“Not definite or tangible”: Imagining multiracial identities and recognizing multiplicity in passing novels




Gentry, Victoria Ramirez


Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title




Scholars have long focused on the significance of race in passing novels of the Harlem Renaissance and have recently explored the intersections of gender in these texts. However, discussions about the characters of these novels lack significant focus on their identities as multiracial. Rather, scholars tend to analyze these novels through a binary lens, viewing black characters as “crossing over” to pass as white. Describing passing in this way perpetuates the simple, ideological binaries (black vs. white) that have formed in the racial imaginary. These imaginaries inform how we see race and encourage us to understand identity in terms of opposition. Looking at passing as unidirectional supports this racial imaginary as it ignores the experiences of multiracial individuals who neither fit in the binary nor move only in one direction. To work against this problem, I draw from Michael Hames-García’s theory of multiplicity, Judith Butler’s performativity, and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality. I use these theories to articulate the subversive frameworks in passing novels as they explore the multidirectional and often contradictory paths of passing and destabilize the racial imaginary. On the one hand, performativity establishes the pressures multiracial individuals experience to adhere to the standards of the racial imaginary which leads to racial erasure. One the other hand, however, characters use performativity to gain mobility and to subvert the racial imaginary. The lens of multiplicity builds on intersectionality to express the complexity of multiracial identities, revealing how passing is a multidirectional movement and how racial identification is often informed by gender inequity. Thus, my project develops a lens to examine passing as multidirectional. I apply this lens to passing novels that actively critique the racial imaginary: Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), and Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun (1928) and Comedy: American Style (1933). These novels depict examples of how multiracial individuals reject the racial imaginary through multiplicity. Looking at how the novels expose this complex multiplicity reveals how the novels construct theoretical frames for understanding intersectional identities. Lastly, I explore how contemporary passing novels depict the way the racial imaginary persists, and, despite laws preventing racist segregation, racism still limits intersectional identity expression.



Harlem Renaissance, Intersectionality, Multiplicity, Multiracial, Passing, Performativity



This material is made available for use in research, teaching, and private study, pursuant to U.S. Copyright law. The user assumes full responsibility for any use of the materials, including but not limited to, infringement of copyright and publication rights of reproduced materials. Any materials used should be fully credited with its source. All rights are reserved and retained regardless of current or future development or laws that may apply to fair use standards. Permission for publication of this material, in part or in full, must be secured with the author and/or publisher.