Though the theme of passing is one we don’t see very often in present-day lit, it was popular in the early to mid-20th century. We’ve seen how it played out in Charles Chestnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) and William White’s Lost Boundaries (1948). In each story, a character (or characters) makes the conscious decision to transition from being black or biracial to white as if simply shedding one’s skin or race guarantees happiness. As characters in the aforementioned books found out, in Jessie Redmond Fauset’s Plum Bun, Angela Murray soon learns that while white privilege may provide her with some creature comforts, there is much sacrifice to be made in forgetting who you are and from where you came.
Passing in public places had always been a game with Angela and her mother. While her darker skinned father and sister were left to entertain themselves in other ways, Angela and her mother, Mattie, used their complexions to frequent places where they might otherwise have been shunned, such as tea parlors and other places where society women gathered. If she had known what damage she was doing to her daughter, it’s doubtful that Mattie would have engaged in passing. Whereas Mattie was proud of her race and loved her husband fiercely, upon their deaths, Angela made the decision to leave Philadelphia and her sister, Virginia, behind.
Living in New York, Angela changes her name and tries to fit in with the other art students in her classes. In time, she begins a romance with a wealthy white man, not because she loves him, but because of what his race and money can afford her. She believes that she is happy, but, in reality, it’s just a superficial happiness that never lasts for long.
Meanwhile, her sister Virginia has brought herself to Harlem and is enjoying life. Surrounded by good people and good times, her life is held up as a mirror to Angela. What good is passing if you can’t relax and let your hair down and enjoy yourself? That really becomes the moral of the story. For all the perks that being white brings her, Angela doesn’t have any real friends. There’s no one she can be honest with about whom she is, except her sister, but her desire to be seen as white prevents her from spending too much time with her.
Without getting into the whole tragic mulatto theme, you’re safe in assuming that Angela does indeed play such a role. In trying to marry a man that wouldn’t love her if he knew she was black to loving a man that won’t love her because he believes she is not, her life is tragic indeed. With the exception of Lost Boundaries, where a whole family was passing, none of the stories have happy endings. It has to be difficult to cut one’s self off from family, friends, culture, etc. Even though people have been able to do it, I can’t imagine that the trade-off is worth it.
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