the still-common segregation of modern
African American intellectuals from the dominant literary, philosophical and
scientific debates of the modern period” (22).3 The book connects the Harlem
Renaissance to its larger social context by tracing the influence of modernism
and eugenic ideology on several of the movement’s writers, including W.E.B.
Du Bois, Angelina Weld Grimke, and Nella Larsen; however, English does not
include a discussion of Passing.
Building upon the foundations of English’s arguments, I will take into
account early-twentieth-century eugenic theories, values, and practices (which I
will refer to collectively as “eugenic ideology”) in order to analyze the representation
of Clare Kendry. This contextualized analysis positions Larsen’s novel as a
text not of racial uplift but of resistance to discrete eugenic identity binaries. In
what follows, I emphasize the interconnected nature of certain identity positions,
specifically race, class, gender, and sexuality within American eugenic ideology. I
argue that these categories were mutually constituted and defined within eugenics
discourse and therefore cannot then be separated or hierarchically ranked in any
analysis of Clare, despite their varyingly explicit appearances within the text. I do
not claim to have found new “evidence” as such within the novel; indeed, most of
the textual examples I point out have already been noted by previous scholarship.
Instead, I suggest that using the historical context of eugenics allows us to review
the old evidence in a new light, bringing a different perspective to bear on the
novel’s most fascinating character. Through Clare Kendry’s transing of identity
binaries and her characterization as an all-knowing, yet unknowable body, Passing
can be understood as a critique of early-twentieth-century eugenic ideology.
EARLY-TWENTIETH-CENTURY EUGENIC IDEOLOGY
AND BLACK AMERICANS
In Unnatural Selections, English illustrates the variability of eugenic ideology in
the period, showing how this ideology was taken up by blacks and whites, conservatives
and liberals, both in theory and in practice. While twenty-first century
individuals may tend to think of eugenics in terms of Nazi Germany, eugenics
historically had much wider meanings, strategies, and practices. In the United
States and Europe, eugenic ideology influenced the practice of institutionalization
and incarceration, voluntary and involuntary sterilization, birth control, sex
education, and marriage counseling.4 Though it seems difficult to believe in light
of eugenics’ widespread negative connotations following World War II, these
projects were positively viewed and in some form practiced by “many, if not most,
European and American citizens” in the early to mid-twentieth century (Davis 8).
Interest in eugenics in the United States arose in the late-nineteenth century due
to the belief that white, middle-class men had lost their virility from mental strain
in corporate settings, while the virility of black, working class and/or immigrant
Transing: Resistance to Eugenic Ideology in Passing 151
men seemed unchanged, if not enhanced (Kline 9). This alleged loss of virility
among white men became even more problematic in light of early feminist and
suffragist movements that seemed to indicate increased desire for power among
women as more females entered the public sphere for work or education (Kline
10). It was believed that white, middle-class women “were becoming masculine
just as [white middle-class] men were becoming increasingly weak and effeminate”
(Kline 11). The so-called increased masculinity of women was blamed for
decreased birth rates. Thus began the “race suicide” discourse, a term first coined
by sociologist Edward Ross and later popularized by Teddy Roosevelt in his
assertion that in order to achieve greatness, a race needed both “good fighters”
and “good breeders” (Kline 11).
Although reference to “the race” in much eugenic discourse does not make
clear whether race refers to human beings generally or Anlgo-Saxons specifically,
actual American eugenic practices indicate that poor, non-white, mentally or
physically disabled, and sexually deviant individuals were not part of the mainstream
development plan (Kline 5).5 This does not mean, however, that eugenic
ideology was not taken up by black middle-class intellectuals for the improvement
of their race (English,Unnatural Selections 23). In fact, many black, mostly male
intellectuals participated in passionate debates in periodicals and at professional
organization meetings about breeding and birth control among black populations
(Hart 75—78). While many mainstream, early-twentieth-century eugenic
practices were targeted at white women (who were perceived as threats to “the
race” as the physical carriers of children who would most influence offspring with
their “good” or “bad” blood lines), black bourgeois professional and intellectual
populations were similarly concerned with how to ensure the birth and rearing
of eugenically-sound black children by upper and middle-class, straight, black
women (Kline 59, 91).
