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Mixed Identity: A Quest in Quicksand

Updated on March 13, 2013

Nella Larsen: Quicksand

Identity, in a psycho-sociological sense, is a strange amalgamation of the way a person is perceived by society, the way a person perceives self relative to society, and the extent to which these perceptions are understood and internalized. So many factors determine how this formula affects any particular person, in any particular place, at any particular time. Identity is, in essence, an extended sense of self awareness unique to humanity; the intricacy of which defines the individuality of a person.

One feature of human perception is the capability to categorize; a universal trait we all share that has served a necessary evolutionary function. Early in human history, the ability to distinguish between friend and enemy, poisonous or edible, safety and danger, etc, has spelled the difference between life and death. When applied to modern people though, this ability to categorize has led to discrimination, genocide, and world-war because the “us versus them mentality” tends to dehumanize the Other. When this happens, the majority perception can also provide a certain unification of community in the Other that fosters an arbitrary sense of identity based solely on the “negative” attribute. To put it simply, categorizing people can simultaneously dehumanize a group and create a sense of dissent in that group that furthers the gap in national unity– in both cases, the fact that similarities in people far outweigh differences become secondary to the relatively meaningless distinctions of race, or religion, or gender. These categorizations of people are relative to the society that perceives them, and yet these categories, once understood and internalized, can have a lasting psychological effect upon a person’s sense of identity.

A person is likely to have several aspects of identity, as a daughter or son, teacher or student, dentist, clerk, Catholic, lesbian, taxidermist, etc. Often these differing aspects will become dominate depending upon the situation the person is experiencing at the time. Discrimination can easily become toxic to a person’s sense of identity, however, causing said person to exist in a state where the perceived negative attribute becomes almost permanently dominate. This is all the more likely if the person is subjected to violence due the perceived negative attribute or is reared in an environment that systematically enforces discrimination or persecution. When a person is reared in such an environment it is difficult to understand self outside of that social context because the negativity is likely to become internalized; becoming the way a person understands self. This occurs because of multiple experiences with a majority that shares such a negative view. This phenomenon is exemplified in the literature of minority groups and in this essay I will examine such a work. Nella Larsen’s novella, Quicksand, like all coming-of-age stories, explains how a protagonist comes to understand her or his identity. Quicksand, however, is especially suited to a discussion of identity because of three important distinctive attributes of the work; namely, the protagonist, Helga Crane, doesn’t fit comfortably in either the majority status or minority status of her society, she is actively aware of her growing sense of identity, and she changes locations many times throughout the work so as to demonstrate different societal views on a particular individual and how those views define her sense of self. A major theme of this work is that this practice of categorizing people and understanding them only through a generalized perspective actively deprives people of their individuality. In this essay, I will explore the process through which Helga Crane comes to understand herself according to this premise.

As stated before, Quicksand, takes an interesting view of racial identity. Though African Americans represented a minority in the United States, they were still a community. Being of mixed race eliminated the possibility of completely identifying with either the African American community or the white community. Helga Crane, the protagonist of Quicksand, is of mixed race. This issue regarding identity is addressed first, with a passage from Langston Hugh’s “Cross” which reads “My old man died in a fine big house. / My ma died in a shack. / I wonder where I’m gonna die, / being neither white nor black?” (Gates 1086). This theme of identity lies at the very crux of the existence/essence philosophical debate. Those that stand by the philosophy of existentialism suggest that one’s identity is a product of that person’s choices. On the other hand the tenets of essentialism suggest that the factors that contribute to the formation of identity may be essential attributes – or attributes that define the person in question and would therefore be the attributes that would define that person in any possible reality. If identity is understood as the awareness and internalization of defining attributes of self, then one may be compelled to take an essentialist approach to the question of identity – after all, we are born with many of our basic attributes such as skin color and gender. Then again, when personal freedom and will is taken into account, it could be said that many of our attributes such as vocation and religion are personal choices made through the course of our lifetimes and they are in no way inherent. I believe that identity cannot be understood by the extremes of either philosophical camp, it is far too complex an issue. Ultimately, identity cannot be a fixed conception; rather, it is an awareness of state of being – always in flux, relative to the society in which the person happens to be. We are, after all, social animals that understand concepts through comparisons.

