Quicksand is more than a novel about a person’s search for identity. It offers a critical commentary on diverse cultural and racial societies—their oppressive institutions, outmoded traditions, false values, and distorted ways of perceiving reality. Because the protagonist is a woman of mixed racial heritage, Nella Larsen can easily shift her character from one different community to the next. Furthermore, because Helga’s less-than-full commitment to either black or white society provides her with special insight, Larsen can illustrate and criticize the distinguishing elements that make up the different racial cultures.
Larsen communicates many important ideas to readers through Helga’s central consciousness in the novel. The Naxos school is a black middle-class training ground where new ideas are not tolerated and individual freedom is discouraged. The name “Naxos” is probably used by Larsen as an anagram for “Saxon,” to denote the school’s obedience to the dominant Anglo-Saxon society. This kind of life is in contrast to the free and joyous existence of the black residents of Harlem, where Helga temporarily finds escape. In Harlem, however, she soon realizes that there, too, black men and women are imitating white patterns of life, even as they denounce the actions of white persons. Furthermore, she finds the sensual excesses practiced in Harlem to be repulsive to the values of her moral upbringing.
(The entire section is 593 words.)
Table of Contents
2. Interracial Racism
2.1. The American View on Helga
2.2. The European View on Helga
3. Intraracial Racism
3.1. Sexual Aspects
3.2. Social Aspects
1. Introduction "
the feeling of smallness which had hedged her [Helga] in, first during her sorry unchildlike childhood among hostile white folk in Chicago, and later during her uncomfortable sojourn among snobbish black folk in Naxos."1
This quotation demonstrates the complexity of racial issues Nella Larsen deals with in Quicksand. Both, interracial ("hostile white folk") and intraracial ("snobbish black folk") constructions of racism are considered within the text. The heroine, Helga Crane, moves to several places throughout the novel and in all of these locations she has to face stereotypes which restrain and oppress her. Helga is forced to fight "against imposed definitions of blackness and womanhood"2 which are inflicted on her by an oppressive white and black society. Consequently, when discussing the topic racism in Quicksand, one must keep in mind the importance of the mutual influence and the coaction between race and gender.3
In this term paper, I will analyse the topic of interracial and intraracial racism in Nella Larsen's first novel Quicksand. Published in 1928, it is set in the 1920's and 1930's at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. During that period, Afro-Americans were strictly segregated from white people in all public facilities, for example restaurants, parks and schools. Although slavery was abolished after the American Civil War the majority of the white population in the USA held fixed prejudices against black people and some even transformed their hatred into violence (lynchings and assassinations). Not until the Civil Rights Movement (1955-68) prohibited discrimination of all kinds, the situation for African descent people improved.
In the following, definitions of the terms "racism", "interracial" and "intraracial" will be provided.
Racism is any action, practice, or belief that reflects the racial worldview- the ideology that humans are divided into separate and exclusive biological entities called 'races,' [...] and that some races are innately superior to others.4
People who exercise racism have internalized definite ideas of how to treat "low- status races"5: "... different 'races' should be segregated from one another, [...] they should have their own distinct communities, develop their own institutions..."6. On the contrary only "members of the economically and culturally dominant race"7 are allowed to profit from "privileges, political power, economic resources, high-status jobs, and unrestricted civil rights"8.
The term interracial simply means "involving people of different races"9 for example as in Quicksand whites and blacks. Interactions between people of the same skin color and ethnic group are generally characterized as intraracial.
2. Interracial Racism
Quicksand presents the white racist images of African American people, especially of African American women, during the first decades of the 20th century. Larsen not solely focuses on the common "malicious hatred" (Q 26) of white Americans but also considers the unconscious and indirect racism from Europeans who regard Helga as "A decoration. A curio. A peacock." (Q 75) and treat her "like an exotic object, admired only as a representative of the primitive and sensual."10 For this reason, it is necessary to distinguish between these two different behavior patterns and to examine them separately.
2.1. The American View on Helga
... to America where they hated Negroes! To America, where Negroes were not people. To America, where Negroes were allowed to be beggars only, of life, of happiness, of security. To America, where everything had been taken from those dark ones, liberty, respect, even the labor of their hands. (Q 83/84)
The difficulty for African Americans to endure life in the USA is illustrated pretty vividly in this citation of Helga Crane's thoughts. It expresses her awareness of her status in America as well as the character's repugnance of returning to this country.11 After Helga's father left the family, her mother marries again. Her new husband, "a man of her own race" (Q 26), as well as Helga's new stepbrothers and sisters, reject Helga (due to her blackness) with a "savage unkindness" (Q 26). What is more, her mother, Karen Nilssen, repudiates Helga ("unloved little Negro girls" (Q 26)) since she indirectly accuses her daughter of her color which is an indication for Karen's condemned interracial marriage.12 Helga suffers from this rejection and the aloofness of her mother13 ("She visualized her now, sad, cold, and - yes, remote" (Q 26); "her mother, whom she had loved from a distance" (Q 129)). This oppressive surround makes it impossible for Helga to establish an identification as an African American woman14 in order to accept her African heritage and thus herself. As a result, Helga is full of self-hatred15 ("childish self-effacement" (Q 26)). When Helga's mother dies, her white stepfamily abandons her, but she is saved by Uncle Peter who sends Helga to "a school for Negroes" (Q 26). Not until then is she able to realize that16 "because one was dark, one was not neccessarliy loathsome, and could, therefore, consider oneself without repulsion" (Q 26).