Wendy Kline insists that by making claims about proper reproductive bodies,
eugenicists over-valued uniformity and stigmatized difference (90). Difference
here went beyond the largest markers of race, class, sexuality, and physical
appearance/ability to also include the more indistinct categories of proper moral
and social conduct—what is commonly referred to within black communities as
a politics of respectability (White). As the United States approached the midtwentieth
century and the Harlem Renaissance reached its peak, the concept of
“normal” behaviors and appearances for different gender, race, class and sexual
groups became a central standard of American society among both black and
white Americans (Kline 105).
In Unnatural Selections, English discusses the role of black women writers of
anti-lynching dramas who, she claims, were those most vocal in resisting eugenic
thought and rejecting the role of breeder in intraracial uplift ideology (122-23).
Nella Larsen is briefly referenced as one of these black female protestors of eugenic
ideology within black bourgeois uplift discourse, specifically due to a scene in her
1928 novel Quicksand in which Helga Crane refuses to give to the cause of black
uplift after James Vayle’s insistence that she bear children to help improve the
1 5 2 Journal o f Modern Literature Volume 38, Number 3
race.6 George Hutchinson, in his biography of Larsen, also notes this particular
scene as a direct commentary on racial uplift, the concept of which Larsen considered
“condescending and moralistic” (166). Though Hutchinson does not make the
connection explicit, he writes about Larsen’s experiences as a nurse both in Tuskegee,
Alabama just twenty years before the infamous Tuskegee experiments,7 and
in New York under the Bureau of Preventable Disease (7,103). In these positions,
Larsen would have been exposed to a number of eugenic theories and practices,
including Better Baby Week8 — a eugenic enterprise to reduce infant mortality
and prevent racial degeneracy—and publications targeted at black populations
that insisted that “Black doctors should call for a return to country living and to
eugenic mating” (Hutchinson 103-04). This exposure to eugenic ideology and
practices among black medical professionals in Larsen’s early career as a nurse
would have set the stage for her critique of eugenic ideology both blatantly in
Quicksand and more obliquely in Passing.
This brief overview of eugenics in the early 1900s illustrates the interconnected
nature of identity factors such as race, class, gender, sexuality, and
(dis)ability9 within eugenic ideology and the relationships black intellectuals,
professionals, and artists such as Nella Larsen had to eugenic practices. Kline and
other historians of eugenics, as well as contemporary queer theorists who interrogate
discourses of normality,10 have shown that the concept of the norm does
not exclusively or primarily rely on any single category. Instead, when referencing a
single identity issue, such as race, one is also implicitly relying on other discourses
within the normal/abnormal symbolic framework. While not all texts which reference
or challenge the normal/abnormal divide are explicitly about all of these
issues, they are nonetheless engaging with the larger discourse of normativity. It
is easy to think one can analyze the roles of just gender or just race in a text, but
to do so assumes that these categories exist in a vacuum unrelated to other aspects
of identity, power, privilege, and oppression in either their social construction or
lived/embodied experience.11 By acknowledging the influence of eugenic ideology
on black intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance and by recognizing the mutually
constitutive nature of race, gender, sexuality, and class within this discourse, it is
possible to read Passing as a critique of eugenic ideology through the character of
Clare Kendry, whose transing of race, class, gender, and sexuality binaries defies
the boundaries of identity categories throughout the novel.12
TRANSING: CLARE AS A CHALLENGE TO EUGENIC IDEOLOGY
Through the character of Clare, her body and her actions, Passing deals with the
binaries of race (black/white), gender (woman/man), sexuality (heterosexual/
homosexual),13 and class (working class/middle-class) in more and less explicit
ways that sometimes overlap in terms of textual evidence, reflecting the interconnected
and mutually constitutive nature of these binaries within eugenic ideology
of the period. At various points in the novel, Clare deeply challenges the solidity
of identity binaries—not by a simple, unidirectional passing from one to another
Transing: Resistance to Eugenic Ideology in Passing 153
as is often posited, but rather by her desire for both/and, to live on or have consistent
access to both sides at once. Clare attempts (to paraphrase Irene), to eat
her piece of cake and nibble at others’ pieces too (Larsen 35).
