115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Radical Black Feminist Migrations: Nella Larsen and Sarah Elizabeth Wright

Christin Marie Taylor, Shenandoah University
Christy Graham, Shenandoah University

This paper examines the works of black women writers from the Harlem and Black Women's Renaissance. Though some 40 years apart, the narratives of Larsen and Wright use the migratory black woman, or her attempts at movement, to not only show the gendered limitations of their respective times, but to also question the limits of black nationalism itself. 


This paper examines the works of writers from the Harlem and Black Women's Renaissance. Nella Larsen and Sarah E. Wright use the trope of the migratory black woman and her attempts at movement to not only show the gendered limitations of their respective times but also to question the limits of black nationalism itself. 

Nella Larsen’s Quicksand is often read in terms of the tragic mulatto figure – a character who battles a racial struggle to find place, belonging, and acceptance. Nella Larsen’s novella not only chases the wanderings of Helga Crane, the protagonist, across the mask of her biracial woe, but it also uses this actor to canvass intra-racial discourse. Hidden beneath the mulatto veil, Larsen contrasts theories of uplift that buttress the Harlem Renaissance’s New Negro and early-twentieth-century forms of black nationalism. Using Helga’s roving quality, Larsen examines opposing theories of uplift, along with the New Negro movement, in relation to different spatial locations. Buried in the South, Helga explores Booker T. Washington’s industrious principles; later, in Europe, she dabbles with W. E. B. Du Bois’s philosophy of uplift. Erected as beacons of hope, each destination promises Helga a new space for happiness and belonging; yet, the localities carry obligations to perform and redefine her racial identity. These junctions become the stage for Larsen to establish the failures of each theory as she becomes a landlocked mother of four in the deep South.

Some forty years later, radical socialist activist Sarah Elizabeth Wright appears to pick up where Larsen left off. The novel opens as protagonist Mariah plans to deliver her fifth child. Mariah makes several attempts at migration along Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Much like Helga, "She was running, honies, running…Just run now, that's all she was gonna do" (7). "Gonna," the narrator states. Unlike Helga’s constant movement, Wright’s continued use of the future tense functions as an ironic force as “doing” becomes a fantasy projected onto a time that will never arrive. Here Wright problematizes the seeming advances of civil rights and black solidarity. Setting Mariah’s narrative in tension with performed narratives of black nationalism and community history, we see a woman and mother stifled by discourses that fall short of the needs of the time, including the realities of American kinship across the color line.


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