The Pleasures and Perils of Passing
In her novel Passing, published in 1929, Nella Larsen delves into the identity struggle experienced by some African Americans who possess the same outward appearance as Whites. Clare Kendry, a protagonist in the novel, permanently crosses the boundaries of the color line in order to escape confinement and gain White privilege. I argue that Passing provides a critique of racial passing and of the arbitrary and deceptive construction of one’s race. Through an investigation of whether or not Clare Kendry’s African American heritage is an escapable aspect of her human nature, it becomes evident that Clare’s feigned way of life in which she conducts herself as a White member of society ultimately results in her personal destruction as symbolized through her tragic death.
After experiencing a childhood characterized by poverty and a lack of security, Clare yearns for a more luxurious life. Following her father’s death at age fifteen, Clare lives with her racist White aunts who require her to fulfill the domestic duties of the household, reinforcing society’s perception of her position in the inferior race. Clare explains her motivation to escape this inhibiting atmosphere when she comments, “I was determined to get away, to be a person and not a charity or a problem. Then, too, I wanted things” (Larsen 27). Given that there was “nothing sacrificial in Clare Kendry’s idea of life, no allegiance beyond her own immediate desire,” not even the perilous act of passing dissuades her from satisfying her longings (Larsen 10). As Peggy McIntosh asserts, “White privilege [is seen] as an invisible package of unearned assets which can [be] cashed in each day, but about which [people] remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” (165). It is these automatic benefits and advantages that members of the White race experience on a daily basis that drives Clare to pass.
By concealing her racial identity through her deceptive outward appearance, Clare marries John Bellew, an upper class White doctor, and assumes a new racial identification. Ironically, John endearingly refers to his wife as “Nig” and feels comfortable using the term only because of his belief in the impossibility of having a Black family member. Clare’s instantaneous leap up the social class ladder into the top rank of society successfully resolves her motives for passing. Significantly contrasting with her impoverished upbringing, her affluent life now revolves around indulgences such as an extensive wardrobe and frequent travel. Clare’s continued existence is predicated upon her preserving her artificial identity. Ultimately, Clare’s life of riches and White privilege enabled by the façade of her “ivory mask,” interrupts life’s natural order, resulting in a sense of instability (Larsen 24).
Despite Clare permanently crossing the color line, she does maintain a sense of belonging within the African American race rather than a complete rejection of her racial heritage. While Clare passes for the purpose of securing the “conditions of daily [White] experience,” enabling privileges such as mobility, flexibility, and dominance, she retains a connection and predilection for her own people (McIntosh 166). Her frequent and dangerous trips to Harlem, hidden from her husband, exemplify the uneasiness she faces as an outsider in the White community. Clare’s African-American friend, Irene Redfield, voices her concerns to Clare about these regular visits and the relationships she has maintained with Black people. Though Clare recognizes her self-induced endangerment, her response, “I’ve been so lonely! You can’t know. Not close to a single soul. Never anyone to really talk to,” exhibits her heedlessness and aching to reconnect with African-Americans (Larsen 67). Unfortunately, she is incapable of maintaining her White privilege and affluence while also reintegrating herself in the lives of her people. Her attendance at the Negro Welfare League dance, the anger elicited in her by racist references, and her assertion, “I want to see Negroes, to be with them again, to talk, to hear them laugh” all manifest Clare’s yearning to submerge herself in the Black community (Larsen 71).
Because Clare’s priorities rest in occupying a position of ascendancy within society, however, she recognizes the necessary sacrifices she must make in other aspects of her life. For example, she says that Bellew prevents her from fulfilling many of her desires and that she could kill him (Larsen 71). Pursuing “unearned advantage and conferred dominance” over her heritage eventually results in Clare’s downfall (McIntosh 168).
Clare can never fully assimilate into the White race, regardless of her actions or appearance. Her recognition that her White racial identity could be completely nullified through her offspring provokes immense distress in Clare when she learns that she is bearing a child. Her comment, “I nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born for fear that she might be dark,” accompanied by her subsequent avowal that she would never jeopardize her societal position again through another pregnancy, reveals her trepidation (Larsen 36). She recognizes the fragility of her current position, as demonstrated through her remark, “It’s only deserters like me who have to be afraid of freaks of the nature” (Larsen 37). Fortunately for both the child’s welfare and the family’s cohesiveness, Clare’s daughter appears light-skinned. For fear of disclosing her true racial identity and reverting back to her old way of life, Clare resolves to eliminate all occasions for biological proof which could expose all the deceptions of her fabrications in order to safeguard her position in the superior race where “many doors open for people through no virtues of their own” (McIntosh 166).
