10 February 2020

Black or White in 1920s America

Quicksand / Passing
Nella Larsen
Rutgers University Press, 1995  (first published 1928, 1929)
246 pages

I discover some of my very best reads from book blogger reviews, and this book is no exception. Of course I don't know who it was, but here's a general "Thank you!" to all who are avid readers and bloggers.

This book contains two novellas written by a woman who was an acclaimed novelist of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Appropriately (and accidentally) February is Black History Month.

In "Quicksand" the main character, Helga Crane, shares some biographical details with the author. Both are half Black and half Danish. Both grow up in Chicago with a White stepfather who doesn't like that they are half Black. Both lived in the deep South, Harlem, and Denmark. Larsen's life story is a bit sketchy, but it does not follow Helga's exactly. Their shared experiences, though, do mean that Larsen could easily draw her characters and their milieu realistically.

During the story, Helga moves from somewhere outside Atlanta to Chicago, then Harlem in New York, Denmark, and back to Harlem. She never feels she belongs anywhere, with Blacks or Whites. She seems rather aloof and has no close friends. She also doesn't know what she wants; a few years after she gains an objective and thinks she is finally happy, she become dissatisfied and restless again.

The plot thus far seems believable to me, but it then takes a dramatic turn which I found totally unconvincing. Helga has a sudden, intense religious conversion during a gathering she happens upon at a low point in her life. She makes another impulsive move, ending up in rural Alabama, impoverished, ill, unhappy again, and basically "barefoot and pregnant".

I can accept that she might have a deep religious conversion, but not the degradation she subjected herself to afterwards. She had always been so fastidious, cool and analytical, ambitious, a lover of nice things, semi-fluent in Dutch. Maybe I don't understand such a conversion because I've never experienced one.

The second story, "Passing" is much shorter but very interesting. Two Black women who were childhood friends meet accidentally in Chicago. One leads a conventional life, married to a Black doctor with two children. The other one is married with one child but is passing for White; even her White husband doesn't know the truth. And he is a rabid racist.

I enjoyed both novellas with their detailed descriptions of people and places, evoking life in the 1920s in America and Denmark. Both stories highlight the experiences of Black women in Black society and in White. The depiction of the characters' inner lives is captivating and vivid. On the back cover the publisher writes:

As noted in the editor's comprehensive introduction, Larsen takes the theme of psychic dualism, so popular in Harlem Renaissance fiction, to a higher and more complex level, displaying a sophisticated understanding and penetrating analysis of black female psychology.

I highly recommend reading both of these novellas, which are often published together in one volume.

The is my entry in the Classic by a Person of Color category for the 2020 Back to the Classics challenge and it's also part of my reading for the 2020 Mount TBR Challenge.


Nella Larsen
Black History Now: Black History Biographies from the Black Heritage Commemorative Society

Passing, in Moments: The uneasy existence of being black and passing for white.
Words by Mat Johnson
Topic Magazine

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