Thoughts

Randall Jarrell, Poetry & The Age

Jarrell, Randall. Poetry & The Age. Ecco P, 1980.

Summary of Work
In this critical work, Randall Jarrell discusses the age of Modernism in poetry as well as the criticism surrounding that poetry. He states that while there is much lament over the current state of poetry readership, or rather the lack of readership, that there is nothing that poets can do about it except for to continue writing and attracting their current readers, because the world will only get noisier as new technologies take hold of people who once would have been readers. He also insists that poets need to make sure that their work is quality and that references and obscurity serve a purpose rather than simply being there in order for the work to be called poetry.

Jarrell takes a look at Robert Frost’s work, and he states that despite Frost’s later work, which is often filled with a conservative and overimportant and self-indulgent attitude, he is one of the best poets of the age. He specifically cites “Frost’s obsessive themes, those of isolation, of extinction, and of the final limitations of man” as reasoning for his high designation of Frost and his work, despite the poems that he finds less quality. The main argument for his awarding Frost the rank of great poet is the nonchalant and matter-of-fact way in which Frost puts forth the previously mentioned themes in his work.

Looking at the age he lives in, Jarrell states that criticism has caused less and less literature to be written, and just as importantly, less and less literature to be read. In an age that thrives on critics’ readings of supposedly great literature, both the average reader and the scholar spend more time reading criticism than actually reading literature, and therefore, when asked about important works of literature, they cannot answer that they’ve read them, because they have been too focused on criticism, most of which is dull and useless to the larger populace. Jarrell believes that criticism and theory evolved in English departments much as statistics and raw data and studies evolved in psychology and sociology: scholars in those fields did not want to be looked down upon by the hard sciences, so they found a way to make their field look like scientific fields. The problem with this for English is that it’s made people come to rely on critics’ readings of literature instead of coming to an understanding of the literature themselves. It’s also caused the USA to largely disregard poetry, since so few critics write about it and deal with it in comparison to fiction works.

Of John Ransom, Jarrell states that he is writing in the time of Modernism and is yet not a Modernist; Ransom’s poems are far too structured and perfect in their form to be Modernist (which one doesn’t find surprising when knowing that Ransom is the founder of New Criticism). His poetry ranks among the great poetry because of the way the form helps to make matters of morality and living ambiguous: people are unsure whether they should be looking at light and dark as good and bad, or if they should at once be rooting for both and neither.

Of Walt Whitman, Jarrell states that while many critics have lamented his work and are not ashamed of saying they have never read it, Whitman’s work is in fact great poetry. He states that certainly, there are many mistakes and failings of the work, which any critic can tell you. However, many critics fail to understand that the sentimentality of the work combined with the bombastic and often ridiculous use of language and the disorganized forms of many of his poems are what make the work great. Rather than stick to forms as Tennyson did, Whitman chooses not to limit his subject matter with form, and instead experiment with language and organization to capture what is the heart of America.

Wallace Stevens, he states, has much of a tourist feel to his work, which many readers resent. His poems that fail are the ones that strive to be philosophy, and poetry is a bad format for philosophical musings in Jarrell’s opinion. Yet Stevens shines when writing about the similarities between America and Europe, and creates forms that eloquently speak clear messages to his readers. He goes on to give more, similar readings of other American poets’ work, such as Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. Indeed, he finds that Stevens and Moore and Williams have much in common, but that it is far harder to anthologize Williams in any adequate way.

Discussion of Work
To start with my criticism of this work, it would largely be how vague that Jarrell is in his analysis of the poets whose work he chooses to look at. He outright admits in the beginning of his work that he finds Frost to be one of the best poets of his generation, which may be why he has a hard time doing anything but broadly stating that Frost has his small failing points while overwhelmingly focusing on what he likes most about Frost’s work. He does a much better job of critiquing poets like Whitman, when even when striving to defend his work, he can admit the many shortcomings of the poetry.

However, his discussion of the problem of the age of criticism is worth keeping in mind when looking at the current state of scholarship. A scholar in today’s world can hardly expect to be taken seriously if they don’t know the major names in criticism and theory; the literature often seems secondary in scholarship to the response academics have to other critics. I’ve heard many of my colleagues (and even myself) say that it is fine to have not read a work of literature if they have read the scholarship on it, because the scholarship will tell them all they need to know anyway. Often in graduate courses, we are told to start reading the scholarship about a work during, or even before, we read the work of literature itself. This scholarship can come in the form of introductory materials at the beginning of a new edition of the work, critical reviews, or scholarly articles from peer-reviewed journals. While I am certainly not a New Critic, I do believe that it is important to spend time with literature first and foremost, as that is the field we are in, the field of literature. Scholarship is secondary material, especially given that its subject matter should be literature (in my opinion).

Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'”

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of

Darkness.” Massachusetts Review, 1977,

polonistyka.amu.edu.pl/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/259954/Chinua-Achebe,-

An-Image-of-Africa.-Racism-in-Conrads-Heart-of-Darkness.pdf.