As Clare continues to lead a duplicitous life, the personal consequences she suffers from assuming a new racial identity are quite evident. Clare’s comment to Irene, “it may be, ‘Rene dear, it may just be, that, after all, your way may be the wiser and infinitely happier one” provides the grounds to support the idea that opulence and happiness often fail to correlate (Larsen 47). Sadly, Clare recognizes that the abandonment of her community inevitably led to the resignation of her personal well-being. She manifests this realization to a friend when she pronounces that “you’re free. You’re happy. And safe”—none of which were characteristics she could utilize when describing herself (Larsen 67). As previously mentioned, Clare longs to be with Black people. No matter the pretense she holds, her ancestral past draws her back to Harlem frequently, where she can drop her guard, her life is not fabricated, and her interactions occur naturally. Clare imposes upon herself her alienation from the African-American community and her dissatisfaction associated with being a member of the White race. As a breaking point is reached, Larsen employs the metaphor of passing to indicate not only Clare crossing the color line but also to mean approaching her death and subsequent liberation from her manufactured identity.
Clare’s downfall lends itself to various interpretations, although much evidence exists that Irene murders Clare by pushing her out of the window. Clare poses a major threat to Irene’s way of life. Irene is motivated by her need for the security of keeping her family intact, her jealousy of Clare, and her suspicion of an adulterous relationship between Clare and Bellew. Several instances occur where Irene demonstrates premeditation for killing Clare such as when she has “a thought which she tried to drive away. If Clare should die! Then—Oh, it was vile! To think, yes, to wish that!” (Larsen 101). Irene mulls over the possibility of kililng Clare and ultimately decides that her life cannot go on as desired until Clare is gone. By interpreting her death as murder, Larsen makes a powerful statement about one’s self-defined social and economic goals. Clare faces extreme repercussions for her pursuit of the “freedom of confident action,” with the worst being her personal demise (McIntosh 169). Her death can also be considered a moral judgment on shaping a life because of pursuit of economic wealth. Her luxurious life, predicated on false beliefs and pretenses, could not be maintained.
Regardless of the cause of Clare’s death, Larsen clearly reveals the personal destruction that materializes from racial passing. Because crossing the boundaries of the color line requires the renunciation of one’s community, the contrived existence inevitably becomes miserable. One’s biological make-up is firmly rooted in his or her kindred of centuries before and is an enduring characteristic of identity. While Clare’s light-colored skin permits her to pass, her identity struggle between the White and Black communities prevents her from successfully achieving permanent integration within the “superior” race and ultimately ends in her ruin. Her shocking and sudden expiry exposes the consequences of the deceptive construction of one’s race, or living a life of misrepresentation and the desertion of all that is familiar, in pursuit of gaining white privilege.
Larsen, Nella. Passing. New York: Penguin Group, 2003.
McIntosh, Peggy. “White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack.” Race, class, and gender
in the United States: An integrated study 4 (1988): 165-169.
Ontological Plurality: The Solution to Limited Racial Problematization
Problematizing the comfortably depicted notions of race is essential in the struggle for, not only racial equality but rather, the complete erasure of the racial binary. This entails an adoption of strategies stereotypically adhered to by a racial-culture. Catalyzing this (semi-complicated, but really just badly worded abstract principle) is the notion of ‘passing’. Passing presents itself as “more than just a racial strategy: it is a strategy to be a person.” It is a strategy that enables the abandonment of the stereotypically perceived behaviors of a racial sect all while embracing new cultural flavors. It is a strategy that facilitates the search for identity. However, it is “only when passing becomes a subversive strategy for avoiding the enclosures of a racist, classist, and sexist society [that it becomes] truly liberating.” For then passing becomes not an usurpation of a lifestyle/identity that one would like to be a part of or would like to be, but rather a way of escaping the society-erected Pygmalion defining and categorizing the races. Nella Larsen’s Helga Crane and Clare Kendry illustrate the different ways in which to tackle and, arguably, problematize the racial binary; while Helga Crane searches aimlessly and insatiably for an identity—a ‘real’ self—Clare Kendry continuously complicates her racial identity by embracing a contradicting plurality of customs and behaviors—ultimately achieving the liberation of ontological