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BeaversCrossing2009

BeaversCrossing2009 - Crossing Over Racial Passing and...

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Crossing Over: Racial Passing and Racial Uplift in Nella Larsen‘s Fiction Karly D. Beavers Senior Honors Thesis 2009 American Studies
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2 An attractive young woman sits on a train destined for New York. Leaving behind the remnants of her oppressive past, she begins to make plans for the future a bright future bursting with opportunity and adventure. Pain, isolation, shame all fade into the distance. Surely New York will be the answer. Surely the happiness that has eluded her for so long awaits her there. She, Helga Crane, will no longer be the illegitimate daughter of a Danish runaway and an African American gambler. She will simply become another young woman trying to make a life for herself in the city. A remark from her new employe r interrupts Helga‘s pleasant thoughts. ―‗How is it that a nice girl like you can rush off on a wild goose chase like this at a moment‘s notice. I should think your people‘d object, or‘d make inquiries, or something.‘‖ 1 In an instant, Helga‘s excitement gives way to embarrassment. After the young woman admits to a less than ideal parentage, her employer replies coldly , ―‗I wouldn‘t mention that my people are white, if I were you. Colored people won‘t understand it, and after all it‘s your own business.‘‖ 2 So begins Helga Crane‘s journey to New York in Nella Larsen‘s Quicksand . Published in 1928, Larsen‘s debut novel tells the story of a mixed race woman searching for a stable identity within a racist and unstable society. The daughter of a white woman and a black man, Helga constantly reminds herself and others of the threat lurking beneath America‘s strict racial code. When her employer discovers Helga‘s heritage, Larsen writes, ―The woman felt that the story, dealing as it did with race intermingling and possibly adultery, was beyond definite discussion. For among black people, as among white people, it is tacitly understood that these things are not mentioned —and therefore they do not exist.‖ 3 Helga is thus robbed of her true identity. Because she threatens the strict ―color line‖ that guides all of American life, the mixed race Helga— the real Helga —cannot exist. According to Martha J. Cutter, ―Helga Crane attempts to use ‗passing‘ 1 Nella Larsen, The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen , New York: Random House, 2001, 70. 2 Larsen, 74. 3 Larsen, 72.
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3 as a way of finding a unitary sense of identity a sense of identity structured around one role, a role that somehow corresponds to her ‗essential self.‘‖ 4 Although Helga‘s dark skin prevents her from passing for white, she in a sense passes for black by denying, or at least omitting, her white ancestry. Instead, she finds solace in a number of different identities. In Cutter‘s words, she passes as ―an exotic Other, a committed teacher, an art object, a devout Christian, a proponent of racial uplift, [and] a dutiful mother.‖ 5 As the title of her second novel Passing suggests , Larsen continued to explore the African American search for identity. Passing
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