Helga experiences the same kind of racism when she visits her Uncle Peter in Chicago so as to request for help and especially for money. Since Mr. Nilssen is not at home and Helga surprisingly discovers he has married she introduces herself to Mrs. Nilssen, a white woman. However, the latter does not approve of Helga's appearance and treats her in a very rude and disrespectful manner. The new wife of her uncle makes it unmistakably clear to Helga that she is not her uncle's niece and that they are not related to each other17 (Q 31). Furthermore, she gives Helga to understand that she "mustn't expect anything else" and that Helga "mustn't come here [to their house] anymore" (Q 31). This behavior reveals Mrs. Nilssen's profoud aversion in being connected to an African American person.18 Helga herself is dissapointed, furious and feels humiliated after the encounter with Mrs. Nilssen. Having lived more than one year in Harlem, Helga receives a letter from Uncle Peter. It includes "a check for five thousand dollars" (Q 57), the money he meant to guarantee Helga at his death, and his wish to limit the contact with her in order to satisfy his wife19 who "feels very strongly about this." (Q 57). Uncle Peter, who in fact cares for Helga and wants her to be happy, chooses the most comfortable way and rejects her so as to not endanger his marriage.20 It is clear from the above that Helga is an unwanted "disturbing factor" (Q 12) for her white family in America. Her dilemma is "-the problem of the color line, the problem of being Black in a country that favored white."21 Both, her stepfamily and her uncle and his wife condemn miscegenation (marriage between people of different races) and therefore Helga due to their deep rooted racism against African American people.
The last indication for racism in America demonstrated in Quicksand I want to analyse is not restricted to Helga, but also affects the black community in Naxos. In the first chapter of the novel Helga describes a white preacher giving a sermon to the students and teachers in Naxos. In his speech he tells them to be satisfied with their situation and that they must not develop further:
" ... he had urgently besought them to know when and where to stop."; "And then he had spoken of contentment, [...] pointing out to them that it was their duty to be satisfied in the estate to which they had been called." (Q 7).
The whites suppress the blacks in Naxos and model them after their plans of how the blacks are supposed to behave: "It [Naxos] was, Helga decided, now only a big knife with cruelly sharp edges ruthlessly cutting all to a pattern, the white man's pattern." (Q 8). The white racist society tries to eliminate all kinds of individual and innovative developments22 (Q 8) in order to restrain the blacks from gaining strength and developing insubordinate thoughts.23 Helga is disgusted and full of resentment because the black community accepts its inferiority and tolerates the eradication of their personality and identity ("... those happy singing children, whose charm and
1 Nella Larsen, Quicksand (New York: Penguin Group, 2002) 49.
2 Cheryl A. Wall, "Passing for What?," Black American Literature Forum 20 (1986): 98/99.
3 Jacquelyn Y. McLendon, The Politics of Color in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen (Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1995) 75.
4 "Racism," The NewEncyclopædiaBritannica: MicropædiaReadyReference Vol. 9, ed. Jacob E. Safra (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2002) 880.
5 Encyclopædia Britannica, 880.
6 Encyclopædia Britannica, 880.
7 Encyclopædia Britannica, 880.
8 Encyclopædia Britannica, 880.
9 Sally Wehmeier, ed., Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English: Sixth Edition (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000) 680.
10 Hazel V Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989) 169.
11 Initially, when living in Denmark, Helga under no circumstances intends to return to America. However, her point of view changes when she realizes: "I'm homesick, not for America, but for Negroes." (Q 94).
12 Kimberly Monda, "Self-Delusion and Self-Sacrifice inNella Larsen's Quicksand," African American Review 31 (1997): 29.
13 Monda, 29.
14 Monda, 28.
15 Tate, 242.
16 Monda, 28.
17 DoLB, 184.
18 Thadious M. Davis, "Nella Larsen," Dictionary ofLiterary Biography Voi. 51: Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, ed. Trudier Harris (Detroit: Gale Research Co. , 1987) 184.
19 McLendon, 78.
20 Hutchinson, 183.
21 Lillie P. Howard, "'A Lack Somewhere': Nella Larsen's Quicksand and the Harlem Renaissance," The Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined, ed. Victor A. Kramer (New York: AMS P, 1987) 224.
22 Wall, 98.
23 Carby, 168.