Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Nella Larsen: Passing through Time

"Can identity be viewed other than as a by-product of a manhandling of life, one that, in fact, refers no more to a consistent patter of sameness than to an inconsequential process of otherness?"--Trinh T. Minh-ha


Nella Larsen was born Nellie Walker on April 13th, 1891. Her mother was Mary Hanson Walker and her father was Peter Walker. her mother was a white Danish woman and her father was a black man from West India. Shortly after Larsen was born, her parents divorced, her father died, and her mother remarried a white man names Peter Larson. 

There is speculation about whether or not her parents actually divorced. Larsen would tell people that her father had died and that her mother remarried the white man. Some theorize that Peter Larson was the same man, just 'passing' as white in Chicago in order to get a job working with the Chicago Railway. 

Larsen grew up in Chicago and attended public school until Peter Larson enrolled her in Fisk University's Normal School in 1907. At this point in her life, Larsen lost contact with her mother and stepfather. As expected, her mother basically abandoned her too-dark daughter in an attempt to reinstate  her white social standing. This may, in part, be a cause for why Larsen put so much of her personal turmoil into her writings. 

Between 1912 and 1915, Larsen trained as a nurse in New York and, upon her graduation, went to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to work as head nurse at John Andrew Memorial Hospital and Nurse Training School. 

In 1916, Larsen returned to New York and worked as a nurse. She met Elmer Samuel Imes, an African American physicist and they married in 1919. She began officially writing in 1920 when she left nursing and became a librarian. 

By 1926, she had made many influential friends of the Harlem arts movement--of course renamed the Harlem Renaissance--and she left the library to became fully devoted to developing her writing. Larsen published two short stories in 1926 and then published Quicksand in 1927. 

In 1928 Larsen published Passing. She was rumored to be working on three other novels but none were accepted by publishers. One such book was titled Mirage and was about a love triangle...but it never took off. In 1929, her last published work, a short story called "Sanctuary" was accused of being plagiarized and her writing fell to the wayside. In that same year, she filed for divorce against her husband, who had been carrying on an affair for some time. By 1934, Larsen retreated into obscurity. 

Larsen then to nursing at the Gouverneur Hospital where she worked for over 30 years under the name Nella Imes. During this time, some people reported that she was "passing" like the characters in her book while staying in New York.  She was rumored to have tried to keep in touch with her white relatives, but they refused to acknowledge her and completely denied her existence. 

In 1964 on March 30th, six months after she retired from night supervisor at the Gouverneur Hospital, she was found dead in her apartment. She died alone, and her eulogy did not even include her influence over the Harlem Renaissance. 

Larsen's Works

"Quicksand is the best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the hey day of [Charles Waddell] Chesnutt" --W.E.B. Du Bois 

Her published works are characterized by elements of class issues, racial tensions, and gender roles. Larsen expresses these social problems through common themes of personal identity, marriage, and motherhood. Larsen also alluded often to her own struggles in her works. 

In Quicksand, Larsen explored the mockery that surrounded the 'fad' regarding African American expression. While she truly started to gain momentum towards the slow down of the Harlem Renaissance, she sought to mock the white interest in "primitive black culture". Larsen felt that the mainstream interest that people were taking in "exotic" African works. Larsen knew that they, white audiences just wanted to be entertained with what they felt black Americans should offer. She wrote the character of Helga with the pretense of portraying a woman who knew the consequences of acting exotic. Initially, the character enjoys all the attention, but after awhile started to feel more like a decorated pet rather than a person. In a letter to Carl Van Vechten, Larsen described a luncheon with a few "fays" (Harlem slang for whites) and she talked about how they were keenly dissapointed when they found out she had not been born in the jungle! Apparently she entertained them with made up stories about her childhood in the bush. 

In Passing, Larsen further reiterates her points about racial prejudice. According to Carla Kaplan, where Quicksand destabilizes racial attitudes, Passing questions the idea of race--stating that it is the most powerful and dangerous fiction ever created. The novel presents the ridiculous contradictions in which our very ideas about race are built upon, and still makes the readers want the racial identities its questioning. Race then, always lives in the space between what people think they want and what they think they believe in. At least as presented by Larsen throughout the novel. 

While her writings are few, she is credited for creating "modernist psychological interiority, expanding our uses of irony, challenging marriage and middle-class domesticity, complexly interrogating gender, race, and sexual identity, and for redeploying traditional tropes--such as that of the tragic mulatta--with a contemporary and critical twist" (Intro ix). 

Larsen's Influence

"Our passion for categorization, life neatly fitted into pegs, has led to unforeseen, paradoxical distress; confusion, a breakdown of meaning. Those categories which are meant to define and control the world for us have boomeranged into chaos; in which limbo we swirl, cluthcing the straws of or definition. We find ourselves bound, first without, then within, by the nature of our categorization" --James Baldwin,  Notes of a Native Son 

Today, Larsen is seen as one of the key figures in the African-American, modernist and feminist literary canons. Above all else, her work is now prized for its portrayal of black female subjectivity and for its portrayal of the social and psychological challenged caused when identity categories break down. 