Summary of Work
In this article, Achebe discusses the racism that the West holds, particularly in its views of Africa. He builds his argument around Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness, the story of a narrator’s journey through the Congo to find one Mr. Kurtz. He states that the images, particularly in Conrad’s obsession with blackness and the darkness of not just the Natives’ skin color, but the land itself, shows Africa as the antithesis to England and the rest of the civilized world: Conrad is obsessed with the primitive nature of Africa and its people in an attempt to show that Europe was able to conquer that darkness, but that there is danger in interacting with people and places who have not yet conquered that savagery, because the savagery could engulf the civilized and lead them back to primitivism.

Conrad is unkind to the native peoples in his novel, showing them always in a frenzy, or dying, or otherwise running around. They are not given language, but grunts and sounds and physical actions. The only two times when they are given language are when they are cannibals asking for people to eat or the slave man telling the narrator that Mr. Kurtz is dead: those examples, Achebe states, are purposeful in that they are made to show how horrific these people are and how awful the state they are in as black people. Given these images, it is clear that Conrad is racist, and it is surprising to Achebe that in all the years of scholarship, no one seems to even want to admit that or deal with it. It is a blind spot in the Western world because people in the West have so long used Africa as a foil of themselves, insisting that Africa is as backward as Europe is enlightened. So when people say that they are not aware that Africa has art or history, it is part of that tradition of racism and colonialism. In order for any good or real communication between Africa and Europe and North America to happen, the West must first relinquish its long-held beliefs about the primitiveness of the African continent and the African people.

Discussion of Work
This piece discusses racism in a way that I think is very telling: it shows that what has happened is that the West has fallen prey to a single story about Africa. A single story is powerful, in that it can give people motivations or reasons to conquer or oppress people in the name of “saving” them or bringing them enlightenment of some sort. But as powerful as those stories are, they are also wrong and dangerous because they allow for people to do terrible things by dehumanizing others. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses a very similar thing in a TED Talk that she gives called “The Danger of the Single Story,” where she states that her teachers once told her that her novel was not “authentically African” because people were not poor, starving, or otherwise destitute or unenlightened: her characters looked too much like the average Western person.

The image of Africa and its people as backwards and primitive exists in many forms today, including that we group the whole African continent together as a group and remain largely ignorant to the fact that Africa is composed of many countries, just like the Americas Europe, and Asia. The issues set forth by Achebe in his essay are still very prominent today in that by and large, no one seems to question the idea of the single story of Africa as exactly what Conrad set forth, despite the fact that it was never that way, that there were diverse people, languages, art, and nations. And today, while there certainly are areas of Africa that have poor and starving people who cannot read and live what the West would consider primitive lives, there are far more people who are living in sophisticated cities with functioning governments and thriving businesses; there are people who create wonderful art and products and enjoy many different activities that Western people also enjoy.

The power dynamics inherent in the way we discuss Africa and its people says much about the Western world’s continued need for dominance: a way to prove that they are still more enlightened than the people who live on and descend from ancestors on the African continent. I agree with Achebe’s statement that we cannot just hand the West a happy pass on this issue or offer them a positive note to end the discussion on. Such a positivity cannot come until the West chooses to change its views and discussions on Africa, because the way it is currently being discussed is wrong, and there should be no cookies given out for fixing something that should never have been considered acceptable in the first place.

Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”

Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” 1926. Modern

American Poetry,

http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hughes/mountain.htm.

Summary of Work
Langston Hughes discusses his belief that black poets should not be ashamed of themselves as black people or strive to be white in any way in order to be a successful poet. He speaks of a young poet with much potential who told him that he didn’t want to be known as a “Negro poet,” and it made him incredibly sad because he knew what type of upbringing this man had had. Hughes states that people like this grew up in affluent black homes and had parents who were constantly striving to be white, using examples of black people who enjoyed jazz and dancing and clubs as the worst sort of people, the type of people that this young man should stay away from. Yet, it is precisely this desire to get away from one’s own culture that is so problematic in Hughes’ mind, especially if a black person wants to be a good writer. For him, culture is a large part of writing, and so the desire to be white and to rid oneself of one’s culture is antithetic to being a great poet or writer. Instead, a writer should embrace their culture, learn that “black is beautiful,” and pursue writing about what they want within that black cultural framework.

Discussion of Work
I find that this work is very indicative of the times it was written in, and yet is still prescient today. The idea of “black is beautiful” is important, particularly in the circumstances Hughes outlines: shame about one’s skin color, race, and culture is never a good place to come from as a writer, and acceptance of oneself is necessary in order to live a full life. And yet, the piece itself seems to impose restrictions upon writers, restrictions that we in fact see historically during the height of the Harlem Renaissance: the rule of insisting on creating “black” art means that if a writer decides to write about a topic that is not about African American life, they will not be considered an artist or a quality writer by the black academic and literary elite.

