From the novel’s opening, race is slippery, uneasy and unstable. Irene is the model Black wife and mother: She lives in Harlem with her husband and sons, and she serves on a committee for the Negro Welfare League. Yet, because her husband is too dark to pass, when she is alone, she is occasionally white. Clare is white on the rooftop until she calls Irene by her childhood nickname, ’Rene; the intimacy of her language, not her physical appearance, transforms her back to the Black woman Irene once knew. That Clare airs her biggest secret on the rooftop of a hotel feels right. Passing is a performance that, like any other, requires an audience. What makes Clare so fascinating is that she revels in the nearness of getting caught. Clare claims that she passes only for financial freedom, but what she actually seems to enjoy is, as Irene puts it, “stepping always on the edge of danger.” Not the performance itself but the possibility that the audience may peek behind the curtain. Racism is tragic but it is also a farce. If Sarah Jane was treated as a joke, then at least Clare is in on hers.
One of the most stressful scenes in the novel is when, shortly after their reunion, Clare invites Irene over for tea. When Irene arrives, she finds Clare entertaining a former classmate, Gertrude, who is passing as well, although her white husband is in on the secret. Clare’s husband, however, is not. He returns home in the middle of tea and greets his wife with two unforgettable words: “Hello, nig.” At first, Irene wonders if Clare’s husband knows that she is Black after all, but of course, Jack explains, the nickname is a joke:
Well, you see, it’s like this. When we were first married, she was as white as — as — well as white as a lily. But I declare she’s gettin’ darker and darker. I tell her if she don’t look out, she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger.
That Jack imagines sudden, involuntary Blackness when whiteness is what is easily slipped into and out of in this novel is ironic enough; that he imagines this in the company of three Black women pretending to be white ratchets up the joke even further. But the humor doesn’t release the tension, it only increases it. Clare’s husband, who doesn’t know that she’s Black, is so virulently racist that he calls her a slur as a pet name. Knowing this, she’s invited two Black friends over. Clare is a provocateur and a manipulator, yes, but she is also a performance artist. No wonder she’s thrilled to reconnect with Irene. To pass successfully is to perform so seamlessly that nobody appreciates your craft. Clare is an actress who has finally found herself an appreciative audience.
When I started writing my own novel, “The Vanishing Half,” about passing, I imagined my passing character as a sort of fugitive, always hunted, always hiding. In some ways, this is the more obvious choice. The brilliance of “Passing,” to me, is that Larsen reverses the game of cat-and-mouse. Clare hunts, not hides. She reveals, rather than being discovered. From the moment they reunite on the roof, Clare inserts herself into Irene’s life, pursuing the Black world she has purportedly left behind. She invites herself to Irene’s home, introduces herself to Irene’s husband, crashes Irene’s social engagements in Harlem and charms Irene’s friends. She does, in other words, exactly what a passing character should not do. This is what’s frustrating about Clare — her “having way,” as Irene describes it. She wants to spend Jack’s wealth and party in Harlem. She is a Black woman who simply wants too much; in other words, to Irene, she is a problem.