Quicksand begins with Helga Crane as a teacher at the Naxos, a school for African Americans. Though of mixed race, Helga can more easily relate to the African America community. The story is set in the early twentieth century, United States, and as we all know, this was a bleak period in the history of both African Americans and women. Helga, being both African American (by the standards of society) and a woman, cannot find fulfillment in her life and she also has a very real economic reality to which she must contend. Helga is displeased with what she understands to be the hypocrisy of Naxos, a point she closely ties to words of a white preacher, “… 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.” (1088). She understood the philosophy of Naxos to be that of social complacency, and that meant willingly submitting to white suppression. Helga wanted equality between the races, but found herself to be a part of a program which stripped African Americans of their cultural heritage in trade for second-class status. On a more personal level, Helga is engaged to another teacher named James Vayle. She sees this as a loveless relationship, but understands that by leaving him she would be committing social suicide because his family was of importance to the immediate social structure. These two factors eventually lead Helga to the conclusion that on a moral level that she could not remain at Naxos. From an existential perspective, this would be Helga’s realization of her own inauthentic life. This realization leads her to the office of Dr. Anderson, the head administrator of Naxos, prepared to resign from her position. Dr. Anderson nearly convinces her to stay but then angers her by saying that she is of good breeding. This statement reminds her of her father’s desertion and the terrible life she had as a mulatto child raised in a white household. As Kierkegaard would say, Helga’s anger represented the passion necessary to take an existential leap into the unknown.

Helga left Naxos and Vayle for Chicago, to see her Uncle Peter. She scarcely had the money for the bus ticket but thinks that her uncle will be willing to help her financially. Though her uncle had always been the nicest to her of all of her family, he still didn’t want much to do with her, which may be the reason he was willing to send her to Naxos.

When she reaches Chicago, and her uncle’s house, she is greeted by her uncle’s new wife. Helga is aware that her family perceives her a blight, but she wasn’t prepared for the blatant prejudice of her would-be aunt. It is in this scene that we discover that Helga is presumed to have been born out of wedlock, yet another negative attribute in the society of this time period. This is an emotionally charged scene that demonstrates Helga’s rejection from what little family that she has, which of course defines her prolonged sense of alienation, reinforced by the subtext of racial discrimination (the effect of racial discrimination leading to a personal sense of alienation being, of course, the major theme of the whole work). One could infer from this account a paradoxical dilemma. Uncle Peter’s wife is quite obviously a woman, and yet she claims that despite having been born of Peter’s sister (where there could be absolute certainty of lineage) that she is not a relative. She makes this case on the idea that Helga had been born out of wedlock, and is therefore not a member of the family. This could be another religious subtext, or simply a flimsy excuse for Uncle Peter’s wife to disassociate herself from Helga, but either way it represents a betrayal by another woman as well as a betrayal by family and white culture.

These betrayals accurately represent the environment in which Helga has always existed. She has not imagined racism or sexism; rather, she has been perceptive of the way that her society perceives her. Sadly, the way that she is perceived takes no account of her individuality, only the most basic attributes of her person, race and sex. This has been enough though to alienate her from her family and “respectable” society. Her rejection of hypocrisy has separated her from her vocation, but even this has its roots in the underlying racism and sexism of the Early Twentieth-Century United States. Helga could have chosen to repress her individuality, but with her developing sense of identity this sort of action would have been like a death of self. The portion of this text that covers the time between Naxos and Helga’s leaving Chicago represents the basic attitude of white male culture in the United States at this time period. The following portion which describes her time in New York is different in that it demonstrates the opposite attitude, African American culture.

At first, Helga enjoys her time in Harlem. The people she meets are refined and artistic, well-spoken activists in a cause which she holds close to her heart. Ideally this is the environment where Helga’s sense of self can grow into a maturity which includes a proper sense of self which is unrelated to her “essential qualities”. In other words, Harlem could be the place where Helga can realize her true self as opposed to the person she is thought to be by society. In Harlem, Helga can be an individual. Unfortunately, Helga only perceives Harlem to be ideal for only a short period of time. The text describes her realization as a “deep recess, crouched discontent” (Gates 1114). At first it appears that Helga subconsciously gathers hypocritical cues from her friends, but soon they are described. Helga has a friend named Anne, who is passionate, perhaps even obsessed with the “race problem” in America. Anne is dedicated to the protest, but Helga notices in her a strange contradiction – for though Anne despises the power structure of white culture, she simultaneously embraces the clothes and speech. Helga is incapable of reconciling this sort of contradiction and believes it to be a sort of hypocrisy.

The social movement in Harlem seems antithetical to the social movement at Naxos. Helga perceived an atmosphere at Naxos which promoted blatant submission to white culture in trade for some education and potential higher vocation in a segregated United States. No doubt may African Americans would benefit from Naxos, at the core it was just another system which served to keep African Americans in a certain social strata. Harlem, on the other hand, was blatant in it reproach of the white-male power structure and protested it through both the written word and speeches. The hypocrisy of Harlem wasn’t at all sanctified by any authority but rather a collection of unrealized traits adopted by individual members that culminated in a similar subjection. So, despite the outward appearance of the Harlem movement, the hypocrisy of Harlem is no different than the hypocrisy of Naxos because at the heart of both is a submission to the status quo as opposed to a revolution which would result in equality. Truly, both the social movements of African American protest and education are meant to serve the purpose of advancement for the minority, and both fall short by compliance to the current hegemony. In other words, both movements seem to desire a niche to be carved as opposed to true equality when one counts the overall change to the African American community. Though the people of Harlem desire social equality, they also desire cultural recognition, and that requires immersion in that cultural heritage. Unfortunately, that heritage is portrayed as negative by the hegemony – so the people of the Harlem movement adopt certain traits (such as speech and clothing) that will give them the appearance of respectability to the power structure in order to benefit some causes. However, this adoption of “white” traits diminishes the African American heritage. In this way, Harlem and Naxos are the same.

