Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Ahead Of the Times
In recent months, I've written quite a few essays on books by international authors. While these make for a broad canvas, I realized that a few groups haven't been as well represented in my studies. To put it bluntly, there's an occasional (albeit unintentional) glut of "middle-aged white men," so I wanted this next post to focus on a female or black author, and I decided to revisit the works of Nella Larsen (1891-1964). In college, I read her novella Passing as part of an African-American literature course. The beauty of Larsen's bibliography is that she tends to fall under the radar from time to time, or rather doesn't seem to receive as much attention and study as her Harlem Renaissance counterparts. Her contributions (at least the published ones) can usually fit into a slim volume, but this minimum quantity is absolutely usurped by the sheer emotion of her prose. Some writers, both past and present, may rely on casual metaphors to examine race, sexuality and other human conditions. Nella Larsen, via Quicksand's protagonist Helga Crane, opts to shout the problems of early 20th century America as loudly and clearly as possible.
This novella is small, but contains staggering events and questions, some articulate, some hazy. Helga Crane is a woman who's modern and proud beyond most 1920s expectations. The story begins with her last day as a schoolteacher down South, and the problems with her surroundings are presented very sharply.
"This was, he had told them with obvious sectional pride, the finest school for Negroes anywhere in the country, north or south; in fact, it was better even than a great many schools for white children. And he had dared any Northerner to come south and after looking upon this great institution to say that the Southerner mistreated the Negro. And he had said that if all Negroes would only take a leaf out of the book of Naxos [the name of the school] and conduct themselves in the manner of the Naxos products there would be no race problem, because Naxos Negroes knew what was expected of them (Larsen 37)."
The racism of this passage seems obvious by today's standards, but one can imagine some people of the era, both black and (mostly) white, reading along and nodding in agreement. Rightfully, Helga Crane wants no part of this condescension. As a black woman, she's a part of two minorities, and as the tale progresses, her intelligence and sheer force of will immediately transcend sex and race. Yes, these prove to be the two main sources of the prejudice she faces, but one can tell that, just by her immense pride, she would also face tension as a white male in that era. She does not suffer fools or insulted intelligence with any patience. This theme, coupled with the racism in her school's mission, leads to the first of her many travels across the world. She moves to Chicago to find her white uncle, but is immediately turned away by his wife. "And, oddly enough, she felt too, that she had come home. She, Helga Crane, who had no home (63)."
The above sentence is one of many intentional contradictions in Larsen's writing style. On the very same page, she writes: "After a slight breakfast she made her way to the library, that ugly gray building, where was housed much knowledge and a little wisdom, on interminable shelves (italics mine)." These slight movements of phrase and opposites blend well with the contradictions of Helga's life. As much as she feels entitled to a life on her own terms, the prejudice around her forms a barrier that she fights against for most of the book. Her attempts to find a sense of happiness and a true home are met with opposition, forcing her to move to a new place in hopes of finding stability. She even moves to Denmark to live with her extended family and to escape racism in America. She rejects a marriage proposal from an eccentric white painter, which for a young woman in her twenties is viewed by others as social and financial suicide.
"Tameness returned to Helga Crane. Her ironic gaze rested on the face of Axel Olsen, his leonine head, his broad nose--'broader than my own'--his bushy eyebrows, surmounting thick, drooping lids, which hid, she knew, sullen blue eyes. He stirred sharply, shaking off his momentary disconcertion.
In his assured, despotic way he went on: 'You know, Helga, you are a contradiction. You have been, I suspect, corrupted by the good Fru Dahl, which is perhaps as well. Who knows? You have the warm impulsive nature of the women of Africa, but, my lovely, you have, I fear, the soul of a prostitute. You sell yourself to the highest buyer (117)."
In addition, even in Denmark, she feels like a circus attraction, constantly regarded and stared at by people unaccustomed to seeing a woman of mixed race. This leads to a move back to America. While these moves are necessary in the course of the novella, they almost become a distraction. Several years are fit into the course of a few dozen pages, and one wonders if Larsen would have been better off writing Quicksand as a full novel as opposed to a novella. These stark transitions become much more obvious in the dizzying conclusion, as Helga marries a preacher, has children, and almost dies from childbirth. Throughout her life, she's sworn off having children, but not for personal or feminist reasons.
"How stupid she had been ever to have thought that she could marry and perhaps have children in a land where every dark child was handicapped at the start by the shroud of color! She saw, suddenly, the giving birth to little, helpless, unprotesting Negro children as a sin, an unforgivable outrage. More black folk to suffer indignities. More dark bodies for mobs to lynch (104)."
This idea of not wanting children to grow up in futile, racist environments has been written about in much more depth by Toni Morrison in recent years. In the case of Helga Crane, this is almost confusing. If her stated desire to not have children was in line with her fierce independence, it would fit her character with better clarity. This is evident in her later marriage and child-bearing, "expected" activities for young women which make Helga unhappier than ever. She's trapped by a husband whom she doesn't love and children she never wanted. At her wit's end, she lashes out at the ultimate white male figure: the "White God."
"She couldn't, she thought ironically, even blame God for it, now that she knew that He didn't exist. No. No more than she could pray to Him for the death of her husband, the Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green. The white man's God. And His great love for all people regardless of race! What idiotic nonsense she had allowed herself to believe. How could she, how could anyone, have been so deluded? How could ten million black folk credit it when daily before their eyes was enacted its contradiction? Not that she cared about the ten million. But herself. Her sons. Her daughter. These would grow to manhood, to womanhood, in this vicious, this hypocritical land. The dark eyes filled with tears (157)."
This is Nella Larsen at her best. There's no shame, no equivocation, and no acceptance of unecessary hardships. Helga gives up her ideals for what society expects, and it almost kills her. This reminds me of a quote by Muhammad Ali, both poetic and quite relevant to Helga's problems: "You don't want no pie in the sky when you die; you want something here on the ground while you're still around." This is what makes Larsen an essential voice in black and feminist history, demanding equality with no insults or strings attached. As much as I hate to close on a negative note, Larsen's formats are her ultimate undoing. With so many issues and sociological debates present, she simply packed too much into a confined space. Quicksand should have been a novel instead of a novella, as I mentioned above. This also goes for her short stories, which end up being too shot. In the stories (namely "Sanctuary") , there's just as much at stake that ends up not being expanded. As opposed to Quicksand, she left her short fiction to the imagination when it deserved more insights. For someone as talented as Larsen was in her prime, one can only imagine her putting said skills to better use in more appropriate layouts. Quicksand is still relevant today, and still feels like it carries the weight of a Shakespearean tragedy. For better or for worse, depending on your opinion, it leaves the reader wanting more, in simply terms of quantity.
Larsen, Nella. The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen. Anchor Books Edition, 2001.