‘Passing’ by Langston Hughes

Hughes, Langston 1934

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.

The selection:

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.

What do you think about this story? As always, join the conversation in the comments section below, on SSMT Facebook or on Twitter @ShortStoryMT.

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