The secret toll of racial ambiguity

Being a symbol of racial and cultural optimism is a strange sign to live under. Your beauty signifies the correctness of the coming transition, its aesthetic balance; your flexibility, your empathy and your interwoven whiteness comfort those who fear the loss of place or privilege in the demographic change to come. You are a bridge between your mother’s genes and your father’s, a bridge between their cultures – a bridge being a structure that others can use to cross something dangerous. You are a link between the past and the present that somehow doesn’t extend any of the old grudges.

But in the classroom and on the playground, my racial ambiguity didn’t seem like something to celebrate. At times, I felt unreadable and invisible; to others, I felt my disharmonious features – the unusual shape of my eyes, my odd accent, and the gaps in my knowledge of either culture – were strangely visible. Other children and some adults have asked about me, speculated about me, tried to understand my racial and cultural identity. And in the remoteness that I felt in the towns we have moved to, surrounded mostly by whites and feeling the melancholy of my mother to be isolated far from her country of origin and the languages ​​in which she was most familiar. comfortable living, I found little in my racial identity that I could use as an anchor.

One day when I was 16, alone in the school library during lunch hour, I stumbled upon “Passing” and, like Hall, found it strangely touching in an alarming way. . She gave shape and language to the racial ambivalence that I experienced and that was difficult to locate in the optimistic rhetoric that surrounded me. The precariousness with which Clare and Irene live, one walking a tightrope between two worlds designated as immeasurable and the other clinging to the apparent security of a singular and ingrained identity, spoke of my own fear of catastrophic mobility, the feeling that if I don’t find a way to firmly root myself in one world or the other, I might never find a way to belong somewhere. The texts are still haunted by the unseen – in layman’s terms, they work to conjure in the mind what they can only indicate in words – but this whole book was fueled by invisible and barely apprehended urges that seemed to come from society, that spectral presence that moves us all in ways that are difficult to identify.

As I read George Hutchinson’s “In Search of Nella Larsen”, the writer’s most comprehensive biography, I discovered a life that at different times encompassed Irene Redfield’s duty to the public and solitary freedom. and destroyer of Clare Kendry. A mysterious and distant figure who has left inconsistent traces in public records, Larsen has struggled all her life to find her place among the categories open to her. The daughter of a white Danish seamstress and a black cook from the Danish West Indies, Larsen spent her early years in an interracial Chicago neighborhood where all kinds of people mingled in saloons and brothels, far from the gated neighborhoods of the white elite and elite black society. When her mother married another white immigrant from Denmark and gave birth to her second daughter, Larsen’s skin tone prevented the family from settling in one of the newer and less precarious neighborhoods dominated by the white working class immigrants. After years of tension in an increasingly segregated city, her mother sent her to study in an elite all-black teacher training program in Tennessee, where she was expelled after a year, presumably. for breaking the dress code. She returned to Denmark, where she lived for some time as a child.

With her Scandinavian roots and little direct connection to the legacy of slavery that defined much of the African American experience, and because she came from a poor background, Larsen never felt fully at ease in elite, all-black social circles. After going to nursing school and becoming the first black librarian to attend the prestigious New York Public Library School of Librarianship, her first publications were selections of Danish children’s games and songs. The novelist Walter White, a member of the literary community with which she had started to associate, encouraged her to write a novel, and eventually, she wrote two: the quasi-autobiographical “Shifting Sands” and her second and latest published novel, “Passing”. She went on to become one of the most famous – and maligned – Harlem Renaissance writers, emphasizing a social circle that included controversial white author Carl Van Vechten, whose writings had been deemed exploitative by many black critics.

In his work, Larsen complicated traditional notions of morality or racial loyalty. She has occasionally written about whites, as in the unreleased domestic thriller set in Boston that she wrote and rewrote in her final years as an active writer, as if trying to prove that people of color can. enter the minds and lives of whites. After years of disappointment – her physicist husband was having an affair with a white colleague, and one after another the manuscripts she submitted were rejected by the editors – Larsen withdrew. Without telling the remnants of her literary circle, she moved to another apartment down the block and became inaccessible to her friends and colleagues. She quietly returned to nursing and died in the company of colleagues who had no idea at all that she had been a writer.

The unusual form of Larsen’s story, riddled with holes and obscurities, has led to many misinterpreting it. When her work was rediscovered in the 1980s and 1990s and began to appear in programs, biographers claimed that she embellished her Danish heritage in order to stand out from African American culture and present herself as European, therefore more sophisticated. Other critics have suggested that she quit her literary life to start passing herself off as white. In fact, proof of her connection to Denmark only required more care and effort to find her, and although she once boasted in a letter to friends that she managed to have lunch in an upscale white-only restaurant, Hutchinson says she’s never tried to go deeper and more deliberately. But Larsen’s and her work’s misinterpretations point to her predicament: although she achieved significant success as a writer, she left too few traces on the paper to ensure it would be read accurately. . It remained enigmatic, illegible for the most part.

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