multiplicity. The Harlem Cabaret hypnotized Helga. She loses herself in the sudden streaming rhythm and finds herself drawn to the captivatingly sexually suggestive moves of the dancers. Soon, Helga finds herself “blown out, ripped out, beaten out by the joyous, wild, murky orchestra ” in a moment suggestive of sexual climax. But once the music fades, Helga re-assesses and asserts that “she wasn’t, she told herself, a jungle creature… ” The dissonance Helga feels is potent. It is clear that she more than enjoys the cabaret and yet the reader sees her trying to convince herself otherwise. Why? Helga Crane is a victim to the racial binary. Helga Crane feels that her desire, as well as her appeal to dancers, is out of place. And, unfortunately, Helga feels this tension (between sexual freedom and restraint) throughout the novel. In its fight for equality, the black social elite wanted women to emulate the conventions of mainstream society. Maintaining a good image was aimed at not only producing change within the race, but also at combating the white stereotypes that fed the discrimination against black people. And thus, described as primitive and promiscuous since slavery, black women suppressed their sexuality and heavily subscribed to contemporary ideas of social propriety. Helga here does the same. Helga “wants to belong to herself and herself alone ” but she never stops to question whether it is possible to have an identity that is (a) completely self defined and (b) the solution to her problem. “Helga never confronts the fact that perhaps her identity is both plural and social and therefore she can never stop passing; she is always on quicksand. ” Helga thinks she has to choose between two identities: the black and the white. “Why couldn’t she have two lives, or why couldn’t she at least be satisfied in one place? She didn’t, in spite of her racial markings, belong to these dark segregated people,” Helga claims. “She was different. She felt it. It wasn’t, merely, a matter of color. ” Helga seeks a synthesis of self; a way to reconcile the incongruities of what she feels and what she thinks she should feel. She searches for a purpose without realizing it is enough to just be Helga Crane. And thus, the way in which she utilizes ‘passing’ is ineffective. The way in which she ‘passes’ caters to the complete particulars of the racial binary—she doesn’t recognize the validity of ontological plurality, and she remains forever stuck in the dichotomous one-dimensional world of race. “The assumption of only one guise or one form of passing causes Larsen’s [Helga] to become stable, static, fixed, [and ultimately] entrapped within one social definition. ” Destabilizing unitary definitions of race and embracing ontological plurality is Helga’s antithesis: Clare Kendry. Kendry’s actions disprove the idea of the ‘essential self’ for throughout the novel the reader sees Clare pass for a multitude of things. She passes for a white mother; she passes for a white wife. Clare Kendry passes for many things, but she, unlike Helga, searches not for an ‘essential self’ but rather identities with which to supplement the Clare she is at that particular moment in time. Clare Kendry “finds her identity […] on a self that is composed of and created by a series of guises and masks, of performances and roles. In so doing, she transcends the labeling of society, for the more she ‘passes’, the more problematic and plural her presence becomes. ” Clare and Clare’s actions thus become instrumental in the fight toward problematization. Clare’s actions, thought seemingly irrational, function as signifiers; Clare’s plurality, flexibility, and lies, ironically, become what facilitate the escape of the racial binary. She passes, yes, but not because she is inherently discontent with the person she is, no, she passes to surpass the illegitimate stereotypes and prejudices that are arbitrarily assigned to ‘her race’. The more tense and tumultuous identities are, the easier it is to produce the instability of a unitary ontology. The chaos of ontological multiplicity inherently, irrevocably, and inevitably destabilizes what society dictates one’s social role should be. The tragedy of Helga Crane is that she, insidiously and perhaps unknowingly, seeks the acceptance of her audience more that she seeks acceptance from herself—and so she ‘passes,’ but passes not to transcend these trends, but to dodge them. Helga Crane dodges, but Clare Kendry destroys. For Helga, in her doomed quest for self-definition, never finds what she is looking for; rather, she becomes increasingly entrenched within the racial binary. Ultimately, she commits psychological suicide. Who cares if Clare was or was not cheating with Brian, she surpassed the racial binary! Bibliography1. Cutter, Martha J. ―Sliding Significations: Passing as a Narrative and Textual Strategy in Nella Larsen’s Fiction.‖ In Passing & the Fictions of Identity, ed. Elaine K. Ginsberg, 75–100. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.2. Larsen, Nella. Quicksand and Passing. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995.