In their introduction to a special issue of Women’s Studies Quarterly entitled
“Trans-,” Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah, and Lisa Jean Moore write that the
hyphen in trans- marks an “explicit relationality . . . which remains open-ended
and resists premature foreclosure by attachment to any single suffix . . . [The
concept of trans-] explores categorical crossings, leakages, and slips of all sorts”
(11-12). Trans- here is not exclusively tied to notions of gender, but is additionally
connected to other manifestations of that prefix, including transnational, transracial,
transition, transmit, transform, transgress, and so on. All of these terms
indicate the types of movement and multiplicity Clare enacts throughout the
text, which challenge the stability and singular nature of identity categories and
boundaries within eugenic ideology. This relationship to the open-ended nature
of the hyphenated prefix is why I consider Clare a trans- figure (Stryker, Currah
and Moore 13), one who actively moves among and within multiple marked
social spaces and activities, in this case those marked by race, class, gender, and/
It is Clare’s multiple passings, her transing, that position her as an illegible
being to, yet an expert reader of Irene and other characters. Her refusal to
metaphorically “stay put” gives her “some quality, an intangible something, too
vague to define, too remote to seize” (Larsen 12) in the minds of those who do
not move so fluidly across and among identity boundaries. Such fluidity grants
her insight into others at the same time. This reading of Clare is in opposition to
those who understand her as a pure or partial victim of the greater social system.
For example, Cheryl Wall ultimately reads Clare as “the victim caught forever
betwixt and between until she finds in death the only freedom she can know”
(109); she refers to Clare’s transing as her “false role[s]” (107). My reading of Clare
allows for agency in living “betwixt and between” identity positions. I therefore
resist the idea that one side of any identity binary is actually true for Clare while
the other is somehow false. Rather, Clare exhibits a creative and nuanced identity
freedom that others in the text cannot experience: transing. As Stryker, Currah,
and Moore note, however, “[t]ransing can function as a disciplinary tool when the
stigma associated with the lack or loss of gender [or other identity] status threatens
social unintelligibility, coercive normalization, or even bodily extermination.
It can also function as an escape vector, line of flight, or pathway toward liberation”
(13; emphasis added). In Clare’s case, the potential for escape, liberation, or
sustained freedom is ultimately unrealized as she dies in her attempt to live as a
both/and trans- figure. In the end, she cannot be fully acknowledged within the
wider either/or world of the novel. Yet this tragic end also operates as a critique
of eugenic ideology that seeks to fix people into identity positions.
There is ample evidence for the active, multi-directional movement of Clare’s
transing. The most obvious and well-discussed of the identity binaries that she
traverses in the text is race. After her father’s death, Clare moves from her black
1 5 4 Journal of Modern Literature Volume 38, Number 3
neighborhood to live with her white aunts, eventually running away and passing
as white in order to marry John Bellew (Larsen 18-19). Her movement into the
“white world,” however, is not permanent. Through her chance meeting with
Irene Redfield, Clare begins to return to life among black people with frequent,
though unpredictable, visits to Irene’s home and attendance at black bourgeois
parties, teas, and balls. Clare does not align herself strictly or primarily with any
racial group. While she passes as white in her marriage, she goes back and forth
to Harlem without hesitation, as she often did initially after her father’s death,
occasionally leaving her white aunts’ home to visit her old friends. This transing
of the color line, which Irene reads as lack of racial consciousness or pride (44), is
the basis of what I call Clare’s both/and desire: her refusal to stay on one side of any
binary and her attempt instead to exist on both sides at once. Clare’s rejection of
steady or consistent identification is the reason she becomes an unreadable character
whose body and actions are often confusing or illegible—though fascinating—
to other characters. As Irene notes, Clare “remained someone apart, a little
mysterious and strange, someone to wonder about and to admire and to pity” (58).
