- Sneaking Around: Idealized Domesticity, Identity Politics, and Games of Friendship in Nella Larsen's Passing
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 57, Number 1, Spring 2001
- pp. 35-60
- View Citation
- Additional Information
FRANK HERING Sneaking Around: Idealized Domesticity, Identity Politics, and Games of Friendship in Nella Larsen's Passing Homes, more homes, better homes, purer homes is the text upon which sermons have been and will be preached. Mary Church Terrell' My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism. 1 think that the ethico-political choice we have to make every clay is to determine which is the main danger. Michel Foucault2 iUriní; the post-reconstruction era, novels by African American women often centered around attaining and advancing idealized domesticity. In response to the dangers of segregation, these novels portrayed "black" heroines who, as models of the genteel standard of Victorian conduct, undergo a series of adventures en route to marriage, family happiness, security, and prosperity. Such novels, Claudia Tate argues, attempted not only to counter racist rhetoric, but also to sustain their readers' faith in the struggle for freedom and "racial" advancement by using the tropes of domesticity to provide allegories of "political desire in the form of fulfilled (rather than frustrated) liberational aspiration" (68). The success of these novels arose "from their Arizona QuartL'rh Volume 57, Number 1, Spring 2001 Copyright © 2001 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004- 1610 36Frank Hering ability to gratify vicariously that readership's desire for racial equality and female agency in the creation and maintenance of happy, productive families" (Tate 96). The domestic ideal of the post-Rcconstructionera novelists gave many African Americans hope when their civil rights were constitutionally sanctioned but socially prohibited. Yet as the epigraph from Foucault reminds us, one still needs to engage politically and critically with this response in order to attend to the new dangers that came along with it. In order to create an idealized domesticity, novelists and social activists, such as Mary Church Terrell, engaged in the task of showing others their "proper" places in respect to the domestic ideal of "purer homes." While post-Reconstruction novelists and activists attempted to counter the rhetoric and the effects of segregation , they did so by appealing to the same fantasy as segregationists and eugenicists, the fantasy that if everyone could be shown and made to stay in his or her "proper" place, all domestic problems—both in terms of the nation and the home—would be solved. Because Clare, the figure who leaves the "proper" place marked out for her by both segregationists and post-Reconstruction novelists and activists, is dead at the end of Nella Larsen's Passing, the novel would seem to be offering a narrative supporting this project, one that shows the clanger of sneaking around outside of "racial," class, and domestic boundaries.' In this reading, the novel would seem to follow in the tradition ot Nigger Heaven, the novel by Larsen's close friend Carl Van Vechten, which offers a narrative of an energizingly attractive but nevertheless dangerously destructive cabaret nightlife. By describing this nightlife as the essence of "blackness," Van Vechten creates a new group of vanishing Americans, ones destined to lead ruined lives because of the "exotic" dangers to which they are "naturally" drawn. Even though characters in Passing often parallel characters from Nigger Heaven, Larsen avoids Van Vechten's equation.4 Whereas Van Vechten shows how his characters are torn apart by "all the incongruities, the savage inconsistencies, the peculiar discrepancies, of this cruel, segregated life" (215), Larsen represents in Clare someone who uses and finds pleasures in these "discrepancies" and "inconsistencies." That Clare is dead at the end of the novel speaks not to the dangers of her way of life—everything is dangerous—but to the murderous logic of Irene's attempt to create a "pure" home-as-safe-haven. In Clare, Larsen not only avoids Van Vechten's equation, but also Nella Larsen's Passing37 avoids post-Reconstruction novelists' and activists' reliance on proper places in identity politics.5 These novelists and activists attempted both to arrange others according to class and color and to display them to the...