Yet this idea of African American writers embodying their culture so much that it becomes the sole focus of their writing has certainly had staying power in the academy and in the general literary world. The African American writers who seem to have staying power or are popular are writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Colson Whitehead, to name a few. These people are writing about black history, black experience, and black culture, and are finding ways to represent silenced voices. Writers who choose other topics, like Ishmael Reed, are often missing from African American literature course reading lists, precisely because of this idea that black writers must write about black subjects in specific historical, oppressed or deteriorating positions where their characters must overcome violence and injustice. But writers like Reed write quality literature which encompasses stories not specific to black historical and current representation. Indeed, Reed is one of those authors who would have bothered Hughes because he insists that his racial identity should not be indicative of his writing choices and quality.

Certainly, the idea of writing about what you know is an important one, and yet it is also detrimental when it does not allow for writers to break the boundaries of what other groups, including subgroups of the same race, set for our writers. It becomes exclusionary of different types of experiences, excluding even the groups of black elites or white-skinned black people that Hughes discusses in his essay. It speaks directly to what bell hooks stated about the importance of allowing multiple experiences, because when we only allow for specific stories to exist about a culture and people, we isolate large groups of people and lose their voices in the conversation.

Barbara Christian, “A Race for Theory”

Christian, Barbara. “A Race for Theory.” Feminist Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, 1988,

pp. 67-79.

 

Summary of Work
In her article “A Race for Theory,” Barbara Christian outlines her concerns about the current academic need to constantly be creating theories to discuss old, canon literature and other critical theorists: “‘For whom are we doing what we are doing when we do literary criticism?'” she asks (77). In asking this question, she discusses how theory has subordinated looking at literature itself, and there are only an elite few who are being published because of their ability to create new literary theories to discuss older philosophers and critical theorists. This means that very few people are determining what the larger world of academia should find valuable and important to discuss. Consequently, this largely leaves out writers of color and current writers, instead always hearkening backward to older works of white, European literature.

By only allowing Western philosophical structures of critical theory, other forms of theorizing are left out. For black literatures, Christian states that “theorizing . . . is often in narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language, because dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking” (68). When such a form of theorizing is not allowed to be written about or explored in the academy, it silences many scholars who have much to contribute and instead allows for gross generalizations to abound in literary theory regarding various cultures and experiences. In place of such a structure, Christian suggests theorists should shift their focus “to the intricacies of the intersection of language, class, race, and gender in literature” that is inclusive of many different ways of reading literature, including literature currently published and literature from different cultures.

As academics have chosen to privilege the white, Western European and American works of literature, they have created a binary of minority and major or centered, and that creates a skewed view of literature. By refusing to accept world literatures as part of the major narrative, academics writing about literature have missed out on discussing many histories and messages, some of which they have recently come across even though the rest of the world has known about them for decades. Literature studies have recently decided to include more world literatures, but only a few, and has finally decided that literature is, in fact, political (even though it always was). And yet, perhaps because of the centering of the Western gaze, many academics have failed to ask important questions about why this change has occurred, why it is now okay to accept literature as political and influenced by social and cultural surroundings. Literary theories contribute to the problem by mystifying the process of that change through strange language that only an elite few can access. And as the focus has become more and more on discussing this mystifying language in critical theory, fewer and fewer scholars are discussing literature. Christian sees this as a response to the rise of minority literatures in our current cultural moment, and the focus on theory is a way to continue to exclude those literatures from academic study.

While she sees theory as necessary, Christian finds it problematic because it becomes very prescriptivist and elitist. Theory desires “to make the world less complex by organizing it according to one principle, to fix it through an idea which is really an ideal,” and often this “dehumanizes people by stereotyping them, by denying them their variousness and complexity” (75). Instead of creating such methods that require monolithic prescriptivism, Christian suggests that academics get back to the literature and learn from the history and language provided in that literature. A focus on literature means that each novel will require constructing a new critical approach rather than applying old philosophical, prescriptivist theories to novels without considering how the novel itself can teach readers how it is meant to be read and discussed.

Discussion of Work
This short essay details many of the previous concerns I’ve discussed in small groups with my colleagues: the academy does not value new scholarship unless it can be placed in the theories of philosophers like Foucault, Freud, and Derrida. Our choices for writing feel limited, even when we feel we have much to say, because we cannot break from the critical theory realm if we wish to be published in peer reviewed journals. Even areas such as gender and race studies utilize the same prescriptivist methods of theory to discuss works in a broad and generalized sense, spending more time with the theory than with the literature they are discussing.

I do not mean to suggest that this is the case with all theory, however. Since this piece was written, I have, in my academic reading, found many more discussions of Toni Morrison and other black female writers, and there have been discussions of the literature through close reading and a focus on language and culture rather than through specific theorists. Writing was coming out the same year that this was written which offered those tools, specifically thinking of Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s work Signifying Monkey. Still, when compared with White Western literature written in the same period as Morrison and Walker and other black and minority writers, there is far too little discussion and theory going on regarding these writers’ works, forcing them further and further into obscurity.

Morrison is the one writer who has largely escaped this lack of theoretical discussion, largely due to her worldwide acclaim from winning a Nobel Prize. And yet, shouldn’t other writers who have less acclaim than the top level awards also be given similar amounts of consideration? There are many white authors who are given just as much consideration as Morrison and have far fewer awards to their names. While there has been improvement in the field of academics regarding the consideration of what have been deemed “minority literatures,” many of the concerns Christian voiced are still large concerns within academia today, where teaching and discussion of literature is devalued in preference of critical theory creation and publication.

bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End P, 1992.

