Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
— Alexander Pope, “Essay on Man, Epistle II”
There’s much to say about the allegorical potential of mermaids, given their hybridity of Human and Other. In this brief post, I’d like to consider how popular mermaid lore interacts with race, and specifically how the conundrum of “passing” as White continues to occupy a mythical place in American imaginations. Many (if not most) of us are familiar with the story of a young mermaid who exchanges her tail for two legs in order to assimilate to the human world. Struck by the mobility and luxury of (wealthy) humans, this maiden is compelled to become one of them, and thereby live what she understands as a proper (if not liberated) life. The two Black women who star in Nella Larsen’s Passing novel (1929) are mermaids in their own rights, gazing curiously upon Whiteness as an opportunity to become properly human, and enjoy the comforts that are entailed by White humanity.
In Passing and stories like it that American authors such as Larsen, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Fannie Hurst, James Weldon Johnson, Iceberg Slim, and Brit Bennett have penned since the early twentieth century, Blackness may be conceptualized as a figurative marine animal — a low-hanging mermaid’s tail that must be tucked or shed in order to pass as White. Whiteness, on the other hand, is the anthropomorphic upper body that makes passing possible. When Clare and Irene, the main characters in Larsen’s Passing, first encounter each other in their outwardly White forms, they are essentially poking their heads above water, convincing the White world they’re human by keeping their Blackness submerged. They’re not exactly lying to the people who presume they’re White — they’re simply putting on a (seamless) show for them by tucking their Blackness behind the curtain.
I think the casting and cinematographic choices of Rebecca Hall’s Passing film adaptation (2021) are inspired, and I enjoyed the film on both accounts. Rather than fixating on the inscrutability of White-passing characters’ Blacknesses (as filmmakers such as John Cassavetes, Larry Yust, and Douglas Sirk have done), Hall prioritizes the loving gaze of someone (perhaps a Black someone) who recognizes the fullness of who the mermaids are. The black-and-white lens of the camera functions not only to establish an antiquated New York City, but to render abstract the racial characteristics we use to code each other. Hall’s choices curiously reinscribe the mythicism of racial “passing” (and race itself). The ambient chatter that underscores the film often gave me the impression that I was sitting at a fanciful seaside, where the dark waves of an ocean regularly trouble the white sands of the shore.
References / Further Reading:
“No Ordinary Love” by Sade (Music Video)
“Crossing Merfolk Narratives of the Sacred: Nalo Hopkinson’s The New Moon’s Arms and Gabrielle Tesfaye’s The Water Will Carry us Home” by Jalondra A. Davis (from vol. 15, no. 2 of Shima Journal)
Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World by Zakiyyah Iman Jackson
Sylvia Wynter’s essays — especially: “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings: Un/silencing the ‘Demonic Ground’ of Caliban’s ‘Woman’”
“Netflix’s ‘Passing’ Is a Gorgeous And Confounding Exploration Of Colorism” by Jourdain Searles
“The Performance of Racial Passing” by Brit Bennett