Nella Larsen and the Veil of Race

Nella Larsen and the Veil of Race

American Literary History
Volume 9, Number 2 (Summer, 1997)
pages 329-349

George Hutchinson

People see what they want to see, and then they’ll claim you.  Not claim you, but label you. Because it’s not really about claiming you.  The white people don’t want you around.  You’re not really white… And for Blacks—and it’s not for all Blacks—there’s sort of this feeling that, yeah, she is black and yes, we’ll call her black, but she’s not black like we are… I was recognized by the black community as an outstanding black student, of course.  That used to upset me, that they would claim me because I did well academically, but I wasn’t a part of their world.

Heidi Durrow, daughter of Danish mother and African-American father, quoted in Lise Funderburg, Black, White, Other

White studies of cultural syncretism, transnationalism, and “hybridity” have lately become all the rage, there is one area in which claims of racially “hybrid” identity are still subtly resisted, quietly repressed, or openly mocked.  The child of both black and white parents encounters various forms of incomprehension in a society for which “blackness” and “whiteness” seems to constitute two mutually exclusive and antagonistic forms of identity.  Moreover, the shift to terms presumably marking ethnic or cultural descent—“European” and “African”—has done little to clarify the situation of those “black” subjects who are at the same time, say, German, or, as in the case of the young woman quoted above, Danish-American.

For more than a decade, the strongest Nella Larsen scholarship has been motivated by a reaction against earlier approaches to her fiction that stressed the importance of biracial subjectivity, connected to fiction of the “tragic mulatto.”  The best recent criticism tends to focus on other issues, particularly feminist themes.  Often the difficulties of Larsen’s mulatto characters are treated as metaphors for supposedly more important issues such as black and/or female identity generally…

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