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Navigating America's Color Line: 'Passing' on Page & Screen

A central theme in Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen’s novel Passing is the practice of racial passing, where mixed- race, light-skinned African Americans pose as white to gain acceptance and avoid the obstacles posed by racism in American society. However, passing can also mean pretending to be someone you are not; and in this context, it can also refer to sexuality and/or class. Larsen explores all of these dynamics of passing in her novels; numerous characters in both novels “pass” in various ways.

The fact that racism/racial identity, gender bias/discrimination, sexuality, and social class conflict are themes/issues that are just as relevant and compelling today as they were almost a century ago makes these novels accessible to a diverse readership. This is evidenced by the successful resurgence of Larsen’s novel Passing via a screen adaptation that made its debut on Netflix in November 2021 to glowing reviews.

In this reading series course, we will delve into what the novel and film Passing and the theme of passing help us to understand about racial/sexual/class identity and American selfhood.

Dr. Brenda R. Smith is a Kent State University Associate Professor Emerita, English. During her tenure at Kent State University at Stark, she taught American, African American, women’s, and modernist literatures, and freshman composition. Dr. Smith earned both her B.A. in English and her Ph.D. in American and African American literatures from Case Western Reserve University. She earned her M.A. in American literature from Cleveland State University. Her dissertation, The Construction of Bi-Cultural Subjectivity in African American Migrant Autobiography, which earned her Case Western Reserve University’s distinguished Neil McIntyre Memorial Essay Award and Kent State University’s Regional Campus Professional Development Award, explored the relationship between African Americans’ involuntary immigration to and voluntary migration within the United States and the formation of American subjectivity. Her current research includes the trans-ethnic study of autobiography and the construction of American subjectivity, and the evolution of the Bildungsroman literary form in African American women’s writing. Dr. Smith, a native Clevelander, currently resides in Twinsburg, Ohio. She is married and has two daughters.

Navigating America's Color Line: 'Passing' on Page & Screen with Dr. Brenda R. Smith takes place Saturdays, May 14 and May 21 from 1-3pm remotely online via Zoom.

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