This essay explores how novelists of the Harlem Renaissance deploy small talk to disrupt racial identification. Nella Larsen's Passing (1929) serves as a case study showing that small talk magnifies a strange intimacy between passing narratives and etiquette manuals in the early twentieth century. While critics have tended to view small talk under the rubric of gossip, writers of the Harlem Renaissance call attention to the way that small talk enables racial passing by keeping dialogue on neutral and impersonal grounds. Nella Larsen makes peculiarly pronounced use of small talk, which emerges in her fiction as a self-accenting style of racial embodiment and a bold revision to the American novel of manners and to early twentieth-century etiquette manuals. Drawing on sociolinguistics and microsociology, this essay argues that Larsen unsettles the cultural tendency to equate passing with self-denial, converting small talk to an equivocal medium for passing that, paradoxically, makes audible a protest against racial segregation and social regulation.

You do not currently have access to this content.