Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative

By Bennett, Juda | African American Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative


Bennett, Juda, African American Review


Passing for white, a phenomenon that once captivated writers as diverse as Charles Chesnutt, Sinclair Lewis, Nella Larsen, and Mark Twain, no longer seems to engage contemporary novelists. The long list of authors from the first half of the twentieth century, which includes canonical writers like William Faulkner and forgotten stars like Edna Ferber, is hardly balanced by the short list of contemporary writers who have addressed this figure of racial ambiguity. In considering the relative disappearance of the passing figure from contemporary literature, this essay begins with neither a clear and substantial presence nor a complete absence of passing in the work of one of our most important novelists, Toni Morrison. [1]

In each of her seven novels and in her sole short story, Toni Morrison invokes the passing myth, sometimes in only one or two paragraphs and often with indirection. The Bluest Eye, for example, features a dark-skinned child who cannot possibly pass for white, yet Pecola ignores biology and becomes (if only to herself) a blue-eyed Shirley Temple. Although some might consider Pecola's delusion a weak or perhaps specious representation of passing for white, The Bluest Eye artfully reinforces its interest in racial passing by alluding to Peola, the passing figure in Imitation of Life. This intertextual play effectively evokes the myth without actually representing the phenomenon of passing, and in this way Morrison decenters and deforms the traditional passing figure. Why?

It is my hope that this overview, although focused on Morrison, will be suggestive of larger shifts in culture, politics, and aesthetics. Why, for example, has the passing figure, after holding a central place in the imaginations of early-twentieth-century writers, been consigned to the margins of late-twentieth-century novels concerned with race? Why did Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes address the subject directly, even entitling works Passing and "Who's Passing for Who?" while Morrison approaches the subject indirectly and often in a subplot or through an allusion? Are there certain stories that are considered embarrassing, passe, or even dangerous? Are there stories, furthermore, that simply cannot be told or, rather, cannot be told simply?

Perhaps we are too far from what F. James Davis has called the "peak years for passing ... probably from 1880 to 1925." Or perhaps these passing narratives, which frequently move from the desire for white privilege to the tortures of racial denial, seem treasonous or even unimaginable in a post-1960s, post-Black Power world. If there are social forces steering creative writers away from this topic, it becomes especially important to look at the survival, albeit in altered form, of the theme.

In the last twenty years, for example, there has been an explosion of literary theory and criticism, biography and autobiography, history and sociology, all devoted to the theme and phenomenon of passing for white. In 1986, Deborah McDowell's provocative introduction to Nella Larsen's Passing was instrumental in securing Larsen new readers as well as sparking critical interest in the rich complexity of passing. Since McDowell's introduction, scholars as diverse as Judith Butler, Werner Sollors, and Henry Louis Gates have addressed this subject from their various points of view, adding to our understanding of passing as a literary device, a philosophical conundrum, and a historical phenomenon. [2] Gayle Wald and a host of other young scholars have first books devoted to theoretical and critical studies of passing. [3] Passing, it should be noted, represents a quickly evolving field of study with a complex history that has only begun to be written. [4] In addition to the scholarly books on passing, there have been many life-stories written for popular audiences. Life on the Color Line, for example, is one of several memoirs about passing that can claim bestseller status, and Shirlee Haizlipp's The Sweeter the Juice captured the attention of Oprah Winfrey and her audiences in 1995, perhaps inspiring other biographies and essay collections. …

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