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.
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: