This Writer's Family Passed For White For Decades

photo of nella larsen
Briona Lamback
August 11, 2022

Nella Larsen didn’t leave much behind when she died. She had little possessions in her ground-floor apartment, was childless and divorced, and estranged from her half-sister, who denied even knowing she existed. 

The worst part? Larsen’s entire life was full of white lies.

Larsen’s family was passing. She lived in a working-class neighborhood of Chicago with her mother, stepfather, and half-sister; to the outside world, they were a white family. 

Only Nella wasn’t, but her mother, Mary, could never let such a secret get out.

Nella Larsen was visibly Black, so eventually, the family separated, and she was swept into a lifetime of abandonment. This erasure inspired some of her best work.

She wrote “Passing,” a novel about two biracial friends, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, who reunited at a Chicago hotel after years apart. Clare, Irene discovers, has been living as a white woman married to a racist who has no clue about his wife’s Blackness.

Larsen’s life and work remind us how deeply violent white supremacy is, no matter how close we are to them.

Like Nella Larsen, we must forge our paths and write our own stories, despite how white supremacy tries to erase our Blackness–they literally could never.

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