Improper Politics: Quicksand and Black Female Sexuality
The entertainment of a Harlem cabaret hypnotizes Helga Crane, the protagonist of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. She loses herself in the “sudden streaming rhythm” and delights in the sexually suggestive moves of the dancers. Helga is “blown out, ripped out, beaten out by the joyous, wild, murky orchestra” in a moment suggestive of a sexual climax. But when the music fades, Helga returns to reality and asserts that “she wasn’t, she told herself, a jungle creature.” Helga feels this struggle between sexual freedom and restraint throughout the novel. As Larsen shows in the cabaret, black women of the early twentieth century repressed their sexual desires so that white America would perceive them as respectable. In its fight for equality, the black social elite wanted women to emulate the conventions of mainstream society. Maintaining a good image was intended not only to produce change within the race, but also to combat white stereotypes that caused discrimination against black people. Thus, described as primitive and promiscuous since slavery, black women hid their sexuality under socially accepted behavior. But, as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham refers to it, this “politics of respectability” had profound consequences. The politics of respectability shifted the blame for racist stereotypes from whites to blacks. Instead of stopping whites from unfairly labeling black women, the ideology of racial uplift forced black women to change their behavior in response to stereotypes. As Kevin K. Gaines argues in his book Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century, racial uplift supported an internalized form of racism. He writes, “Racial uplift ideology’s gender politics led African American elites to mistake the effects of oppression for causes…” Larsen’s Quicksand shows the psychological consequences of repressing sexuality. Helga moves from place to place and searches for happiness without rationality. Her unhappiness arises because the politics of respectability prevented black women from defining the terms of their sexuality. They were either lascivious “jungle creature[s]” or the ideal Victorian lady. Thus, uplift stopped black women from embracing their sexuality in a healthy way. Although the politics of respectability had good intentions, it severely curtailed individual freedom and prevented black women from forming their own identities. The black elite intended the politics of respectability to prevent discrimination. They reasoned that if whites saw that blacks had similar morals, they would have no basis for treating them unequally. The politics of respectability aimed at thwarting the dissemination of negative black images that occurred in films like D. W. Griffith’s Birth of Nation and other media. Among the most ingrained stereotypes-and therefore most contested- was the promiscuous black woman. Higginbotham argues that “black womanhood and white womanhood were represented with diametrically opposed sexualities.” She gives the example of a white woman quoted in a newspaper as saying, “I cannot imagine such a creation as a virtuous black woman.” Whereas American society saw white women as chaste, it viewed black women as sex-crazed and loose. Thus, the black elite sought to reinvent the image of the black female. They took on white society’s norms and morals and instructed black women on issues from proper conduct on streetcars to appropriate colors for clothing. But, as Larsen illustrates in Quicksand, the politics of respectability promoted strict conformity and erased individuality. The black elite censured people who engaged in inappropriate behavior. The Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., required individuals caught dancing and drinking to come before a church court. The black elite also attacked jazz, perhaps the most significant contribution to American culture at the time. Echoing the thoughts of Helga Crane in the cabaret, they said going to jazz halls amounted to “a voluntary return to the jungle.” Black women were no longer free to enjoy themselves without judgment. They became, like Helga, psychologically incomplete, needing sexual fulfillment but denied this by dominant society. The politics of respectability emphasized that the individual determined the fate of the race. The black elite believed that individual behavior reflected on everyone. Higginbotham writes about the fear that Baptist women had of nonconformity to their morals. “The Baptist women spoke as if ever-cognizant of the gaze of white America, which in panoptic fashion focused on each and every black person and recorded his transgressions in an overall accounting of black inferiority,” she argues. To keep everyone in line, the social elite intruded into the family life of black women. They linked poor eating habits with “chewing, smoking, and…drinking.” The woman who kept her house dirty became an “enemy of the race.” Aside from nutrition and housekeeping, the black elite emphasized that the dignified individual required good parenting and lineage. For people like Helga who came from broken families, this expectation made them outsiders. Helga struggles with the tainted image that she inherits throughout Quicksand. When she wants to marry James Vayle, his parents disapprove of her lack of family. Lamenting the black social structure, Helga claims that “Negro society, she had learned, was as complicated and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society. If you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t ‘belong.'” By scrutinizing every aspect of personal life, the politics of respectability eliminated the individual in favor of the collective. It placed so many burdens on black women that Helga tries to escape her race. When she leaves Harlem for Copenhagen, Helga delights in “that blessed sense of belonging to herself and not to a race.” But, as she quickly realizes, she