Saturday, 6 February 2021

Quicksand and Passing


In the 1920s  Nella Larson wrote these two well received novellas that look closely at the experience of mixed race women and their search for an identity. They appear to be mostly autobiographical from her own experience growing up in the early 20th century. After they were published she was caught up on a plagiarism controversy and although she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship she never published again and returned to nursing later in her life.

In Quicksand a young woman, Helga, leaves the stifling Black college where she teaches and goes in search of a new kind of life. She settles for some time in Harlem, relishing being part of a Black community but then uses money given by her estranged uncle to travel to Copenhagen to live with her maternal aunt. She is treated as a exotic curiosity there but loves the affluence her aunt's household offers. On returning to America she happens upon a revival meeting and is swept along and ends up married to the preacher; hoping to find new meaning for her life she just sinks down into the quicksand of drudgery from which she is unable to escape. At the end she is recovering from post-natal depression and decides to leave, but finds herself pregnant again. Helga has an ambiguous relationship with being Black; she often expresses internalised racism, feeling distain for Black people and not wanting to identify with them. The story is about her wanting to escape the trappings of being a Black woman. Her she receives a letter and cheque from her uncle:
"Beside the brief, friendly, but none the less final, letter there was a check for five thousand dollars. Helga Crane's first feeling was one of unreality. This changed almost immediately into one of relief, of liberation. It was stronger than the mere promise of security from present financial worry which the check promised. Money as money was still not very important to Helga. But later, while on an errant in the big general office of the society, her puzzled bewilderment fled. Here the inscrutability of the dozen or more brown faces, all cast from the same indefinite mold, and so like her own, seemed pressing against her. Abruptly it flashed upon her that the harrowing irritation of the past weeks was a smouldering hatred. Then, she was overcome by another, so actual, so sharp, so horribly painful, that forever afterwards she preferred to forget it. It was as if she were shut up, boxed up, with hundreds of her race, closed up with that something in the racial character which had always been, to her, inexplicable, alien. Why, she demanded in fierce rebellions, should she be yoked to these despised black folk." (p.54-5)
(The book can be read online here.)

Passing tells the story of two friends, and explores the effect of 'passing' as white in a racially divided society. Irene is married to a Black man and only passes in some situations when it is more convenient. Clare passes as white and married a white man who does not know she is Black. At one point she describes her terror while pregnant that her baby would give away her racial heritage. Here Irene and Clare and another friend discuss the notion of heredity and their children:
" 'No', she went on, 'no more for me either. Not even a girl. It's awful the way it skips generations and then pops out. Why, he actually said he didn't care what colour it turned out, if I would only stop worrying about it. But, of course, nobody wants a dark child.' Her voice was earnest and she took for granted that her audience was in entire agreement with her.
Irene, whose head had gone up with a quick little jerk, now said in a voice of whose even tones she was proud: 'One of my boys is dark.'
Gertrude jumped as if she had been shot at. Her eyes goggled. Her mouth flew open. She tried to speak, but could not immediately get the words out. Finally she managed to stammer: 'Oh! And your husband, is he - is he - er - dark, too?'
Irene, who was struggling with a flood of feelings, resentment, anger, and contempt, was, however, still able to answer cooly as if she had not that sense of not belonging to and of despising the company in which she found herself drinking iced tea from tall amber glasses on that hot August afternoon. Her husband, she informed them quietly, couldn't exactly "pass"." (p.168)
While the book could feel like a period piece, being set a century ago, it has so much to say about both society's and people's experience of racism and identity and is still so relevant today. Much thought provoking.
Stay safe. Be kind. See you tomorrow.

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