The Race Problem: The Trickle Effect of Race as A Social Construct in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand
On a surface level, Quicksand can be interpreted as a story about one’s “mulatto” identity and the struggle that comes with finding this identity, but it is much more than that. For instance, all throughout the novel Helga does her best to escape the race problem and race talk — the race problem faithfully follows Helga all of her adult life. Looking deep within the pages, it becomes clear that Larsen’s novel is more about the social construct of race, particularly in America, and what comes with that — oppression, segregation, strained relationships, biases, etc. Yet, the most important aspect of Quicksand is not this search for identity or even an examination of sexual freedom, it is the race problem and how this social construct creates a trickle effect within society. Race has a direct effect on every conflict throughout the novel and is the main instigator to Helga’s decision-making. From Helga constantly questioning herself, her relationships with others, and ultimately her decision on marriage, the construct of racism plays its hand from beginning to end.
The race problem is almost immediately introduced in Chapter One of the novel. Detailing a speech made by the “banal, the patronizing, and even the insulting remarks of the renowned white preachers of the state,” (Larsen 4) readers are introduced to the foundation of the novel: race. Helga recalls the preacher “had 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.” (5) This notion that the preacher speaks of, this way of thinking, certainly speaks to American society in the 1920s and how race was used to put the Black community below the white. Helga most assuredly struggles with this notion of having to be a good “negro,” of good taste, for what seems like the majority of her life.
In the midst of this racist society — whites against blacks, blacks against whites — Helga finds herself wrestling with her own multiracial background as a daughter of a Black father and Danish mother; Helga begins to question herself and her identity as it relates to society as whole. When making the decision to abandon Naxos, Helga both shames the school for its “condescending authority” while at the same time shaming herself, promising that she isn’t good enough to be a teacher at Naxos; she complains that she is “utterly unfitted for teaching.” (12) This comes from disagreeing with how Naxos, supposedly the best school for negroes, is basing its model off of the white community and their standards. Yet, because of how the negro society operates, being “as complicated, and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society,” (19) she wasn’t good enough in the eyes of a part of the Black community she wished to be accepted into. Thus, Helga is being pulled in both directions.
Justifying her departure from Naxos, Helga could “no longer abide being connected with a place of shame, lies, hypocrisy, cruelty, servility, and snobbishness.” (31) It is apparent that she can never seem to align herself with one environment due to her stance on the race problem. Helga’s background seems to afford her the position of remaining mostly neutral during the race problem. She acknowledges this system of race and the effects it has on the Black community, but she refuses to take part in bashing the opposite race, the opposite race that also represents one half of her identity. This in turn causes conflict among her relationships.
This tug-of-war and constant pressure between the two races not only affects Helga as an individual, but it spills over into her many relationships as well. We see with James Vayle and his parents that they do not necessarily approve of her family background and thus she is seen as not good or worthy enough to exist in their social tier. While at some point finding herself attracted to Dr. Anderson, Helga also criticizes the Principal of Naxos for being content in the way in which the school is operating. When living with Anne, whom she becomes close friends with, Helga realizes that all Anne seems to talk about is race. This bothers Helga so because she wishes to merely exist in society as a representation of both of these races, as herself, separated from racial identity, but she is unable to. The effect of racism is inescapable for her and those around her.
This proves to be true during the dinner party Helga attends with Anne before leaving for Denmark to live with her Aunt Katrina. Having spotted Dr. Anderson, Anne pulls Helga aside to bring up the issue of Dr. Anderson, his lovely date, and the race problem. Anne describes his date, Audrey Denney, as a “disgusting creature” who hangs about with white people: “She gives parties for white and colored people together. And she goes to white people parties. It’s worse than disgusting. It’s positively obscene.” (134) In her fiery testimony of Denney’s disgust, Anne completely overlooks how what she says could affect Helga, who is part white herself. Does this make Helga a disgusting creature, too? This passage wholly proves why this social construct, race, was made up and inserted into American culture as a way to have people within the Black community question themselves. It divides the two communities and creates an animosity, separating them in more ways than one — in parties, work, school, public, and life altogether. Race has trickled down into their friendship and also into Helga’s decision-making regarding marriage.
While in Denmark, Helga’s race is again at the forefront of her entire existence during her stay with her Aunt Katrina and Uncle Poul. Aunt Katrina adorns Helga in fine fabrics that are lovely, yet bright to make her darker skin stand out, as if she is on display or being showed off. Uncle Poul arranges for Herr Axel Olson to paint Helga without her knowledge, and this too makes Helga feel as though she is for show. Helga entertains marriage with Herr Olson only momentarily before coming to the conclusion that she could never marry a white man. Helga informs Olson: “You see, I couldn’t marry a white man. I simply couldn’t. It isn’t just you, not just personal, you understand. It’s deeper, broader than that. It’s racial. Someday maybe you’ll be glad. We can’t tell, you know; if we were married, you might come to be ashamed of me, to hate me, to hate all dark people. My mother did that.” (196) Here, race is again at the epicenter of this conflict, but like Helga says, in a much deeper way.
Race within society as a whole certainly has its trickle effect, and what’s worse, it is passed down through generations, as is seen with Helga and her mother’s choices affected by race, has turned around and affected her. People are labeled due to their race; people’s personalities, their habits, their hobbies, who they choose to love, is all attributed to one’s race. As I mentioned before, it is inescapable and it runs rampant throughout Larsen’s Quicksand as a testament to the time in Harlem in which the African American community used their race as an advantage, creating beautiful masterpieces of art, literature, and music that was all representative of the richness in their racial identity that has always been used against them.
Race, and all of the issues that come with it, serves as the backdrop to the chaos that exists within Helga’s life, and also within herself. It influences her mother’s decision to never be with a Black man again, it is the reason her ex-fiancé’s parents refuse to accept her, it is behind Anne’s deciding qualifications of people’s worthiness. It is also why Helga is never able to find true happiness. How is this possible when race is socially constructed to keep people like Helga down? The trickle effect of race as a social construct in Larsen’s Quicksand is the most important aspect of the novel because it is the dominating force behind everything then, during the Harlem Renaissance, but also now, the present day, as we see the races still mostly divided, seemingly sinking in quicksand.