Summary of Work
In her work, bell hooks discusses how image plays a large role in determining how a group of people are represented, and that because of that fact, images and representations are inherently ideological. She discusses how loving blackness is an important and underrepresented part of bringing about social equality, and how loving blackness becomes a dangerous position when put in opposition with white supremacist social structures. She also posits that reverse racism doesn’t exist because while racial prejudice certainly does exist, minorities are not in positions of power to use that prejudice to oppress other ethnic groups. She discusses how this rears its head when white people decide to become friends with black people, and yet they still refuse to let go of their learned racist habits. She also analyzes Nella Larsen’s novel “Passing” in this context, suggesting that it is because Clare Kendry decided to love blackness that she was murdered: both her white husband and her black friend could not accept the fact that it was possible to love blackness, that there wasn’t something inherently wrong with a darker skin color.

hooks also examines how blackness has been commodified, making it a selling point of pop culture: white men want to sleep with as many darker skinned women as they can; movies and stories offer blackness as a primitivism that can appease disgruntled whites in a post-imperialist society; cultural appropriation makes up for a perceived or real lack in white dominate culture. Fashion magazines and other advertising industries utilize blackness as a backdrop to sell their products. She discusses this commoditization within the context of a couple of films including Heart Condition, a film about a black man and a white man in love with the same woman; the black man wins the love of the white woman, but he is dying, and when he donates his heart to the dying white man, the white man is then able to win the love of the white woman. Thus, there is a physical transfer or appropriation that labels blackness as erotic, able to provide sexual pleasure and presence that whiteness cannot. The taking is problematic for not only the images it creates, but for the lack of credit it gives to people of color when the things taken are art forms or non-stereotypical representations.

Using Audre Lorde’s article about black womanhood as a structure, hooks talks about how black women are set in a stereotype of violence—on themselves and their children—that they play out. She believes that the narrative can be changed, but that it is hard and it first requires black women to accept that they can buck the trend. She discusses the ways that black women can change their narrative by discussing black literature and showing that simply journeying to find oneself or to escape one type of violence does not guarantee that they actually become self-agents and break the trend. She says that this is the case for characters like Celie in “The Color Purple,” where she gets away from an abusive situation but goes right back to being a dependent housewife by the end of the novel. Other women in books, like Sula, become pariahs because of their radical behaviors, and hooks does not see that as the ideal option either. What these fiction writers are doing, however, regardless of the end result of their characters, is breaking “new ground in that it clearly names the ways structures of domination, racism, sexism, and class exploitation, oppress and make it practically impossible for black women to survive if they do not engage in meaningful resistance on some level” (50). She identifies Angela Davis as a real world example of a black woman who resisted through political action and education to become a full agent and to resist the violent cycle; she also identifies Shirley Chisholm as an example of breaking the trend and resisting the cycle. However, many women are afraid to have their daughters and themselves follow in Davis’ example because of her prison sentence for political resistance, making her lack a community that is necessary to pass her knowledge and experience on to break the trend of violence. People of color, especially women of color, need to engage in feminism and in the “decolonizing of our minds” in order to center “social change that will address the diversity of our experiences and our needs” (60).

She continues the discussion of black womanhood by stating that black women in film and other mediums are objectified and seen only as objects, not as people, causing problems in white-black relations, but particularly causes problems in the way black women view themselves: they either vehemently oppose the pop culture representations or quietly absorb the stereotypes and objectification. Citing Tina Turner as an example, she states that objectification creates easy avenues for abuse and violence against black women, who must be seen as lust-driven and sexually free-spirited in order to be successful in entertainment. The conversation about black womanhood is continued as hooks discusses the racist and sexist actions of Madonna, a woman who belittles her coworkers and employees, especially if they are people of color, by saying she is a “mother figure” to them, much as white colonialists looked at themselves as saviors and parents to supposedly lesser races. In hooks’ eyes, Madonna is not only racist, but one of the worst appropriators of black culture. She also discusses this objectification and the problems it causes by focusing on the Clarence Thomas case, when a Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment. Her passive manner in which she engaged the committee, and the images of black womanhood dominating the white committee’s minds, served as a reminder that the images of black womanhood strongly influence people’s decisions about how they look at and handle harassment and assault of black women.

hooks builds a discussion of black masculinity within this discussion about gender, stating that black men are supposed to, under cultural understanding and stereotypes, be unemotional and strong and financially successful, whereas women are taught to be quiet and obey but are allowed to have a full range of emotions. She points out that much of the discourse around black male sexuality is the discussion of how black men really want to be white men, and their inability to be so makes the violent. To hold such misogynistic and phallocentric views of black masculinity is to deny men the full range of emotional and physical development that would allow them to become good fathers, loving husbands, and successful men.

