“PASSING,” BY NELLA LARSEN

About a week ago as I was searching Amazon for a Toni Morrison book I might not have read, I accidentally came across a book by Ms. Nella Larsen, who I had never heard of but since it was a Penguin Classics publication I decided to take a look. The book, titled “Passing,” was written in 1927 and according to the summary it was about light skin African-American women who could pass for white, and so were accepted in clubs, eligible for better paying jobs, and if really beautiful like the character Clare Kendry marry unsuspecting rich men who had no idea that they were black.

After reading the summary, I was instinctively thrown back in time to 1985 and the city of Los Angeles. One night sitting at a bar a very attractive lady sat beside me. She loved my NY ascent. She was from Los Angeles and had not travelled at all. She had the most beautiful, bronze skin with dark, penetrating eyes, and wavy dark hair. I figured that she was either southern Italian, Greek, or Spanish, but I did not ask because I didn’t think it appropriate when meeting a person for the first time to ask what nationality they were… Besides, she sounded like a valley girl. We talked for a long time, and not only was she beautiful, but extremely intelligent and vigilant. She left early. She had another appointment she could not be late for and just before leaving, she said, “I come here quite often, hopefully we’ll run into each other again. Another beautiful girl leaving me stranded at a bar. The story of my life.

I thought about her for a few days, and could not get out of my mind her dark eyes, and lovely olive skin. Just about a month had passed, and I was once again sitting at the same bar and she sat down beside me. She said, “I was hoping and praying I would find you here.”

“And why is that?” I asked Jokingly.

“Because you’re not like the other guys I know. They’re only interested in getting into my pants, and you’re not like that.”

In truth, that very thought about getting into her pants had crossed my mind quite a few times, but I was so shy that unless a girl made the first move I never saw the light of first base. We talked for a while and then she, once again, had to leave for an appointment that she was late for. The bartender bend down beside me as we watched her leave through the front door. He said, “I wouldn’t waste my time with that stuck up bitch. She’s as unlikely to put out as a corpse. Personally, I think she’s black and doesn’t want anyone to know about it… Might hurt her chances auditioning for commercials or movie parts.”

I didn’t say anything. The idea that she was trying to pass herself off as white was beyond anything I could imagine. She was gorgeous, smart, and very nice. I couldn’t give a shit what race or nationality she was. After all, I grew up in the Bronx and half my friends were black and it was a common sight to see black and white couples. Besides, there were plenty of bi-racial movie stars, newscasters, and politicians. This was 1985, not 1920.

We got into the habit of once a week meeting at the bar, but she would insist that we go to another place as quickly as possible. She just didn’t feel comfortable anymore in that bar… So we started going to this small French restaurant with excellent food and wonderful service. It was also very dark and one could barely make out the food in front of you; nevertheless the beautiful girl across from me.

We would talk for hours, and occasionally we would go back to my place and have a few nightcaps. She insisted that I keep the lights dim… More romantic like that… Even though the most we ever did was kiss, but considering how beautiful she was, it was like hitting a home run for me. She never stayed the night, but we did exchange phone numbers.

Then one night, I got a call from the police saying that such and such had been arrested for being drunk and disorderly at a restaurant. That they couldn’t release her on her own, but if I came down and got her they could release her into my custody. I drove down to the station, paid the fine, and an officer went and got her out of the jail. She looked dishevel, darker than usual with her make-up removed, and embarrassed.

We drove back to my place, mostly in silence, and once we got into my apartment she asked me to call a cab for her. I told her that was silly, I could drive her. She remarked, “It wouldn’t be safe for a nice white boy to be seen in the neighborhood I live in. Now that you know, surely you understand.”

“No, I don’t…” but before I could say another word she stopped me, called the cab, and immediately left my apartment and waited for the cab to arrive. It was the last time I saw her. It was 1985, in the city of Los Angeles.

Nella Larsen’s, “Passing,” is a real gem. Her writing is powerful, her characters unforgettable, and the story so realistic that it is frightening. It takes place in Chicago and New York in 1927. Some will say that blacks have made great progress and the story I told was just an anomaly… But not so for the beautiful girl I knew.

“Passing” is easily one of my favorite books I have read this year. I strongly recommend this novel.
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