A similar both/and desire exists in Clare’s relationship to class. Clare grew
up in a working-class family; her father was their building’s janitor and she
performed errands for a local dressmaker for extra money (5-6). In adulthood,
Clare expresses to Irene her childhood envy of all that Irene and others in the
old neighborhood had (19). After her father’s death, Clare remained part of the
working class, living with her aunts who believed “hard labour [sic]” was good
for her since she had “Negro blood” (18-19). With her marriage to Bellew, a
banker, Clare passes over the class line, achieving material comfort and luxury,
travelling internationally, wearing beautiful clothing, and sending her daughter
Margery to boarding school. At the same time, Clare seems to care little about
middle-class status once she achieves it. During her visits to Irene’s home, when
Irene and/or Irene’s husband Brian are unavailable to spend time with her, Clare
is willing to visit familiarly with Irene’s servants or play with the children instead
(57). Furthermore, Clare voices no qualms about potentially being mistaken as
a prostitute14 if she attends one of Irene’s charity functions alone, finding the
possibility “amusing” (50-51).
In these moments, Clare also expresses a both/and desire in regards to class,
wanting to have the material goods and freedom associated with middle-class
status while simultaneously wanting to associate with “average,” working-class
black folk whose talk and laughter she claims to miss (50). Her desire conflicts
with eugenic ideology that strictly separates social groups in order to prevent
dysgenic reproduction. Further, Clare’s cross-class behaviors particularly confound
Irene, whose middle-class alliances are quite consistent and clear. Again,
this demonstrates how Clare’s transing prevents her from being understood by
Another area where Clare exhibits both/and desire is in her sexuality. As
Deborah McDowell first pointed out, Clare exhibits same sex desire for Irene,
writing her passionate letters, flirting with her, and once placing a kiss on her
Transing: Resistance to Eugenic Ideology in Passing 155
bare shoulder (McDowell 371; Larsen 74). At the same time, Clare maintains her
heterosexual status as the wife of John Bellew, and her continued heterosexuality
is gestured toward through her flirting with other men, such as the waiter on
the roof of the Drayton (12) and Dave Freeman (66). Eventually, this extends to
Irene’s suspicion of Clare’s potential relationship with Brian (62). Clare appears
to be quite indiscriminate about those to whom she gives her flirtatious attention
and affection. While there are no explicit sexual acts in the novel—as McDowell
notes, at the time, black women’s writings about anything remotely connected to
sexuality were rare (366)—attraction and desire are nonetheless palpable. Here,
it becomes necessary to emphasize the desire of both/and desire. Though Clare
does not explicitly cross the binary by having sex with a woman, she does dance
on the boundary in her public actions and attitudes. This appearance of transing
hetero- and homosexuality is just as important for Clare’s characterization as her
more direct transing of race and class because it raises other characters’ suspicions
and prevents them from reading her body and actions in the same way she seems
to be able to read theirs.
Finally, Clare challenges constructions of gender normativity—not nearly as
directly as the identity categories above, but in subtle, indirect ways that reflect
her both/and desires. Clare is repeatedly noted as being extremely feminine
and beautiful, with statements such as: “Clare Kendry’s loveliness was absolute,
beyond challenge” (Larsen 21). On the surface, Clare performs aesthetic femininity
almost perfectly; however, her actions reject social standards of proper womanhood
in a variety of ways. First, Clare travels the city alone, not caring if she is
seen arriving at events unescorted (9) or accompanied by men who are not her husband
(57). This appearance of promiscuity—also evident in her above-mentioned
lack of concern about being mistaken for a prostitute—is the opposite of the
dispassionate, chaste ideal connected to the cult of true womanhood (Welter).