could not sever her racial ties by changing location. Larsen also dealt with the oppression of racial uplift and infused Quicksand with her personal experience. Like Helga, she had parents of different races. Her mother was Danish and her father was West Indian. Like Helga, Her mother later married a white man who looked down on Larsen because of her race. Larsen studied science at Fisk University in Tennessee and also took classes at the University of Copenhagen. In 1915, she went to the South and became the superintendent of nurses at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. She left Tuskegee because she disliked its teaching methods and went to New York City, where she began to write several years later. She published her first novel, Quicksand, in 1928. As an author of the “New Negro” period, Larsen wrote for an audience that expected her to conform. Many leaders of the race believed that black literature should combat white stereotypes. In the “New Negro,” Alain Locke argued that African-American literature should promote race pride. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a review of Quicksand for “The Crisis” in which he compared the novel to Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem. He applauds Larsen for a “fine, thoughtful and courageous piece of work,” but criticizes McKay for his emphasis on sex. DuBois describes the book as nauseating and says that it made him “feel distinctly like taking a bath.” Du Bois enters the debate on sexuality and uplift in his review. He condemns Home to Harlem for playing into “that prurient demand on the part of white folk” and praises Quicksand for portraying “honest, young fighting Negro women.” He thus promotes the idea that blacks should suppress their sexuality to combat white stereotypes of their promiscuity. Du Bois shows that the black elite preferred to address sexuality indirectly or not all. Despite her conservative audience, Larsen criticized the goals of uplift and dealt seriously with female sexuality. Social expectations constrained her, but she asserted that black sexuality could not be ignored. Deborah E. McDowell, in the introduction to Quicksand, writes, “Larsen wanted to tell a story of the black woman with sexual desires, but was constrained by a competing desire to establish black women as respectable in black middle class terms.” McDowell adds that because of the second consideration, Larsen could only deal with sex “obliquely.” Larsen used Helga to express her thoughts on uplift and sexuality. She based the fictional Naxos on Tuskegee and had the same criticisms as Helga does of its social rules. Helga finds the social environment of Naxos oppressive and rigid. She believes that, although it was founded with good intentions, Naxos has turned into a machine. Helga claims that “it was… now only a big knife with cruel sharp edges ruthlessly cutting all to a pattern, the white man’s pattern.” Naxos teaches its students to give up their individuality, and associated sexuality, in favor of a respectable image. Larsen shows that even the smallest expressions of sexuality could not exist in this environment. The female faculty wears dull-colored clothing and becomes uncomfortable when Helga puts on “dark purples, royal blues, rich greens, [and] deep reds.” Unwilling to accept social convention, Helga leaves Naxos when Dr. Anderson calls her a “lady,” a loaded term in her mind. For Helga, it means giving up her individuality and being untrue to herself. Although Helga defies social convention by leaving Naxos, she retains a preoccupation with “ladylike” behavior. In a situation reminiscent of the Harlem cabaret, Helga watches a Copenhagen vaudeville show in which two American blacks perform. Their “loose” movements embarrass and repulse Helga, who attends the show with her white friends. “She felt ashamed, betrayed, as if these pale pink and white people among whom she lived had suddenly been invited to look upon something in her which she had hidden away and wanted to forget,” Larsen writes. The thing that “she had hidden away” is her sexuality. Helga wants to challenge the white stereotype of primitive, lascivious blacks, but she also wants to express her own sexuality. She shows that the politics of respectability prevented black women from releasing their sexual tensions. Instead, it bottled up their physical desires and allowed them to reach a near-boiling point. Higginbotham demonstrates that African-American women in the early twentieth century felt social obligations similar to Helga’s. “Respectability, too, offered the black Baptist women a perceived defense of their sexual identities,” she claims. Just as the white audience put Helga in a defensive position, black women fought a society that placed them in a negative role. The Woman’s Convention, Auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention, argued that the black woman “must become a tower of moral strength and by her reserve and dignified bearing, defy and cower her aggressors.” Although the black elite wanted to fight stereotypes, they often accepted them unwittingly. The politics of respectability assumed that blacks gave white people reasons to treat them unequally. Higginbotham argues that “the politics of respectability equated nonconformity with the cause of racial inequality and injustice.” In this way, uplift made discrimination about supposedly improving black morals rather than combating white bias. Gaines claims that the emphasis on family life also shifted the blame for sexual misconceptions to black women. “Such emphasis on family life as a racial panacea often treated the problem as a failure of blacks to conform to Victorian sexual mores, instead of an outgrowth of ongoing, systematic repression,” Gaines writes. Inspired by the black elite, this self-reproach contributed to a confused racial identity. Helga fluctuates between looking down on blacks and feeling connected to them. “She didn’t, in spite of her racial markings, belong