Passing by Langston Hughes, 1934
The magic trick:
Playing on the double meaning of the title word
As much as I love puns, it seems dangerous to build an entire story around a double meaning. Dangerous, yes, for mere mortals, but this is Langston Hughes we’re talking about. The way he uses the term passing in this story is absolutely devastating. The narrator in the story is passing as white, using his light skin to, as he calls it, live in the white world. As sad as that entire concept is, it is made even more wrenching when he passes his mother in the street and the two can’t even say hello to each other.
This double meaning sinks in with the very first sentence, setting the tone and establishing the lasting, takeaway image for the story. And that’s quite a trick on Hughes’s part.
But what did you think of the girl with me, Ma? She’s the kid I’m going to marry. Pretty good-looking, isn’t she? Nice disposition. The parents are well fixed. Her folks are German-Americans and don’t have much prejudice about them, either. I took her to see a colored revue last week and she thought it was great. She said, “Darkies are so graceful and gay.” I wonder what she would have said if I’d told her I was colored, or half-colored – that my old man was white, but you weren’t? But I guess I won’t go into that. Since I’ve made up my mind to live in the white world, and have found my place in it (a good place), why think about race any more? I’m glad I don’t have to, I know that much.