Focusing on paths of resistance that black people can and have taken against racism, hooks talks about how the black gaze upon white people can be a powerful tool of survival and resistance. Black people were often looked at as objects owned or controlled by white people, and white people never took a second thought about the idea that black people could look at them and observe and resist; similarly, black women could look and gaze upon misogynist structures and recognize them, creating a form of resistance as they identify other parts of narratives that represented them in the public eye. The resistant gaze is a way for black people to “imagine new transgressive possibilities for the formulation of identity” (130).

hooks also believes that a discussion of black views on whiteness are important. Mentioning that black people have come a long way from viewing white people as a group of dangerous ghosts, many black people have integrated white beliefs about hating black people. They are also still terrified, even if they cannot explicitly say so, by the dangers of being labeled a “reverse racist” for discussing whiteness and their experiences with whiteness. But black people observing whiteness has also created stereotypes, and when they express those stereotypes to white people, many white people are outraged, upset that they are being stereotyped under the name of observation and data; yet white people see no correlation between what they do to black people and what is happening to them. Whiteness functions as a power source and a place of privilege, in hooks mind, only as long as white people are regularly able to insist that their race is mysterious and undefinable, that it is the neutral that everyone should accept as the base for cultural exchange.

hooks ends her work with a discussion of black-native relations, honing in on the need for interracial minority engagement to promote equality and reparations. She states that Native Americans are the only race of people that are forced to watch their genocide played out as entertainment to this very day through Westerns, games of cowboys and Indians, and other media formats. She points out the strong historical ties between black people and Native Americans, both through blood relation by intermarriage and cultural heritage: when Africans came to the New World before white people, the two cultures were able to harmoniously exist and exchange gifts and ideas. White people find that history dangerous, because their belief system functions on the idea that all people come to new worlds to conquer, and a symbiotic relationship between cultures destroys that image, and therefore white superiority and justification. Since the deterioration of black-native relations, Native Americans have had to resort to techniques of forgetting and forsaking their culture in order to live in a world that has swept their genocide under the rug other than to play it for entertainment: dealing with the history and having to try and convince both white and black people that it is unjust would destroy them. In order for all people of color to reach social equality, the two cultures need to work to “affirm the times of the past, the bonds of the present . . . relearn our history, nurture the shared sensibility that has been retained in the present” (194). Only then can domination be eradicated and society transformed.

Discussion of Work
While I agree with much of what bell hooks has to say, I wonder about the evolution of these arguments in this decade. While we still have a long way to go for proper representation of black people, and particularly black women, as agents and individuals outside of cinematic stereotypes, there are being strides made, as can be seen with films such as Hidden Figures and Black Panther. Films such as these focus on black achievement rather than black failures or trauma: women in Hidden Figures not only assert themselves as experts in rocket science in a white world, but they assert themselves as valuable members of their community who eschew violence and demand respect from their husbands; they also demand that their husbands take on multiple roles that require them to take on more feminine traits, making the men more whole and self-agents as well. Since Hidden Figures is based on a true story, it makes me wonder if there are actually many instances where this is the case, but they have simply been obscured from the mainstream discussions of history, making hooks’ arguments about image and womanhood and masculinity important, but part of a more complex historical and communal discussion. Black Panther, completely fictional, creates another space where nearly the entire cast is black, and the focus is black achievement and innovation rather than tragedy and violence. The people of Wakanda represent a society where blackness has evolved as a culture largely free (although not completely) of white supremacy and oppression. Their culture holds on to old African traditions, but also has evolved into an elite technological society. I do wonder if one concern might be that the technological ideal looks somewhat like white cultural ideals: however, the overly enthusiastic and warm reception of the film in black communities speaks to the fact that black people are actively looking for positive images and representations of them which are free from the stereotypical cliches that exist throughout our media. While there has been progress, there is still work to be done, and hooks’ work is still important in deciding upon ways to progress. However, based on film evidence (to follow hooks’ structuring of culture discussion) in Black Panther, it is fair to say that the idea of loving blackness is no longer a fringe idea, but very much centered in the public—black and white—imagination.

The discussion of Native American and black relations hit close to home, as hooks described something very painful regarding my own heritage. And yet, it opens up our eyes to a blind spot in our critical discussion: the struggle for social equality extends past racial boundaries, and must include all POC in order to make for a successful resistance and push for change. To ignore the representation of other minority groups in media is to neglect those groups of people and their needs.

Flannery O’Connor, “Judgement Day”

O’Connor, Flannery. “Judgement Day.” Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories.

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971.

 

Summary of Work
Tanner is an old man sitting in his daughter’s apartment in New York City, and he wishes he had never come from the South to live with her. He remembers when his daughter came down from the city to see him, and found him in a shack he and his black worker Coleman had built on someone else’s land. She told him that he ought to know better than to live with black people, and that if he had any self respect, he’d come live with her. He told her he didn’t want to go, and she said that it was his decision, but her mother taught her to do her duty to her family and that she would take care of him if he’d come with her.