Harlem, like Naxos, denied personal individuality. By embracing the stance of protest they did address the issues that plagued their social group, but at the same time this stance served the purpose of further isolating the group. In fact, by embracing this stance they were embracing that sort of isolation. Unfortunately there is no way in an environment such as this to avoid this sort of willing isolation. It is isolation nonetheless, and the individual impact on person must be factored into a discussion of identity. By existing in an environment such as Harlem, Helga was still being measured by “essential” attributes (the color of her skin) as opposed to the quality of her person. Helga is, after all, half white, and so Anne’s hate of white people also applied to her to some degree. Hating white people based entirely on the color of their skin is no better than discriminating against African Americans for the color of theirs. In Anne’s hate, perhaps more than in the adoption of white culture, she demonstrates hypocrisy because she has begun to discriminate on the basis of “essential” qualities herself.

Uncle Peter had suggested that Helga visit Copenhagen, specifically an aunt of hers that lived there. Helga came into a society that was completely different than that of the United States. In doing so she found that she was no longer hated because of the color of her skin. In fact, she was considered an exotic beauty. Men wanted to marry her, the society embraced her. This was a definite change to Helga’s norm. The society that she inhabited at this point admired her, but, at the same time it only admired her “essential” qualities. She was seen as a beauty, but this in itself does not guarantee the recognition of Helga’s “existential” qualities. In other words, Helga was still being judged by her sex and the color of her skin as opposed to the quality of her inner self. This represents yet another shade of this same theme, yet another extreme that could not have even been represented in the first culture. It ends the same way though, with Helga rejecting this base presumption of her.

The development of Helga’s identity peaks as she decides to return to the U.S. At this point she has experienced different societies and the gamut of relative perceptions on her as a person. In doing so she has found that human nature as a whole tends to judge the Other based on outward appearances. It is important to remember that this ability to categorize quickly and make judgments is an evolutionary imperative to survival, though it disallows deeper interpretation. What Helga sought was that sense that she was not merely a representative of some negative group, or to some degree a representative of anyone but herself. Society had taught her from a young age that she was different, and what made her different was something negative. She knew differently, she knew, in some part of her psyche that she was not some terrible creature. Helga knew, perhaps subconsciously, that she was a person.

Helga returns to New York, but she is very conflicted. Though she is beginning to realize that she is more than what society has told her that she is, as she begins to understand how to unravel the internalization of these negative presumptions, she has also come to the true realization that the world is unfair and her predicament is more than she can bear. Helga is becoming disillusioned. Every step of her journey of realization has led to this disillusionment. She has seen the hypocrisy of Naxos, as they educate the African Americans in order to keep them in their place. She has seen the hypocrisy of Harlem as it protests the evils of the current power structure but fails to realize the subordination involved even as they protest. She has seen the cruel reality of racism play out as near to her as her own family. She has even left the States and in doing so, has seen the truth of human perception and the natural impulse to stereotype and judge – and how that natural impulse denies the possibility individuality. These aren’t pleasant truths, but for Helga they are necessary, as they are reality in which she exists.

Helga has a firm knowledge of how society perceives her and through her ability to travel she has seen how she fits into that paradigm. The question now, how much of this has she internalized? At one point, she refers to her original move to Naxos as the point that she stopped seeing herself as repulsive. So we know that she no longer believes this. She is very critical of the status quo – no matter where she happens to be. She has strong beliefs about equality and justice and the rejection of all hypocrisy – and so she has strong independent character. In every way, she has become actualized. This process has taken a toll on her psyche though, as she has internalized the fact that though she is not what society has decided that she is, that she cannot escape their perception and must live in a reality where her treatment is dependent on her essential attributes. Still she believes that she can do good for her society, and perhaps change her reality as this realized person. This decision to do good leads her into a marriage to a Southern preacher. She fancies that with her move to the Deep South that she can affect and better the lives of the Southern African Americans.

Unfortunately, this move to the Deep South leaves Helga more despondent than ever. She finds herself in a loveless marriage with children. In this her hopes of bettering society cannot be realized. The irony is that it was the realization of her true self, of her identity that led her to making this decision. Helga fully realizes her potential to be independent of her classification, which is the first step toward changing society, but the pressure of marriage and the idea of doing good for her people led her to hopelessness.

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