Tuesday, 25 March 2014

On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog

the book: Passing by Nella Larsen 

published  1929


from regular guest blogger Colm Redmond








Gertrude, Irene thought, looked as if her husband might be a butcher. There was left of her youthful prettiness, which had been so much admired in their high school days, no trace. She had grown broad, fat almost, and though there were no lines on her large white face, its very smoothness was somehow prematurely aging. Her black hair was clipped, and by some unfortunate means all the live curliness had gone from it. Her overtrimmed georgette crepe dress was too short and showed an appalling amount of leg, stout legs in sleazy stockings of a vivid rose-beige shade. Her plump hands were newly and not too competently manicured – for the occasion, probably. And she wasn’t smoking...

[Irene] remembered her own little choked exclamation of admiration, when … she had rushed into the living room where [her husband] Brian was waiting and had found Clare there too. Clare, exquisite, golden, fragrant, flaunting, in a stately gown of shining black taffeta, whose long, full skirt lay in graceful folds about her slim golden feet; her glistening hair drawn smoothly back into a small twist at the nape of her neck; her eyes sparkling like dark jewels. Irene, with her new rose-colored chiffon frock ending at the knees, and her cropped curls, felt dowdy and commonplace. She regretted that she hadn’t counselled Clare to wear something ordinary and inconspicuous
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observations: One would hardly guess that Irene’s old friends Gertrude and Clare are both – in the terminology of their time – negroes; and that is the point of the book. ‘Passing’ commonly means pretending to be white when one is black, as they both do; but it can also mean presenting as having a different gender or sexuality, race, ethnicity, or social group than one’s own. So cross-dressing counts (but only if it’s meant to deceive) and so does dressing up posher than one is, although that seems a distinctly subjective sociological grouping, to me. Irene – who is of mixed race, like Clare, but identifies herself as black – often seems more than amiably fascinated by Clare’s gorgeousness, and some people perceive that Irene herself is also ‘passing’, but as heterosexual.

This is in one sense a very traditional novel of manners, where apparently-anodyne sentences explode like bombs in conversations that then carry on as though nothing has happened. But it is full of unusual tensions, between people whose very way of life depends on continuing to ‘pass’. One person might have a whole social circle complicit in the deception, while another’s own spouse may not dream that their marriage is interracial. It is a fine book, managing to be exciting and suspenseful while, for the most part, nothing very tangible is happening.

The characters also know people who pass in the other direction. One of several juicy pieces of unfamiliar slang is the word ‘fay’, an offensive adjective for a white person, roughly the converse of ‘nigger’. It’s only used once, about someone passing for black, and the author places it in quote-marks even though it is within reported speech. I can’t tell if that’s because it’s so very offensive, or because the [black] speaker, who is among presumably like-minded friends, means the usage ironically rather than offensively.

The word ‘sleazy’ here means flimsy. I don’t know how it came to have the connotation it has nowadays. Regular readers of CiB will know that however sleazy, Gertrude’s stockings can’t actually have been sheer, because of this entry and the discussion about it. Another fine word is ‘dicty’, which means posh or maybe swanky (or fancy, in the American usage.)

I think Clare’s frock must have been something like filmstar Anna May Wong’s outfit, in the main pic. And from the neck up: I guess she looked a lot like the beautiful pic of Billie Holiday. To my knowledge Holiday never had the least intention of passing, but it’s no secret that African-American celebrities in most of the 20th century were often encouraged to look as un-black as possible, and this pic looks designed to achieve that.

The novel Imitation Of Life is about passing, as are the two film adaptations of it (although the three works have differences of plot.) The proto-grunge band Big Black, a major influence on Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, had a song called Passing Complexion. It would be an exaggeration to say its brief lyrics address the issue; fairer to say they mention it.

The tagline comes from this famous 1993 cartoon, an early identification of the internet as the new homeland for all types of passing:



For  more from the guest blogger, click on his name below.