He is determined not to go, but then the owner of the property, Doctor Foley, comes to survey his land purchase. The man is part black, and Tanner despises the thought that a black man has power over him and his place of residence. When Foley tells him that his options are to get off of the property or to work the still for him, Tanner states that he will never work for a black man and that he doesn’t have to because he has a daughter up North that will take care of him. Doctor Foley doesn’t believe him, and tells him he will be back next week, and if Tanner and Coleman are still on the land, he’ll assume Tanner will work the still for him.

Looking back on that, Tanner wishes he would have stayed and worked the still for the black man so he could have open air and space and be living in the South. He had overheard his daughter and her husband talking about him, and overheard her say that she was going to bury him in New York City when he died, even though she had promised him that she would send him South to be buried. He is very upset at his daughter, and he determines that he is going to go through with his original plan: he is going to steal away down South to either live or die.

When he first moved into the apartment with his daughter, he had seen new neighbors moving in, and saw that it was a black couple. He assumes that they must be from Alabama, and he tries several times to talk to the man, but he always skirts past him in the hallway. His daughter warns him to leave the neighbors alone, saying that people in New York City just mind their own business and don’t talk to their neighbors. But Tanner persists, and when he stands in front of the black man and calls him preacher and asks how it is coming from Alabama, the man stops and says that he is not a preacher and doesn’t believe in God and is not Christian. He is an actor by profession, and he was born and raised in New York City. And Tanner says that sure, all preachers have a bit of acting in them. The man tells him to leave him alone and leaves. Tanner, however, convinced that he can still make friends with this black man, waits until he returns and, unthinkingly, calls him preacher as he asks how he is. The black man gets so angry that he beats Tanner and throws him back into his daughter’s apartment. He is beaten so badly that the doctor has to be called.

When Tanner is finally able to speak after the incident, he asks where his pension check is. He had intended to use it to travel back home to live. But his daughter tells him that they used it to cover medical bills, and that it is silly to think he will be going back home now. He can barely walk from the beating he took. Still, he is determined. He waits for his daughter to leave, and then he puts his coat on and tries to make it down the four flights of stairs to get out to the road and head to the train station to hop a freight and make it home dead or alive. He has written directions of who to send his body to in case he dies in transit. He trusts that strangers will treat him better in death than his daughter will. But as he is halfway down the first flight of stairs, his legs give out on him and he slips. He uses his arms to catch himself on the railing, but lands on his back anyway.

Delirious and trying to get up, he imagines himself in a coffin, just getting of the freight train. Coleman is looking at the pine box and talking about him, and then Tanner starts to move and says to Coleman, don’t you know it’s Judgement Day? As he is saying that, someone comes up over him, and he asks, preacher? And when he comes back to reality, he realizes it is the black neighbor. The black neighbor decides that he is going to string him up with his arms through the railing of the stairs. When his daughter comes home and sees what’s happened, she calls the cops, but he has been dead for hours. She buries him in the plot she has for him in New York City, but she cannot sleep well and is haunted by her father until she exhumes him and sends his body South for burial.

Brief Discussion of Themes
The nostalgia for the South, even the Postbellum South, looms large over this entire short story. Tanner remembers his life, even as pitiful as it was, as worth more in the South than in comfort in the North. The decline and decay of the South is in full view as readers learn that Tanner has lost land and has nothing; the state of the shack could be seen as the state of living in the South. He has more power over people, particularly black people, in the South, and he is far more familiar with the cultural customs and social interactions in the South. The work displays two different types of racism and also racial prejudice: the daughter is outright racist; she does not want her father seen living or associating with black people outside of the employer-employee relationship. Tanner is more subtly racist; he likes to be around black people in order to have power over them, and he does that by finding ways to relate to them or make black people believe that he is smarter than they are. He takes care of Coleman, yes, but he does so more out of a power dynamic than he does out of friendship or love.

Race relations are further complicated as Doctor Foley comes into the picture. Coleman is black, and so Tanner feels that he knows how to deal with him, but Foley is part white, and he is rich and owns a lot of land, and he knows he cannot deal with him in the same manner. Still, he does not find Foley to be his equal or even his better because he is part black, which, in Tanner’s eyes, nullifies all the education and wealth that Foley has attained. It is a reminder that in the minds of many white people, white blood is what makes mixed race people successful, and they are still less because it is only whiteness that has helped them along the way, skewing the power dynamic back to the majority.

Racial prejudice comes forward in the figure of the black actor who lives across from Tanner’s daughter. He doesn’t per say have a grudge against white people that could be outright stated, but it is apparent that he is wary or resentful of white people, as rather than taking Tanner’s gestures to be friendly, takes them to be offensive and dangerous. Of course, Tanner’s gesture is one of power dynamics, but those power dynamics are turned on their head when the black neighbor successfully attacks the white man with no repercussions, as there would have been in the South. This could be seen as a protection of black embodiment, but it may simultaneously be seen as an inherent distrust of white motives and actions.

Religion also plays a large part of this story, as Tanner is a believing Baptist and everyone around him in New York City is an unbeliever. Tanner is constantly concerned with the idea of judgement day, with his reckoning coming over how he treats people and what he says and does. The theme is carried forward through the imagery and symbol of Tanner as a Christ figure, crucified upon the makeshift cross that is the stairwell railing.

