Self-made women in a (racist) man’s world: The ‘tragic’ lives of Nella Larsen and Bessie Head

Self-made women in a (racist) man’s world: The ‘tragic’ lives of Nella Larsen and Bessie Head

English Academy Review
Volume 25, Issue 1 (May 2008)
pages 66-76
DOI: 10.1080/10131750802099490

Diana Mafe, Assistant Professor of English
Denison University, Granville, Ohio

(Her research aims to situate mixed race studies in a relatively unexplored sub-Saharan African context.)

Nella Larsen, the ‘mystery woman of the Harlem Renaissance,’ and Bessie Head, the famous ‘woman alone,’ are known for their ambiguous origins and their fabrication of personal ‘facts.’This article argues that these mixed race female writers, born under Jim Crow and apartheid respectively, carved out niches in these segregationist societies through the art of self-invention. Because of their precarious positions as ‘mulattas’ in anti-miscegenation worlds, clear parallels are identifiable between Larsen and Head, such as the creation of multiple selves and the realisation of the ‘tragic mulatto‘ stereotype through such characters as Helga Crane in Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) and Elizabeth in Head’s A Question of Power (1973). The representation of the ‘mulatto’ as a tragic figure caught between races is primarily an American literary trope, but both Larsen and the African-born Head evoke this stereotype in their personal and written stories. These two writers also resist labelling, however, by inventing new identities through pseudonyms, autobiographical heroines, and imagined ‘truths.’ This article examines the overt parallels between two mixed race women writers from different generations and continents, initiating crucial dialogue about the development of racial stigmas across cultures and temporalities.

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