Additionally, Clare seems to have little regard for her role as mother/
breeder—a role clearly essential to proper womanhood within eugenic ideology.
Although Clare does claim that if it weren’t for her daughter she would have
already left Bellew, the girl never appears in the text and seems to be of little real
concern to Clare. At one point, she says to Irene: “Children aren’t everything”
(Larsen 58). Furthermore, despite her husband’s wealth and ability to support
more children, Clare insists on having no more, supposedly because she fears
that the child would be too dark (26). Although Clare doesn’t want to be male
or pass as a man, she also does not want to conform to the expectations of traditional
womanhood. In particular, she has no interest in the role of breeder for
black racial uplift, since she is knowingly participating in miscegenation with her
white husband. Clare wants to be admired for her feminine beauty and flirtatious
personality, while simultaneously desiring the freedom from moral standards and
breeder status—a freedom given only to men.
Together, these interconnected identity positions—race, class, sexuality, and
gender—and Clare’s challenging of their implicit binaries combine to create her
characterization as “peculiar” (29), “unfathomable” (33), “queer” (28), “undecided
1 5 6 Jo u rn a l o f M o d e rn L ite ra tu re V o lum e 38, N um b e r 3
and uncertain” (58). Since race, class, sexuality, and gender are tied together
within eugenic ideology, Clare’s constant transing of these central binaries and
her rejection of their stable social divisions make her impossible to understand
for the people around her who—consciously or not—cling to the personal and
social stability, consistency, and safety provided by adherence to identity binaries.
Clare’s disinterest in safety or a stable identity is incomprehensible to other
characters, especially Irene “for whom safety, security, were all-important,” and
who feels a sense of “impending disaster” when Clare angrily rejects the idea of
her passing being “not safe” (47). It is safe, bourgeois Irene, more than any other
character, who is unable to read trans- figure Clare throughout the text. Irene
thinks: “about [Clare] was some quality, an intangible something, too vague to
define, too remote to seize . . .” (12), and later, Clare “seemed wrapped in some
impenetrable reflection” (75).
Perhaps the best illustration of Irene’s inability to read Clare comes when she
meets Clare’s husband for the first time. After listening to him spout racist ideas
in the presence of three fair-skinned women with black heritage,
Irene Redfield was trying to understand the look on Clare’s face as she had said
good-bye. Partly mocking, it had seemed, and partly menacing. And something
else for which she could find no name . . . puzzling again over that look on Clare’s
incredibly beautiful face. She couldn’t, however, come to any conclusion about its
meaning, try as she might. It was unfathomable, utterly beyond any experience or
comprehension of hers. (33)
Note the emphasis on Clare’s face as a metonym for Clare’s larger intentions and
desires. While Irene is primarily positioned as a reader of Clare’s expression in
this moment, she is also attempting to understand its meaning in the context of
the person as a whole—something which she is ultimately unable to do.
Clare’s illegibility relates directly to her transing of identity binaries which
allows her to behave in unexpected ways that both baffle and intrigue other
characters. Yet the seemingly illegible Clare is also positioned as a person with
an incredible ability to read and understand others: “Clare Kendry had always
seemed to know what other people were thinking” (75). Clare’s status as an
expert reader is established early by her recognition of Irene on the hotel roof
and her exact memory of Irene’s home address in Chicago (22). During the first
conversation between them, Irene is already aware of Clare’s abilities as an expert
reader when, while attempting to excuse herself, she thinks, Clare is “almost too
good-looking,” to which Clare responds with an invitation to dinner and knowing
smile, “as if she had been in the secret of the other’s thoughts” (16). In the same
conversation, Irene becomes annoyed that Clare detects her reason for discomfort
after a regretted invitation to Idlewild, and then later that Clare seems “aware
of [Irene’s] desire and her hesitation” about asking about racial passing (17-18).
