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Speaking in Tongues and Dancing DiasporaBlack Women Writing and Performing$
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Mae G. Henderson

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780195116595

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: August 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195116595.001.0001

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Nella Larsen’s Passing

Nella Larsen’s Passing

Chapter:
(p.152) 11 Nella Larsen’s Passing
Source:
Speaking in Tongues and Dancing Diaspora
Author(s):

Mae G. Henderson

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195116595.003.0012

Reviewing the critical reception and scholarship on Nella Larsen’s Passing, the chapter documents the historical and contemporary appeal of the “passing plot” in US fiction, along with the social phenomenon of race passing. Like the slave narrative, the passing novel is structured by border crossings and functions as a form of social critique. And while, like many modernist texts, Passing focuses on the theme of identity, Larsen rewrites essentialist notions of identity with the postmodernist concept of performative identity. The chapter proposes that Larsen, in effect, narratively theorizes the postmodern debate around essentialism vs. constructionism, challenging the idea of innate racial difference while embracing an ideology of racial uniqueness. Juxtaposing central characters Clare, who embodies textual performance, and Irene, who embodies readerly performance, the chapter demonstrates how these miscegenous figures represent “a crisis of representation.” Larsen’s achievement, it concludes, lies in her reductio ad absurdum refutation of the essentialist position.

Keywords:   Mae G. Henderson, Nella Larsen, Passing, passing plot, race passing, miscegenation, identity, modernism, postmodernism, essentialism, “crisis of representation,” textual performance, readerly performance, performative identity

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