b.O.s. 17.2 / The Laugh in Passing / Kemi Adeyemi

A prompt, a parameter, a choreography, Black One Shot (b.O.s.) has been our ongoing concentration on the art of blackness. We value the complications, ambiguities, and ambivalences on which the art of blackness thrives. As we’ve said, our physics of black study amplifies the critical resonance of objects (centripetal) over the insistence on what objects must do (centrifugal). X = Object love + art of blackness criticism ≅ disassociate, distend, demand, refract, rejoice. Solve for X in no more than 1000 words.

b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2022 for five consecutive weeks. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Alexandra Kingston-Reese and Wiktoria Tunska.

—Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)

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John (Alexander Skarsgård) tells this story while lovingly looking up at his wife, Clare (Ruth Negga), who sits on the arm of the chair that they share. “When we were first married, this woman was as white as a lily but as the years go by, she seems to be getting darker and darker—so I told her, if you don’t look out, you’ll wake up one morning and find that you’ve turned into a nigger!” Clare sweeps her smiling gaze from John to Irene (Tessa Thompson), who is sitting, stiffly, across from them. We watch the hint of shock that crosses Irene’s face as John finishes, “She’s been Nig ever since.” We hear Clare’s polite, assenting giggle while we watch Irene’s mouth twitch ever so slightly and her breathing deepen in her shoulders as she begins to laugh.

It’s a guffaw, really, a startled shock of air that turns into a steady pulsing laugh that sits in her chest and throat. Clare joins in the laughter, leaning forward in her own full-throated chuckle as the two lock eyes to laugh at all that lies beneath the joke—and this is what really sets Irene off. Wild-eyed, her laughter mounts into a full-bodied, open-mouth cackle; her tongue pulses with a propulsive cachinnation. The shared laugh could go on and get louder and bigger and blacker, but as Irene peaks, Clare demurs. Her arm stays draped over John’s shoulders and her eyes never leave Irene as she watches her process this moment and the grand scheme of Clare’s life.

Through deep breaths that mask deeper laughs, Irene begins to rein herself in for propriety’s sake, protecting Clare’s secret and their safety. She heaves a “That’s good” and brings a hand to her face as she slows to a chuckle, transforming her reaction into one for John’s appeasement. “Oh, it’s silly!” he grins, feigning modesty. “That’s good,” Irene says again, her laughter finally coming to a still.

This moment from Passing (Rebecca Hall, 2021) is a concise adaptation of two threads in Nella Larsen’s eponymous 1929 novel. One thread is about dumb white people, people who don’t think hard or look closely or listen well or really pay attention to anything other than themselves. Clare’s choice to pass for white is made possible because of how she looks, her family history, her social and cultural milieux, and her everyday performance. Her ability to pass is also due to white people’s paradoxical belief that race is always legible according to concrete, visible, and verifiable scripts, despite how the historical (sexual) violence of white people continually undermines such legibility. Clare can pass for white because of the unwillingness of people like John to reckon with white narcissism and its effects. 

The second thread of the narrative visualized in this moment concerns two Black women who are unsure about what to do with their complex desire for one another. This desire is rooted, in part, in a mutual curiosity about their divergent experiences of light black skin, of race and class, and of passing. Irene lives in Harlem with her Black husband and their two children. “Mine are dark,” she tells Clare. She only passes once in a while “for convenience, occasionally, I suppose.” Clare enters adulthood living with two white aunts and her Black past effectively erased. This paves the way for her to marry John and leave New York City and anyone who might ever know her. Their desire for one another is also rooted in plain and simple pussy power.

The brief, unbridled laughter Clare and Irene share indexes both threads at the same time: two should-be lovers laughing at the absurdity of a racist joke about the impossibility of Clare being Black. The absurdity of the joke anchors the inside joke between Clare and Irene, which is both that they are Black and that they want to fuck. Their crackling laughter is the edge of a history that may have been and the preface of the dyke drama to come. For the duration of the film, we see their virtually unbroken eye contact, wisps of touch, and pregnant pauses. (Very lesbian.) Clare and Irene have a worry for one another that takes shape as snarking judgement and wounded jealousy. (Very lesbian.) They are perpetually distracted from their so-called duties as wives and mothers because they live in one another’s minds. (Very lesbian.)

The way the film frames the particularities of Clare’s gaze builds upon the queerness found throughout the novel.1 On film, hot femme desire is embodied in Clare’s habit of focused attention, though it may only be perceptible to those who are paying attention, like Irene, a virtual touch-me-not who is living for the transmission of energy alone. 

Irene and Clare’s story begins when they re-encounter one another after passing into the Drayton Hotel. But, their doomed meet-cute really happens when they laugh in front of John, at him and the white heterosexuality he represents. The story’s denouement—Irene maybe pushing Clare to her death after John storms a Black party to accuse his wife of being Black or Clare maybe jumping because she cannot face being exposed—is high femme dyke drama masquerading (passing, if you will) as racial strife. Irene isn’t worried about the crises of legibility that passing introduces into the racial order, or whether a light-skinned Clare will steal her dark-skinned husband. He’s totally gay. Irene’s worry is cosmological: how will she survive if Clare is around another minute more? Clare’s liveness will shatter Irene’s prim countenance, her work to be the best beard to her husband, mother to her children, steward of her community. But even the best stewards of Black middle-class heterosexuality buckle under the pressure every now and then. We saw it for just a moment as Irene laughed, with eyes, mouth, and mind open wide for Clare to see. It would go on to break both of them.

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This is one of four essays from the seventeenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays from this transmission here:

17.1/That’s Pops Money/Mabel O. Wilson

17.3/Loops of Retreat/ Sarah Jane Cervenak

17.4/Cotton Ikebana 18??/Alex Pittman

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Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie have been collaborating since 2017 come hell or high water. Lisa is Associate Professor of Art History at Whitman College and wrote Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (2015) and most recently, “Unknowing Wastelands in Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum.” Michael will start in the fall of 2022 as Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (2016) and most recently, consulting producer for the Criterion Collection release of Shaft.


  1. Passing’s queer overtones have been mined by many literary critics, including perhaps most famously Deborah E. McDowell in her Introduction to Passing and Quicksand (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986), ix-xxxv.