The Relationship Between Colour and Identity in the Literature of Nella Larsen and Richard Wright

The Relationship Between Colour and Identity in the Literature of Nella Larsen and Richard Wright

Lethbridge Undergraduate Research Journal
Volume 3, Number 2 (June 2008)
ISSN 1718-8482

Elisabeth Hudson
King’s College London

The fiction of Nella Larsen and Richard Wright explores the struggle of African-American men and women to forge an identity for themselves that is free of the bonds placed on them by society. The protagonists of Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing and Wright’s Black Boy all have one thing in common: they do not wish for their identities to be defined by their race. Helga Crane, Irene Redfield, Clare Kendry, and the young Richard Wright all try to create identities for themselves that transcend racial boundaries. Because of this desire, they all have trouble relating completely to either white society or black society and, as a result, feel estranged from their communities.

In Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, the protagonist Helga Crane, who Hazel Carby called ‘the first truly sexual black female protagonist in Afro-American fiction,’ is trapped between two racial identities. The daughter of a white Danish woman and a black jazz musician she has never known, Helga has never had a black family member, and therefore struggles with the disconnect between her outward appearance and her external reality. Helga never truly feels at home in the company of either black people or white people and, as a result, is constantly fleeing from place to place in search of a society wherein she can ‘fit in.’ Wherever Helga finds herself, she is portrayed as the ‘other.’ In black society, she feels ostracised because of her colourful, flamboyant clothing, her distaste for ‘the race problem,’ and her ethnic identity as a mulatto. In white society, she is objectified as an exotic, primitive creature without agency. She is portrayed as a spectacle, almost never as spectator. Because she does not belong to one race completely, she never truly finds a place where she belongs. Helga’s sense of self is always censored by society’s restrictions and expectations. She never finds a version of reality that is not mediated by her surroundings…

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