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 rightness of the coming transition, its aesthetic balance; your flexibility, empathy and intermingled whiteness comfort those who fear the loss of place or privilege in the coming demographic shift. You are a bridge between the genes of your mother and the genes of your father, a bridge between their cultures — a bridge being a structure that others can use to cross something hazardous. You are a link between past and present that somehow carries forward none of the old grudges.

But in the classroom and on the playground, my racial ambiguity didn’t feel like something to celebrate. At some times, I felt illegible and unseen; at others, I felt that my inharmonious features — the unusual shape of my eyes, my odd accent and the gaps in my knowledge of either culture — were bizarrely visible. Other children and some adults asked about me, speculated about me, tried to puzzle through my racial and cultural identity. And in the estrangement I felt in the towns we moved to, surrounded mostly by white people and sensing my mother’s own melancholia at being stranded far from her home country and the languages she was most comfortable living in, 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 came upon “Passing” and, like Hall, found it strangely, alarmingly moving. It gave shape and language to the racial ambivalence I experienced that was difficult to place within the optimistic rhetoric that surrounded me. The precarity that Clare and Irene live with, one walking a tightrope between two worlds designated as incommensurable and the other clutching at the apparent safety of a singular, grounded identity, spoke to my own fear of a catastrophic mobility, the feeling that if I didn’t find some way to root myself firmly to one world or the other, I might never find a way to belong anywhere. Texts are always haunted by the unseen — in basic terms, they work to conjure in the mind what they can only point at in words — but this entire book was fueled by invisible, scarcely apprehended drives that seemed to come from society, that spectral presence that moves us all in difficult-to-identify ways.

As I read George Hutchinson’s “In Search of Nella Larsen,” the most comprehensive biography of the writer, I found a life that encompassed, at different times, the public-facing dutifulness of Irene Redfield and the lonesome, destructive freedom of Clare Kendry. A mysterious and remote figure who left inconsistent traces in the public record, Larsen struggled all her life to find her place among the categories available 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 sliver of Chicago where all kinds of people commingled in saloons and brothels, far from the buttoned-up neighborhoods of elite white 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 establishing themselves in one of the newer, less precarious neighborhoods dominated by working-class white immigrants. After years of tension navigating an increasingly segregated city, her mother sent her to study at an elite, all-Black teacher-training program in Tennessee, where she was expelled after a year, probably for violating the dress code. She returned to Denmark, where she lived for a 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 home in elite all-Black social circles. After she went to nursing school and became the first Black librarian to attend the New York Public Library’s prestigious library school, her first publications were selections of Danish children’s games and songs. The novelist Walter White, part of the literary community she had begun to associate with, encouraged her to write a novel, and eventually, she wrote two: the quasi-autobiographical “Quicksand” and her second and last published novel, “Passing.” She became one of the most celebrated — and maligned — writers of the Harlem Renaissance, insisting on a social circle that included the controversial white author Carl Van Vechten, whose writings had been deemed exploitative by many Black critics.

In her work, Larsen complicated traditional notions of morality or race loyalty. She sometimes wrote about white people, as in the unpublished domestic thriller set in Boston that she wrote and rewrote in her last years as a working writer, as if trying to prove that colored people could enter the minds and lives of white people. After years of disappointments — her physicist husband was having an affair with a white co-worker, and one after another the manuscripts she submitted were rejected by publishers — Larsen retreated. Without telling the remnants of her literary circle, she moved to a different apartment down the block and became unreachable to her friends and colleagues. She quietly returned to nursing and died in the company of colleagues who had little idea that she had been a writer at all.

The unusual shape of Larsen’s story, riddled with holes and obscurities, has led many to misread her. When her work was rediscovered in the 1980s and 1990s and began to appear on syllabuses, biographers claimed she had embellished her Danish heritage in order to distance herself from African American culture and present herself as European, and therefore more sophisticated. Other critics suggested that she left her literary life in order to begin passing as white. In reality, the proof of her connection to Denmark only required more care and effort to unearth, and though she once boasted in a letter to friends of having managed to have lunch in an upscale whites-only Southern restaurant, Hutchinson argues that she never tried to pass in any deeper, more deliberate way. But the misinterpretations of Larsen and her work point to her predicament: Even as she attained significant success as a writer, she left too few traces on paper to ensure that she would be read accurately. She remained enigmatic, illegible to most.

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