Her “Nig”: Returning the Gaze of Nella Larsen’s “Passing”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Papers/Presentations on 2011-12-21 05:21Z by Steven

 Her “Nig”: Returning the Gaze of Nella Larsen’s “Passing”

Modern Language Studies
Volume 32, Number 2 (Autumn, 2002)
pages 109-138

Lori Harrison-Kahan, Full-time Adjunct Faculty in English
Boston College

In a scene from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing, a white man, John Bellew, enters his Chicago hotel room to find his wife, Clare, taking tea with two of her childhood friends. To the astonishment of the two women, Bellew greets his wife with an unusual pet name: “Nig.” When Clare asks her husband to explain his form of address to the stunned women, he replies, “When we were first married, she was as white as—as—well as white as a lily. But I declare she’s gettin’ darker and darker. I tell her if she don’t look out, she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger” (171). The moment is rich in dramatic irony, for unbeknownst to Bellew, his wife and her two friends are African Americans who are passing as white.

Although Bellew calls his wife “Nig” as a “joke” (171), the interpellation works to erase Clare’s given name, which connotes clearness, light, and whiteness. That Clare responds to this nickname seals the process of subjection. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon notes the power of interpellation to constitute and deform the black body through a racialized naming such as “nigger” or “Negro.” In Fanon’s famous example of racial interpellation, the cry “Look a Negro!” pairs the derogatory naming with the fixing of the look. The simultaneous gaze (“Look”) and naming (“a Negro”) freeze the black man into “an object in the midst of other objects” (109). In Passing, Clare’s husband warns her that if she “don’t look out”—…

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