Nella Larsen, Passing

Larsen, Nella. Passing. 1929. Penguin, 1997.

Summary of Work
Irene Redfield has received a letter from a woman she grew up with in Chicago. It is a letter begging her to call on Clare Kendry, and after having seen Clare in Chicago, she does not wish to ever again. Irene remembers back to being in Chicago and visiting family and friends there. She was out and about looking for gifts to give her children when she and they returned to New York—her boys were at a summer camp—and after seeing a man faint on the sidewalk, she also became faint, and had a taxi driver take her somewhere for tea. He takes her to a whites only hotel, assuming because of her skin color that she is white, and she goes up to have tea. Irene can pass as white, but has a black husband and her boys are darker skinned. While Irene is having tea, a woman comes in who she thinks is beautiful, but rude because she won’t stop staring at her. Irene is just about to leave when the woman comes over and says she knows her. She calls her Rene, a name that she hasn’t been called since high school. After awhile she remembers who it is: Clare Kendry. It is the dark eyes that give her away.

She remembers Clare’s past, with a white father who was a janitor at the school and always drunk. When he died, Clare cried with fury but stopped as suddenly as she started. She was in her mid teens, and Irene was certain that the crying was more over frustration and anger at her father than sadness. After that her two white aunts took her to live, and then Clare never came to the South Side but rarely, until not at all. She was seen with white men parading around town in fancy dress, and rumors started about her.

Clare sits down and asks her all sorts of questions about Irene and says very little about herself. When Irene absolutely has to go because she is already late to her dinner and bridge party, Clare begs that Irene take time in the next few days to see her again. At first Irene is hesitant and doesn’t want to, but she gives into Clare, much to her own annoyance. She discovers on the way out that Clare has married a white man who struck it rich in South America. She has all the money she could want and a little girl named Margery. She says that it was very easy to pass because she was part white and had white aunts, so her husband never suspected she had black blood in her. Her husband does not know that she is black, and her aunts didn’t say anything because Clare never told them that she was going to marry a white man on account of her fear that they might get a conscience and tell the man she was half black.

Irene ponders what Clare has said on the way home, and sees Clare the next week. Another woman, Margaret, has also been invited to tea at Clare’s home, which annoys Irene, having thought that it was going to be just the two of them again. Margaret was another school friend who had lighter skin and could pass as white. She married a white man, a butcher, and he did know she was half black, but didn’t care. He married her for love. They all spend some time talking, mostly about their children and the fear that when they were born they would come out dark (to which Irene is insulted because she is proud of her children regardless of skin color), and then just when Irene is about to leave, Clare’s husband, Jack Bellew, walks in. He calls Clare Nig, and Irene is just mortified that her husband would say such a thing. When he explains the nickname as meaning that the longer Clare’s alive the darker her skin gets, and he jokes with her that one day she will turn black. They realize, over the course of conversation, that he does not know that Clare is black, and that he hates black people so much that he will not even be in their presence. Irene can’t stop laughing aloud at the situation because he is duped: he is sitting in a room with three black women, and one of them is his wife.

Irene and Margaret talk on the way out about how horrible it would be to live a lie like that in order to pass as white. They both agree that it is dangerous for Clare, and that they are happy they are not in her position. When Irene goes home, she is excited to get back to New York City and never see Clare again. Yet here is this letter, sitting on her desk. She talks to her husband about it, who says it’s best she just turn her down and get it over with: the association isn’t worth the risk. Her husband, Brian, is a doctor who is well off; they are part of the black elite. When he married her, he wanted to go to Brazil and work, but after a large fight about it, he dropped the matter. She still knows it’s in his heart and he dreams to go travel, but she feels confident that he will stay and take care of her and his two boys. She wants to talk to her husband about Junior, their oldest, about going to a school in Europe, and she hopes that his taking him there will sate some of the wanderlust she can see in his eyes. But when she’s in the car with him, the way she brings it up causes a fight, and she leaves the car angry and he avoids the conversation after that.

She is preparing for a large ball for the black elite and wealthy whites who come to Harlem, and she is in charge of tickets and tables. It is a large job, and she is determined to do it right, but it takes up most of her time. By the time she gets home, she is exhausted. But there is a knock on the door, and it is Clare Kendry. She decides to allow her up, even though the servant is reluctant. Clare asks why Irene never answered her letter, and Irene doesn’t have a good answer at first. But she then talks to Clare about the dangers of her being in Harlem in the home of a black person when she is passing as white and her husband is unaware and hates black people so much. Clare shoos that thought away, saying that she really needs to have her black culture back and to participate, and she will only do so when Jack is out of town so he never needs to know. But then Irene says that Clare should remember her responsibility to her daughter, and Clare cannot brush that reasoning aside. But she still wants to spend time where she can. Irene says she simply cannot do anything with her, especially considering the ball, and when Clare finds out, she talks Irene into letting her come. Brian, when he finds out, is amused.

