Monday, February 13, 2017

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

In honor of Black History month, I want to talk to you about an author I suspect most of you (even the avid readers) have not heard of, Nella Larson, and her short but powerful novel, Quicksand. Associated historically with the group of artists grouped together as the Harlem Renaissance, I suspect that this novel made a lot of people, both people of color and white, quite uncomfortable. The title is singularly appropriate, for Helga Crane saw her life (and the lives of many, perhaps most) Blacks as lives caught and slowly sinking into Quicksand—lives in which even the struggle to get out, get ahead, get going was destined to pull people down, snaring and suffocating them mentally and spiritually.

Helga has a Danish mother and an African-American father, and from early on feels that she belongs nowhere. The reader picks up her life when she is twenty-two and teaching at a well-respected Negro school. She is engaged to another teacher, and thought of highly by the school’s president, but she is profoundly unhappy and thinking of leaving her position. She had that afternoon “had to listen to the banal, the patronizing and even insulting remarks of one of the renowned white preachers of the state,” and that speech along with her daily routines have brought her close to a decision to resign from her post.
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 at this great institution to say that the Southerner mistreated the Negro. And he said that if all Negroes would only take a leaf out of the book of Naxos 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. They had good sense and they had good taste. They knew enough to stay in their places, and that, said the preacher, showed good taste. 
Helga’s answer to this is “No forever!”  And though she has very little money or prospects, she decides to leave the school and her fianc√©, in spite of the president’s attempt to keep her there, telling her she is just the sort of person the school needs. Her fianc√©, who feels fortunate to have a position in the school remains, and Helga trains north to make a living in whatever way she can. She is frankly and deeply confused by the whole issue of color.
For the hundredth time she marveled at the gradations within this oppressed race of hers. A dozen shades slide by. There was sooty black, shiny black, taupe, mahogany, bronze, copper, gold, orange, yellow peach, ivory, pinky white, pastry white. There was yellow hair, brown hair, black hair: straight hair, straightened hair, curly hair, crinkly hair., wooly hair. She saw black eyes in white faces, brown eyes in yellow faces, gray eyes in brown faces, blue eyes in tan faces....
Of course, life in the north is no better; besides the meaningless service jobs she has to accept, she also has to deal with men who want to save her. Finally, through happenstance, she finds a way to go to Denmark, and for a while things seem much better. Living there with an aunt, she is more than accepted into the community, but as a kind of exotic novelty. She is even courted by a famous artist who expects her to swoon when he offers marriage, “But you see, Herr Olsen, I’m not for sale. Not to you. Not to any white man. I don’t at all care to be owned, even by you.”

Finally, surprising even herself, she returns to America, though she dreads it. Without telling too much more of the story, I will tell you that she finally goes through an existential crisis, and for a short time decides that religion is the answer for her. She marries a preacher, has children and is soon engulfed in that life of mothering, though she very soon loses respect for the adored-by-others preacher.

No happy endings here; after an illness that almost kills her, and with a dawning awareness that religion is not the answer, that she must find a better more rebellious way, “…hardly has she left her bed and become able to walk again without pain, hardly had the children returned from the homes of the neighbors, when she began to have her fifth child.”

Yes, this is a sad little book, but I think a profound one.

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