to these dark segregated people,” Helga claims. “She was different. She felt it. It wasn’t merely a matter of color.” Helga goes to Copenhagen to escape her race, but finds that color is important there, too. Her Danish relatives support the stereotype of the exotic black female and make Helga into a sex object. Her aunt and uncle put her in bright revealing clothes and exhibit her to their friends. Unwilling to accept this new role, Helga returns to Harlem and yearns to be apart of her race again. “How absurd she had been to think that another country, other people could liberate her from the ties which bound her forever to…these lovable, dark hordes,” Helga muses when she returns to Harlem. The inability to define her own sexuality causes Helga’s vacillation between the races. In Harlem, she must repress her physical desires to be respectable. In Copenhagen, her relatives transform her into an object of lust. When Helga returns to Harlem, she begins to express her sexuality, but in bizarre and misguided ways. Soaked and looking for shelter, Helga finds refuge in a church and has an experience that is both religious conversion and sexual liberation. Larsen blurs the lines between religious fervor and passion in this intense scene. She writes, “as Helga watched and listened gradually a curious influence penetrated her; she felt an echo of the weird orgy resound in her own heart.” After releasing her sexual frustration at the church, Helga seduces a preacher who helps her home. But her decision has far-reaching consequences. She enters a loveless marriage and becomes pregnant five times. Larsen equates motherhood with a slow death as each child increases Helga’s suffering. All hopes for her happiness end when she has her first child. “She had ruined her life. Made it impossible to do the things that she wanted, have the things that she loved, mingle with the people she liked,” Larsen claims. Thus, Larsen argues that black women had to sacrifice their dreams to satisfy their physical desires. She criticizes the politics of respectability for offering either a non-sexual existence or domestic servitude. McDowell argues that “Larsen castigates the dual price- marriage and pregnancy/childbearing- that women must pay for sexual expression.” By ending Quicksand with Helga pregnant once again, Larsen attacks social convention for the burdens that it placed on black women. Helga’s mixed background further complicates her search for sexual satisfaction and happiness. She is unsure of where she belongs and how the politics of respectability affect her. When she leaves Copenhagen, Helga laments not feeling a part of either race. “Why couldn’t she have two lives, or why couldn’t she be satisfied in one place?” she thinks. At times, she wants to escape other black people and to forget the ties to her race. But when she travels to Copenhagen, she realizes that her white relatives treat her as only an exotic curiosity. Helga’s confusion is similar to what Du Bois refers to as double-consciousness. Du Bois argues that white perceptions of black people influenced how blacks saw themselves. Du Bois writes, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself in the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Because Helga is a person of mixed background, the feeling of double-consciousness becomes pronounced. When Helga describes the Harlem nightclub as a jungle, she looks at the scene through white eyes. She accepts the stereotype of the savage black and stops herself from enjoying the dancing. Larsen writes, “She cloaked herself in a faint disgust as she watched the entertainers throw themselves about to the bursts of syncopated jungle.” Larsen shows the power of white stereotypes in black life. Helga lives with the fear of being watched and analyzed. Even when she is free to enjoy herself, white ideas still influence her behavior. Larsen not only deals with double-consciousness, but also grapples with what it means to be black. She examines whether being black can be a choice in Quicksand and her other novel Passing. Helga moves between black and white communities to find where she belongs. She attempts to move in with her uncle in Chicago, but the thought of having a black person in the family terrifies his wife. Rejected and desperate for work, she goes to Harlem, where she stays with Anne. But she grows tired of talking with Anne about the “Negro problem.” Helga believes that discussion of the Negro problem only emphasizes black oppression. “She wanted to be free from this constant prattling of the incongruities, the injustices, the stupidities, the viciousness of white people. It stirred memories, probed hidden wounds, whose poignant ache bred in her a surprising oppression,” Larsen claims. Unable to accept her inferior position in America, Helga leaves for Copenhagen to embrace her white relatives. Although her Danish relatives treat her nicely, they do not regard her as equal. “True she was attractive, unusual, in an exotic, almost savage way, but she wasn’t one of them. She didn’t at all count,” Helga thinks at her relatives’ dinner party. Helga wants to return to Harlem when she realizes that she is different from her white friends. Because Helga needs to associate with black people, Larsen suggests that blackness is innate even for people of mixed backgrounds. Helga’s separation from her race is impossible. Similarly, Larsen’s connection to the black middle class affected her work. Because Larsen was a part of this class, she could not criticize the politics of respectability freely. McDowell argues that “however much Larsen criticizes the repressive standards of sexual morality upheld by the black middle class, finally she cannot escape those values.” Although Larsen attacks the morals of racial uplift, she deals with sexuality within its framework. Larsen makes marriage and pregnancy the inevitable consequences of expressing physical desire. She writes after Helga sleeps with Reverend Green, “And so in the