Clare goes to the ball with the Redfields, and she is extravagantly dressed, moreso than anyone else. She enjoys the ball, and dances with Brian a lot. Irene is happy that Clare is happy and that the ball is going well. Hugh Wentworth, a very wealthy white man, is also there, and he enjoys conversation with Irene. Clare is very eager to meet him, and Irene says she’ll introduce her. After that night, Clare comes quite regularly to the Redfields’ home and even plays with the boys, staying around even if they are the only ones in the home.

Christmastime comes along, and Irene is feeling bleak. She is tired of Clare Kendry, but at the same time can’t say why. She accidentally falls asleep, and she is hosting a party for Hugh that evening, so she is rushing to get ready when Brian comes in. She is about to tell him about the incident, but still can’t bring herself to. Then Brian says he invited Clare to the party, and Irene stops getting ready. He says that he thought it was surely a mistake Clare hadn’t been invited, and Clare was so crushed that he couldn’t help but invite her. It is at this moment that Irene realizes that Brian is cheating on her with Clare, and the look in Brian’s eyes tells her it is true. She tells him that she didn’t invite Clare because Hugh doesn’t like her; she’s pretty enough, but not the type of intelligence that Hugh enjoys. After that nearly starts a fight, Brian leaves. Irene loses herself in grief, but puts herself together enough to go down and host. Still, she is not herself, and Hugh notices. He observes the situation and gathers that Brian is being unfaithful, and Irene, to distract him from that fact, makes up a story about breaking the cup she dropped because she hated it but couldn’t ever get rid of the cup because it was a Civil War relic.

Irene, over the next few weeks, tries to tell herself she is making up the situation, but she never really believes herself. And she realizes how vulnerable her position is. Her boys will be fine, but she is dispensable. She wishes she could ruin Clare Kendry. She is out on the town with her friend Felise one afternoon, and when they are walking about shopping, she runs into Clare’s husband. She knows that Jack can see her linked arm in arm with a black person, and that it is dangerous for him to see that because of Clare’s secret. He holds out his hand and says hello, but she cannot shake it and quickly skirts around him. She does not stay out long with Felise after that, and thinks that she’d better tell Brian and Clare about what has happened. But when she gets home, she can’t bring herself to. She and Brian get in an argument over him talking to his sons about racism and lynching. She doesn’t want her children to have to deal with that as children, and he tells her to not force him to give up everything that matters. She is struck and hurt. Her only solace is that soon Clare will be gone to Switzerland to get her child Margery from school, and her husband Jack is forcing her to go.

When they go to a party at the Freelands, Irene is surprised to see Clare coming with them. She tells Clare that Pennsylvania is not very far away and that it is a huge risk for Clare to go. She sends Clare over to Brian to talk because she can’t explain to her why it’s dangerous. At that point, Clare realizes that Irene knows that she is stealing her husband, and Irene reconfirms what she knows. She is saddened, but not as grief stricken as the first time. They get to the Freelands and climb up the many flights of stairs to the top floor. They start enjoying themselves, and about halfway through the party, Jack bursts in. He calls her out for her lying about her race, and Clare, in fear, backs up, Irene tries to grab her arm, but it is too late; Clare has fallen out the window. She tumbles to the ground and dies instantly. Everyone runs down, but Irene stays. Was she a part of the reason Clare fell? Did she push her? Or did she fall of her own accord? She realizes that she needs to go down the stairs, and she realizes that Brian left his coat. She doesn’t want him to catch cold, so she brings the coat to him. She is losing her mind over this, and the men realize it as everyone is asking her about what happened. Brian has said he was sure he saw Jack push Clare out the window, but Irene insists that no, Clare simply fell. Jack is nowhere to be found. The men suggest they all go back up and get another look at the window.

Brief Note on Themes
The largest discussions within this book surround cultural identity and what happens when a person betrays that identity. Irene is very protective of her black community and culture, and feels that Clare doesn’t belong because she actively chose to leave it in order to have wealth and privilege, and now wants it back only out of a need for nostalgia and fun. Irene herself can pass as white, but doesn’t because she values her culture more than the privileges of whiteness. Yet Irene still benefits from those privileges when she is out alone in public. Passing is the act of being able to participate in the culture of the majority because of a light skin color. It was a way around Jim Crow laws for those who chose to renounce their heritage and community.

Clare and Irene’s relationship represents what is largely a broken female bond. Irene feels betrayed, and Clare keeps using Irene in order to relive her life after discovering that money and privilege do not offer her everything she wants. Racism still affects Clare even though her husband thinks she is white, because she still gets to hear his rants against her race; her biracial status places her between two cultures, and she cannot find a way to bridge them because of the racism her husband exhibits. Irene, on the other hand, has a need to control everything in her life, and not being able to control Clare causes her much grief. Her perfectly planned life leads her to be protective of her culture and community and family. Her relationship with Clare starts to force a break in that control, completed when she realizes Clare has stolen away her husband.

Racial tensions reach their height at the Freelands’ party, where Jack confronts Clare. Clare’s death, so quickly occurring, could be said to represent how vulnerable and fragile the black body, but particularly the female black body, is when confronted with racial violence. Lying about race proves more fatal than accepting racial identity and being open and honest about it.