This early establishment of Clare as expert, almost mystically knowing reader
continues throughout the novel, with Irene noting the uncanny “way Clare could
divine what one was thinking” (25—26).
fram in g : Resistance to Eugenic Ideology in Passing 157
Clare seems able to move among, respond to, and read other characters in
an intimate and expert way, while she herself remains unintelligible. This seems
connected to Clare’s position as a trans- figure. While it is naive to argue that
transing automatically grants superior knowledge of the areas among which the
trans- figure moves, in the context of the novel, it does seem that Clare’s frequent
and fluid transing is enabled by her expert and intimate knowledge of the groups
among whom she visits and resides, knowledge she utilizes to shape her behaviors
so as to not raise questions about whether or not she belongs. While Clare
certainly draws attention to herself throughout the novel, it is not initially in a
negative way. Rather, people are captivated by her beauty and her mystery, which
are perhaps enhanced by her distance from them—her movements away as well
as towards them. This knowledge of various groups, and Clare’s ability to use it, is
further apparent in the way Irene often believes Clare is not being genuine—that
she is “acting, not consciously perhaps—that is, not too consciously—but, none
the less, acting” (36). Clare’s transing thus requires a performance of particular
identities which further positions her as a figure who defies the stability of such
As noted at the beginning of my analysis, the trans- figure position is not
without a price. Clare’s transing has a power in the text that is ultimately thwarted.
First, by her characterization as selfish, irrational, and child-like and, second, by
her unexpected death from falling out of a sixth-story window—a death which
cannot be conclusively termed accident, murder, or suicide. But Clare remains
illegible even in death. Her dying only seems a falling into the trap/trope of the
tragic mulatto/a who must die to satisfy the racial message of the text. The life
that Clare was attempting to live—her both/and desire for transing race, class,
sexuality, and gender binaries—was untenable in her world’s either/or eugenic
ideology so utterly dependent on those binaries for understanding and practice.
Clare attempted to eschew the either/or of eugenic ideology for both/and, breaking
the philosophical linchpin15 of oppressive systems, and with deadly consequences.
Within a realist novel such as Passing, there is nowhere for Clare to go,
no way for her to continue transing. She cannot exist on both sides of multiple
identity binaries without the text slipping into a utopian or magical realist form.
While it is difficult to fully valorize Clare for her individualistic worldview, it is
also impossible to condemn her for transing the oppressive either/or binary system
in such a complex and intimate fashion.
In Nella Larsen’s Passing, the body and actions of Clare Kendry resist the identity
binaries mutually constituted by eugenic ideology of the period. While eugenics
are not as directly referenced in the text as they are in Larsen’s earlier novel Quicksand,
an underlying resistance to the stable divisions inherent to eugenic practices
is clear through Clare Kendry’s transing of multiple identity binaries. This
transing breaks the rules of eugenic practices through miscegenation, same-sex
1 5 8 Journal o f Modern Literature Volume 38, Number 3
desire, cross-class affiliations, potential adultery, and rejection of motherhood. By
reading Clare through the lens of eugenic ideology and the notion of transing, I
have not prioritized one particular identity marker over another, though I have
acknowledged that some aspects, such as race, are more prominent in the text
than others. I argue that it is the totality of Clare’s transing multiple binaries that
allows her simultaneous characterization as unintelligible being and expert reader.
This characterization creates the alluring, mysterious, and dangerous ethos that
surrounds Clare because of her seeming resistance to all categories. While other
critics have focused on one, two, or occasionally three identity positions, typically
discussing them as mutually exclusive, I have analyzed the way the novel takes up
multiple identity categories that rely on each other for definition in the context
of the eugenic ideology of the period. This approach attempts to better account
for the complex nature of Clare’s transing, which ultimately results in her death.