confusion of seductive repentance Helga Crane was married to the grandiloquent Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green.” Helga’s “repentance” suggests that she must atone for fornicating with Reverend Green. She never accepts Christianity in her heart, but uses it to cloak her guilt. The marriage also has inappropriate motives. Helga feels that she must marry Green because Christianity demands it. She neglects her husband and despises both motherhood and marriage. “For the preacher, her husband, she had a feeling of gratitude, almost amounting to sin. Beyond that, she thought of him not at all,” Larsen writes. By ending with Helga unhappy and pregnant again, Quicksand suggests that no appropriate place for black sexuality exists. Larsen implies that escaping society’s morals was impossible. Helga challenges them but succumbs to their consequences in the end. The repression of black sexuality still occurs today. Cornel West argues that it is still a taboo in his book Race Matters. He regrets that black families, churches, and schools have ignored black sexuality. West believes that these organizations have neglected black sexuality to gain the acceptance of white America. West writes, “struggling black institutions made a Faustian pact with white America: avoid any substantive engagement with black sexuality and your survival on the margins of American society is, at least, possible.” This “Faustian pact” has caused many black women to treat their physical desires with apprehension and disgust. Helga feels the psychological damage that the politics of respectability inflict. She searches for sexual fulfillment throughout the novel, and when she finds it, social expectations suffocate her. The title “Quicksand” alludes to the hopelessness of Helga’s search for happiness. The more she struggles, the faster she sinks. Ironically, the politics of respectability could neither inhibit white stereotypes of black sexuality nor improve race relations. More than seventy years after Larsen published Quicksand, West discusses the same assumptions that whites have of black sexuality. Because stereotypes are not always based on truth, the public-image campaign, promoted by black elites, could only achieve so much. Uplift also increased racial misunderstanding. The politics of respectability put black sexuality under the rug, but, by leaving it unaddressed, fostered contradictory images of black women. They were either sex-crazed or sexless. In this way, the politics of respectability obscured the fact that sexual desire is natural and failed to engage in a realistic dialogue.
Contrasting Beliefs and Lifestyles Give Purpose and Affirmation: Irene and Clare in Passing
Desmond Tutu once said, “A person is a person through other persons…. I am because other people are.” In essence, what Tutu is saying is that without other people to influence and affect an individual, a person is not really anyone. It is the things that other people do and say, and how an individual reacts to those things, that build personality, depth, and character. In Nella Larsen’s novella, Passing, protagonist Irene Redfield embodies Tutu’s quote. She lives a life in which her children, husband, and greater race guide her every move, and she abides by rigid social rules in order to maintain harmony within her community. On the contrary, her peer, Clare Kendry, disrupts this balance by making decisions purely in an individualistic manner, threatening Irene’s concept of a society in which everyone belongs to and lives for their respective communities. Because Clare is a personification of everything that Irene fears, Clare’s life gives Irene an affirmation of her ways of life, but also threatens Irene’s lifestyle by challenging the social constructs that give her safety, comfort, predictability, and security.
Irene and Clare have extremely different definitions of safety, which consequently threaten the other’s security. Irene’s security is dictated by other people – her husband, her children, and the greater black community; she is always a part of a collective identity. After Irene and her husband Brian get into a fight about their son, Irene expresses: “It was only that she wanted [Brian] to be happy… all other plans, all other ways, she regarded as menaces… to that security of place and substance which she insisted upon for her sons and in a lesser degree for herself” (90). The definitive and conclusive tone of this quote shows the self-sacrifice that guides Irene in her life. Additionally, the choice of the word “menaces” to describe all other plans that do not have to do with the happiness of her husband and her sons, and the word’s negative connotations, display the high degree to which Irene has dedicated her life to others. Lastly, the phrase “security of place and substance” clearly defines for the reader what safety is for Irene: happiness for her husband, her kids, and doing whatever it takes to achieve that, even that the expense of her own happiness. On the other hand, Clare’s security is dictated by her own individual desires, and her identity is not bound by that of anyone else. When she and Irene discuss their contrasting lifestyles, Clare explains, “‘Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really, ‘Rene, I’m not safe’” (125). The blatancy of this quote and the ease in which Clare is able to articulate these emotions reveal her selfish and individualistic mindset. Also, the use of such all-encompassing words as “anything” and “anybody” suggests the extremity of Clare’s egotistical personality, as there is not a single person or thing she would not harm to get what she wants. Lastly, the use of the phrase “not safe” in respect to Clare shows the the mutual exclusivity between being selfish and being safe. Overall, their contrasting definitions of safety create conflict between the two, causing Irene to want to distance herself from Clare, but causing Clare to be more motivated to reintegrate into the black community.