13 comments:

  1. Interesting post though I'm a tad disappointed at the lack of shapely pins on display. I'll pass on the book.
    Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress has a similar "passing" from memory.
    And at the risk of boring you and everyone else even more, Steiner - the internet-dog cartoonist has an interesting series of books about a retired US-agent, set in France...Le Crime, L'Assassin, The Terrorist and The Resistance

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    1. I've read Devil In A Blue Dress and seen the film but remember very little about it. I thought Anna May looked quite sufficiently dazzling even with her legs covered up... She didn't always look that beautiful, she should have smiled more.

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  2. Moira - Thanks as ever for hosting Colm.

    Colm - I've read several books where 'passing' is a theme. It really does add tension to a story because in certain times and places, being able to 'pass' has been vital. That aside, I love that gown - so elegant!

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    1. Any kind of undercover work has tremendous tension to it, and you can't get much deeper in than posing as one race when that one oppresses your own. I have not allowed my concern to keep me from posting superbly glamorous pics, though!

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  3. Oh! Oh! I know that one, Miss! (hand waving frantically...) Once upon a time, linen fabric was called after the place it was produced, as in "Irish", "Holland" and after the province in Prussia, "Silesia". In the 19th century, a cotton imitation of this linen was made, As time passed, the thus named material was demoted to use as a lining fabric and became cheaper and thinner, but was made to seem better than it was by the use of starch and fillers to give it gloss and firmness. The common pronunciation "sleazy" became a synonym for cheap goods masquerading as better things. I'm sure the "sleazy" stockings would have been a blend of cotton and rayon trying to imitate finer and more expensive silk hosiery. All cotton is too matte, and all rayon is too shiny but a mixture of the two can approximate... sort of... from a distance... in dim light... the luster of real silk. Funny how the word just seems to lend itself to certain types of people too.

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    1. Fascinating insights as usual, Ken, thank you. The description of poor Gertrude and her clothes was bitchy enough when I thought sleazy just meant flimsy. I'll give you advance warning that a post in the near future will be featuring "crash" in passing - do you know everything there is to know about non-clothing materials too?

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    2. No, but I usually know where to look. Crash is an easy one. It's a rough linen used for toweling. The "best" was Russia crash which was woven on hand looms by Russian peasants. At the beginning of the 20th century it came in to fashion as the background fabric for embroidery projects so it was also the foundation of multiple household bits such as table runners and tidies to put on the backs of chairs.

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    3. 'Crash' has appeared twice on the blog in the past: In Village School, the inspector says the girls are doing too much fancy needlework on fine fabrics - they should be using big needles and brightly-coloured wools on crash. http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/english-life-but-not-as-we-know-it.html.

      And crash is one of the fabrics available in the draper's shop in Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/under-milk-wood-by-dylan-thomas.html - with quite a list of fabrics that we may not know about these days...

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  4. Very interesting book, and especially having been published in 1929. I looked up Nella Larsen and she had an interesting (if not happy) life. [Per wikipedia.] I do remember comments by Lena Horne on how she was treated when she was in movies.

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  5. There are many sadly-memorable examples of the way black celebrities were treated - Jesse Owens, using the staff entrance of a hotel when attending an official reception for US gold medallists in 1936, springs to mind. The first black Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel, had to sit at a segregated table at the ceremony in 1940. I think the story told in Passing is fascinating for its take on what life was like for a group I know pretty much nothing about: African Americans who were ordinary, and well off and successful, and had a whole different set of problems due to their colour than, for example, those in the deep South or in very poor areas of the big northern cities; we're much more used to hearing about them.

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    1. That was meant to be reply to you, Tracy.

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    2. We recently watched an Oscar documentary and I cringed when they talked about how Hattie McDaniel was treated.

      This book is easy to find and not expensive, I will definitely get a copy. And I have decided in favor of The Film Club also. You are feeding my book buying habit.

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    3. Delighted to hear that, Tracy. Passing cost less than £1 on Kindle in the UK a couple of weeks ago but unfortunately that edition seems to have vanished.

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