Again, while Larsen may not have written explicitly about the eugenic practices
she would have witnessed herself as a public health nurse, her novel challenges
one of its primary tenets: that there are clear and distinct differences
between human beings who can be categorized into types. These differences
have differential social value and can and must be determined to separate the
dysgenic populations from the eugenic ones. Through the trans- figure of Clare
Kendry, these fundamental assumptions of eugenic ideology are temporarily
thwarted as she moves between and across supposedly fixed, discrete social,
moral, and identity binaries. If eugenic practitioners were unable to tell black from
white, middle-class from working-class, man from woman, homosexual from
heterosexual, moral from immoral, then they would be incapable of encouraging
breeding among the “right” individuals or preventing it among the “wrong” ones.
Clare Kendry’s characterization as illegible being and expert reader who has no
concern for safety or stability makes her dangerous, despite her beauty. In fact,
her beauty makes her more dangerous, or perhaps her danger makes her all the
more beautiful. Either way, Clare’s transing pushes too hard on the foundations
of social stability for the period and her both/and desires ultimately cannot be
sustained by the realist text. Despite this, however, readers are still left with the
resonating image of a captivatingly beautiful, alluringly dangerous being who
defied identity binaries by trying to have—and be—it all.
1. For additional examples of primarily single-axis approaches, see Goldsmith as well as Blackmore.
2. For more on racial uplift and the Harlem Renaissance, see Gaines as well as Gates.
3. English addresses the relationship of eugenics to American literary movements. For a discussion
of eugenics and British and Irish literature, see Childs.
4. See Davis and Freeman 66; Davis 8-10; Goodwin 231; Kline 142-43.
5. See also Carter 7.
Transing: Resistance to Eugenic Ideology in Passing 159
6. See English, Unnatural Selections 1,122-23, 32-34; See also Hart 166.
7. The Tuskegee experiments occurred between 1932 and 1972 in Tuskegee, Alabama. In these
experiments poor, rural black men, who believed they were receiving free healthcare, were used by
public health officials to observe the effects and progression of untreated syphilis. Although the men
were not infected by the health officials as some popular renditions of the experiment claim, they
were never told they had the disease nor were they given treatment for it.
8. For more on Better Baby Week, see Holt. She discusses the Better Babies Movement, which
later evolved into the Fitter Families campaign, references to which can be found in several other
histories of eugenics. See also Stern.
9. I use “(disability” here to designate a wider term that includes ability and disability. Unlike
terms such as race and gender, which inherently include white and black, female and male, there is
no English word for ability and disability collectively.
10. For example, see Lochrie.
11. Other scholars, such as Robin D.G. Kelly, Siobhan B. Somerville and Anne Fausto-Sterling,
have made similar arguments about the mutually constitutive nature of particular identity categories.
12.1 regret that (disability must be left out of this discussion of Passing. While it would perhaps
be possible to argue that in the final scene, after falling out the window, Clare does temporarily—
though probably not willfully—threaten to cross the boundary from nondisabled to disabled,
as illustrated by Irene’s nauseated reaction to the thought of Clare’s “glorious” mutilated body after
the fall. This potential passing over the able/disabled binary would likely be permanent rather
than a move back and forth, a both/and, and ultimately it does not come to pass as Clare is killed
instantly on the pavement. I do find this brief, apparently nauseating, threat of disability in the text
interesting, but there is not sufficient evidence that I can currently find in the novel to substantiate
including (dis)ability as a primary category of analysis in this article despite the centrality of (dis)
ability in eugenic ideology. For more on the relationship of (dis)ability to eugenic treatments of other
social categories, see Baynton.
13 .1 use this binary as it likely would have been understood at the time. I do not mean to foreclose
the possibility of bisexual or queer identities, but recognition of such identities/terminologies did
not explicitly exist at the time.
14. This portion of the text alludes to the frequent associations of black female migrants in Northern
cities with prostitution, sexual degeneracy, and social danger as discussed by Hazel Carby in
“Policing the Black Women’s Body in an Urban Context.”
15 .1 borrow this phrase from Patricia Hill Collins who writes that “[e]ither/or dualistic thinking. . .
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