As a result of their different definitions of safety, Clare and Irene are bound to one another; each of their lifestyles creates contrast to the other and either reaffirms or destroys their beliefs in the rightness of their respective ways of life. As a result, their differences each give them purpose: Irene needs to distance herself from Clare, while Clare wants to get closer to Irene. When Irene gets a letter from Clare, she reflects that “Clare Kendry cared nothing for the race. She only belonged to it” (76). The unquestionable and confident tone that Irene uses here demonstrates the strength and purpose that Irene gains from Clare’s disrespect toward the race. Irene wastes thought and energy on Clare because it reminds her of her own dedication to her race, and allows her to isolate Clare from the group. The fact-like conciseness and conclusivity of this quote indicates that Clare’s own treason to the race gives Irene an excuse and outlet to separate herself from those who do not commit their entire lives to their race. Besides giving Irene someone and something to speak out against and to separate herself from, Clare’s lifestyle also reaffirms Irene’s belief that her way of life is the right one. When Irene and Clare are talking and Clare begins to cry about the struggles she is having, she says to Irene: “‘How could you know? How could you? You’re free. You’re happy. And… safe” (100). This clear, concise, and powerful statement by Clare to Irene validates Irene’s lifestyle. The words such as “free,” “happy,” and “safe” are all of the things that Irene aspires to be in life, so Clare’s acknowledgment of this serves to prove to Irene that all of her self-sacrifice is worth it. Overall, Irene’s ideas of safety and freedom are bound to Clare because without her, Irene would not have such personal and firsthand experience with those who pass to the white world. As someone so entirely dedicated to her race and collective community, interacting with Clare gives Irene purpose and confidence in her own way of life.
However, as the novella progresses, Clare’s unfiltered honesty brings out the flaws in Irene’s seemingly perfect life, causing her to further isolate herself from Clare and from the truth. Irene and Brian have had many difficulties in their marriage throughout the novella, but it was always something that Irene swept under the rug in order to protect her sons and the stability of her life. However, after she develops a suspicion that Clare and Brian are having an affair, she tries with all of her might to suppress the painful memory. At a party at her house, she distracts herself and cuts the thought out of her mind rather than confronting it: “Downstairs the ritual of tea gave her some busy moments, and that, she decided, was a blessing. She wanted no empty spaces in time in which her mind would immediately return to that horror…” (138-9). Here, Irene’s ability to realize her husband might be cheating on her but then to completely distract herself with something as insignificant as pouring tea suggests an unfailing ability to hide her feelings. Even if it is her marriage being threatened, she never fails to hide the painful truth and go on with her life. Her coping mechanism is to repress and refuse this truth, and distance herself psychologically from anything that might threaten her security. She further demonstrates this later on in the scene, where she is finally able to actually think about the situation rather than just pushing it out of her mind: “It hurt. It hurt like hell. But it didn’t matter, if no one knew. If everything could go on as before. If the boys were safe” (147). Here, she conveys a more introspective and analytical approach to this painful truth that Clare has surfaced. She is able to recognize her own emotions and bring to light how she is feeling. However, the arc of her thought process ending with her decision to once again suppress her feelings shows her inability to do anything to threaten her life and security. The solution to Irene’s conundrum being hiding her feelings and continuing to serve everyone except herself implies her undying dedication and almost enslavement to others, but never to herself. Finally, at the end of the novella, it becomes clear that Clare’s very existence poses a threat to the security, predictability, and comfort of Irene’s lifestyle. Irene decides that the only way for her to be freed of the discomfort and vulnerability that Clare brings to her life is to get rid of Clare: “She was an American. She grew from this soil, she would not be uprooted. Not even because of Clare Kendry, or a hundred Clare Kendrys” (169-70). The end of the novella makes reference to the American dream, and the American identity to which Irene lives so strongly by. Her connection to America and her feeling that Clare threatens this connection is what makes her decide that nobody, not even Clare, can stop her from pursuing the American lifestyle that she wants. However, even when she has this realization, she continues the same habit of pushing whatever threatens her and her lifestyle away, rather than dealing with the issues in front of her.
The end of the novella is a tragic one, as Clare dies from falling out of a window. It is unclear how exactly the tragedy occurred, but it is clear that Clare’s death is a symbolic one. Clare is the only character in the novella who successfully and wholeheartedly takes control of her own life and destiny, rather than letting social constructs or the demands of a collective identity get in her way. Unlike Irene, who fears individuality and self-reliance, Clare is able to threaten the society in which she lives by passing from one world to another, never picking one, and living in the in-between. Irene, on the other hand, continues to repress the truth in order to keep living in a predictable, comfortable, ideal world dictated by social constructs. However, the fact that Clare dies suggests that unfortunately, the only way to be truly safe and free is to stick to the status quo and conform to societal norms. This is because the perpetuation of any social constructs requires people to believe in and sustain them; when one person attempts to disrupt such an ideologically homogeneous society, he or she unfortunately cannot change the fixed views or behaviors of anyone else.