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Racial Identity of African American Women of the Harlem Renaissance in Nella Larsen's Works

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The Harlem Renaissance was a time for cultural growth for African Americans, who had been marginalized and dealt with racism and discrimination in their own country. It was a cultural movement that took place during the 1920’s. Poets and writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston are easily associated with the movement; however, author, Nella Larsen’s contributions are more obscure, but still equally relevant and important. Though her most notable works are only two novels ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Passing’, Larsen’s text questions conventional ideas of racial identity. The early 1900s was a very challenging time for African Americans especially women who developed problems in regards to their identities. Their concerns stemmed from their skin colors. Either they were fair skinned due to mixed background or just dark skinned. In ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Passing’, Larsen shows us how African American women often experience issues with racial identity which puts them in a constant struggle that prohibits them from loving themselves and the skin they are in. She is showing the readers the remnants of the abuses of slavery, through these women, Helga, Clare, and Irene. Who were both black and white, and who had to learn to survive in a world where they were accepted as neither.

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Being biracial and living in an unfavorable environment, Helga finds it extremely difficult to voice her views on how life should be and how whites and African Americans should interact, which unfortunately transforms her search for an identity in which she is happy with, into a journey. There are many situations that Helga puts herself in that provide the reader with knowledge into what kind of definition she would like to establish for herself. Traveling from Naxos, to Chicago, to Harlem, to Denmark and then back to NYC, Helga conveys the message that there is no setting in which she can live by the definition that she desires. Helga lives in a time where she cannot outwardly express herself according to how she defines herself and still be accepted by her peers. This idea is shown when Helga meets Mrs. Hayes-Rore and they discuss Helga’s ancestry. After Helga discloses she is ½ white. Mrs. Hayes-Rore gives her the advice to never speak of her people as being white because, “colored people will not understand it” (42). This quote says a lot for Helga’s difficult situation. Mrs. Hayes-Rore is trying to explain that a coming together of the two races and cultures is considered ‘taboo’. She insinuates that Helga should, in theory, not exist because her environment and race expectations do not yet accept that. “For among black people, as among white people, it is tacitly understood that these things are not mentioned and therefore they do not exist” (42). Chicago is the first location that directly addresses how whites and African American groups interact and how they view each other in society, which is why Helga leaves, continuing on her what seems like a never ending journey.

Clare Kendry, openly passes from black to white. Because of her lighter toned skin, she is able to detach herself from her African American heritage and marry a white man. She remains white when in her husband’s company. She even considered herself a “deserter” of the race because of her life of passing (37). Clare depends on her husband for status, security, and identity. Her only motive for passing is for money and her social standing, which she achieves by marrying a well distinguished, but racist John Bellew. Clare also says that passing is “a frightfully easy thing to do. If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve” (25) and that white people aren’t nearly as obsessed with knowing one’s heritage as black people are. While Irene, an old friend of Clares, she “passes” for white when she wants to. Like when she wants a taxi, a movie ticket, or to get into a classy restaurant. Irene states that white people believe she is “an Indian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gypsy”, and she won’t correct them. She has passed many times She believes that no one is smart enough to really see her. These two women due to their lighter skin fell into an identity issue where they were stuck between both worlds but one chose to live as a normal black woman while the other received the benefits for lying about being a white women with hardly any association with African Americans. After these two reunite, it is the start of a journey for them in which they try to figure out their identities and also which world they belong in, the white man’s or the black man’s. Both Irene and Clare look white but have African American blood in them; society at the time would have defined them both as black. The white race comes with privileges and entitlements, and this is the world that Clare passes into. While black people were socially rising and being ‘uplifted’, they still did not share rights with white people. The want for privilege is what keeps a piece of Clare into her husband’s society, but her sense of belonging and her “people” is what keeps taking her back to Irene. Clare is more trapped and restricted by the idea of race than Irene: “no one is ever completely happy, or free, or safe” (67). Although she appears to get the best of both worlds, Clare does not truly belong in either one. She is not fully committed to John’s world, after being reunited with Irene, she gets a taste of what she has been missing, keeping her from committing to one or the other. Irene is the one person who can keep Clare tied to her African American roots. Both women are struggling with the labels society has given them.

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Racial Identity of African American Women of the Harlem Renaissance in Nella Larsen’s Works. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from
“Racial Identity of African American Women of the Harlem Renaissance in Nella Larsen’s Works.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
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