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  • Chrissy Hamlin

Nella Larsen: The Nurse & Librarian who wrote the 1920's Novel "Passing"

Last night I watched the thought-provoking movie "Passing" which is currently streaming on Netflix. The 2021 film was written, directed and produced by Rebecca Hall and is based on a novel which was written in 1929 by American Author, Nella Larsen. The title refers to African-American's with light skins who chose to "pass" as white, and hid their true black ancestry, in search of a better, safer or easier life.

The film begins with an "by chance" reunion, between two old high school friends, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield, in a Upmarket Hotel in Chicago, where they are both "passing" as white women. This meeting leads to both women examining one another's choices in a way which threatens both women's identities and lives in very different ways.

The character of Irene identifies as African-American, even though she could "Pass" as white if she wished to. Irene is married to Dr. Brian Redfield, a black physician from Harlem, who is already trying to teach his two young sons the harsh truth about the racism they will experience in their lives.

Irene's friend Clare "passes" as a white woman and has married a rich, racist white man, John Bellew, who openly expresses his hatred of African-Americans and is totally unaware of his wife's true background. When he first meets Irene, he thinks she too is white.

As Clare becomes more enveloped in the black world of Harlem and grows closer to Brian, Irene becomes convinced that her husband and her friend are having an affair. When Irene meets Clare's husband on the street, in the company of another black woman, Irene tries to warn Clare that John knows about her lie. I don't want to give away any spoilers to what happens at the end of the film, so you'll have to watch it on Netflix to find out.

The film is shot entirely in black and white, which further enhances the jazz-infused sounds and art deco visuals of the Harlem Renaissance period and underlines the main themes of the book and film. Complex issues surrounding race, skin colour, class, sexuality and identity cannot always be seen in simple black and white terms - there are many grey areas within that need to be explored too.

Nella Larsen only produced a handful of short stories and two published novels, but her writing is considered to be highly important today, as it mirrors some of Larsen's own experiences as a bi-racial, light skinned black woman living in America in the 1920's and 30's.

Nella Larsen was born on April 13, 1891 in Chicago. Her biological father, Peter Walker, who died when Nella was two years old, was a mixed race Afro-Caribbean man from the Danish West Indies. Her mother Mary Hansen, was a white, Danish immigrant, who worked as a seamstress and domestic servant in Chicago.

Mary Hansen then married a white Danish immigrant called Peter Larsen, and in 1892, they had a daughter, called Lizzie. As a child, Nella took her stepfather's surname, but she knew that she looked different to her half sister and her parents and this caused the family to face prejudice when they moved to an area where other Scandinavian and German immigrants lived.

Nella didn't feel she was accepted by either the white or the black community. Supported by her mother, in 1907-08, Larsen attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee where she met other black students from the Southern states, who were the descendants of former slaves. After Larson was expelled for violating the strict dress and conduct codes for women, she went to live alone in Denmark for three years, only returning to the USA in 1912.

In 1914, Larsen enrolled in the nursing school of New York's Lincoln Hospital where she was working with black and white patients, white male doctors and black female nursing staff.

After graduating in 1915, Larsen went to work at the Tuskgee Institute in Alabama, where she became Head of the Training School. She returned to the Lincoln Hospital in 1916 where she stayed for another two years. After earning the second highest score in her civil service exams, she began working for the City Bureau of Public Health as a Nurse. She worked in the Bronx, both during and after the 1918 Flu Pandemic, visiting white neighborhoods with her white medical colleagues.

In 1919, Larsen married a prominent black physicist named Elmer Imes, who was the second African American to earn a PhD in Physics. A year after their marriage, the couple moved to Harlem, and it is here that Nella published the first of her short stories. Through her marriage, she became a member of the "Black Professional Middle Classes" but she felt she did not belong with these people either, due to her poor upbringing, her lack of college degree and her mixed parentage.

In 1921 she volunteered to help at the first exhibition of "Negro Art" at the New York Public Library and subsequently passed her Librarian certification exam in 1923. She became the first black woman to graduate from the NYPL School, opening the way for the integration of future library staff.

In October 1925, Larsen began to write her first novel. In 1926, having made friends with some important black figures in the "The Harlem Renaissance", Nella gave up her work as a librarian. She then became friends with Carl Van Vechten, a white photographer and writer. In 1928, Larsen published "Quicksand" which received critical acclaim, but was not a great financial success. In 1929, she published "Passing", her second novel, which was also critically well received.

In its review of “Passing,” The New York Times said:

“Larsen is quite adroit at tracing the involved processes of a mind that is divided against itself, that fights between the dictates of reason and desire.”

When “Passing” was reissued in 2001, the Times’s book critic Richard Bernstein wrote that “reading it and knowing that its author wrote very little after it imparts a sense of loss, giving as it does a glimpse of an original and hugely insightful writer whose literary talent developed no further.”

In 1930, Larsen published "Sanctuary", a short story for which she was accused of plagiarism, but no charges were ever proved. Despite the controversy, Larsen went on to be the first African-American woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship worth $2,500. She used it to travel to Mallorca and Paris where she worked on a novel about a love triangle, in which the three main characters were white, but she never published the book.

After she discovered that her husband Elmer had been having an affair, Nella divorced him in the 1930's and received regular alimony payments from him, up until his death in 1941. When the money ran out, Nella, who was struggling with depression, suddenly stopped writing. Nella Larson was never seen again in the literary circles of Harlem. She returned once again to a life in nursing, in order to support herself financially, and she eventually became a medical administrator.

She died of a heart attack in her Brooklyn apartment in 1964, at the age of 72. She had no children and was estranged from her only living relative, her half sister Lizzie.

Watch the Official Trailer for Passing - Now Streaming on Netflix


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