No one is safe from Schuyler’s biting mockery, not Southern segregationists or black liberationists. W.E.B. Du Bois is lampooned as Dr. Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard: “In limpid prose he told of the sufferings and privations of the downtrodden black workers with whose lives he was totally and thankfully unfamiliar.” Du Bois was reportedly tickled by the caricature.
Each page unleashes a fusillade of gags and comic sequences, careening from slapstick to blood bath and back again. The centerpiece involves two white supremacist politicians who discover they have black ancestry. On the run from enraged former supporters, they land in Mississippi and try to disguise themselves in blackface — only to be set upon by a white congregation that has been bemoaning how Dr. Crookman’s invention has cost it lynching opportunities. To borrow a line from Schuyler, the plot twists get “more complicated than a flapper’s past” — and about as fun.
Where Schuyler goes big and broad, Larsen is stealthy, almost laparoscopic in her aim. “Passing” is the story of two women, former childhood friends. Both are very light-skinned, and one, the beautiful Clare, chooses to pass, marrying a violently bigoted man who is unaware of her identity.
It’s a book about ambiguities of all kinds. It culminates in a tragedy that might be an accident, murder or something even more disturbing. And the charged relationship between the women is full of muffled desire: There is “something groping, and hopeless,” Larsen writes, in Clare’s longing for Irene’s company, for her blackness and rootedness in the community. And while Irene disapproves of Clare’s dangerous decision to pass, she is helpless before her “tempting mouth” and “bright hair.”
The story — and the horror — uncoil in distinctly feminine spaces, to the music of “spoons striking against frail cups” and the high, pealing sound of a woman laughing.
For their wildly differing approaches, the novels are both curious about what it means to feel, as well as be, truly free, and how freedom and safety might be at odds. (Irene imagines Clare’s philosophy: “Safe! Damn being safe!”) Like Fran Ross’s recently reissued comic novel “Oreo” (1974) and Kathleen Collins’s posthumously published stories in “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” (2016), they are derisive about fantasies of racial purity, black or white. They are unsparing on the madness of racial classification but…