My Thoughts

Nella Larsen's work represents more than simply a piece of long forgotten Harlem glory; her work forces her audiences to stare at the dirtiest grim that American society is covered with. Larsen, through her extremely short literary career manages to portray the human condition so eloquently while still unsettling the nachos I ate for dinner. She presents an everyday struggle that she, and those like her had to live with. 

Wanting to pass as white floors me. I tried to picture the need to want to change my color, who I am, in order to feel like I belonged, like I was respected. The concept of racial identity is not something that should be taken lightly. I felt that at some point, each and everyone of us has felt the disappointment of feeling out of place and unwanted. That basic need for relations and connections within society, on equal terms of course, is still in turmoil today. People desire to be more than they are: they want what will always be outside of reach, and in that way i can relate to wanting to 'pass' for lack of a better options of social freedom. Whiteness, in the case of Larsen's portrayal of the human condition, is the epitome of everything socially desired. 

Passing...passing...if I keep saying the word out loud its going to make me cringe. Larsen named her most influential book with an adjective. That ridiculous "ing" at the end of the word makes it feel like it is constantly a work in progress...never to be concluded, tied up, left alone, allowed peace. That stupid "ing" leaves the word in motion. What then, is she saying about humanity in that one propelling word? What is she saying about the upward battle people face in acceptance of anything and everyone different than themselves? Larsen, who even identifies herself as a fatalist, implies that there's never going to be resolution. 

Works Cited

Barnes, Paula C. "Nella Larsen." Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition (n.d.): n. pag. EBSCO. Web. 

Kaplan, Carla. "Nella Larsen's Erotics of Race." Introduction. Passing. New York: Norton &, 2007.Ix-Xxvii. Print.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dr. Alain LeRoy Locke

Dr. Alain Leroy Locke

"We're going to let our children know that the only philosophers that lived were not Plato and Aristotle, but W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke came through the universe."
- Dr. Martin Luther King


As a Philosopher and an intellect, Alain LeRoy Locke was an enormously influential figure of his and any time. His philosophical theory, "Cultural Pluralism" was already matured and influencing many when he received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1918. Almost 100 years later, his ideas and convictions are as applicable, resounding and inspirational. 

He was the epicenter of the Harlem Renaissance and his legacy will forever be linked to it and the artists he promoted as well as the cultural awakening it produced and the Civil Rights movement it fostered. As powerful and influential as the Harlem Renaissance was to the African American movement, it is only a fraction of Dr. Locke's accomplishments.

Soft spoken, direct and strong in his convictions based upon his deep intellectual reasoning, he was a persuasive communicator that cast influence upon the consciousness of race in America as directly and with as much benign and gentle force as the moon on the tides.


In the same year the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, Locke was born into a family that valued education and was blessed with innate intellect.  His grandfather had been a free man and was an educator, himself educated at Cambridge University. His father graduated from Howard University with a degree in law and his mother was a teacher. (Washington)

Alain was their only child, and while his father passed on when he was but six years old, the home environment was cultured and sophisticated. His mother supported herself and Alain with her teaching position and made education a priority for her son. Early in his childhood, Alain fell ill with a fever that damaged his heart and restricted his physical activities. Instead, his childhood was filled with the piano, the violin and voracious reading. (Reuben)

The Genius Revealed

Harvard Graduation, 1918
Alain graduated high school in 1902, second in his class. He then studied at the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy becoming first in his class, earning a Bachelors of Arts. He then studied at Harvard; while there he completed the four year program in three, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated Magna Cum Laude, earning his second bachelors degree.(Linneman)

The preceding list of accomplishments are extraordinary and rare and made doubly so by the fact that Alain was a black man accomplishing them in the era of Jim Crow Laws.
While many white American scholars were seeking to prove the intellectual inferiority of African Americans to justify racial segregation, Locke became a symbol of achievement and a powerful argument for offering African Americans equal opportunity at white educational institutions” (Carter)

On the heels of his masterful performance at Harvard, he was named the first African American Rhodes Scholar; one of many firsts that Alain Locke would achieve. While at Oxford, he would receive a degree in literature and then go on to study advanced philosophy at the University of Berlin. He would later return to Harvard and earn a doctorate in philosophy in 1918. 


 Locke's philosophy centered on the concept that racial differences were healthy and necessary in a culturaly plural democracy. That each group can and should identify with its own unique culture and history, recognize those values in others, while contributing to the democracy as an equal and contemporary.  (Reuben)
His intellect and mastery of communication and a non-confrontational yet armor clad truth compelled white America to recognize and accept him as an example of "Negro potential" while simultaneously putting black America on notice that they were more than what they had been. It was time for them to shed ideas forced upon them,shoulder the weight of forging new identities and participate in the American experience.

Harlem Renaissance

As per his philosophical creed, Locke believed that the expression of the African American through art, music and poetry would be a liberating influence for both blacks and whites alike. He believed it would open the eyes of the oppressed black youth and give them something to aspire to as well as open the eyes of the whites to the fallacy of their attitudes towards the black community.

He strived to make the black population understand that they were not the things that others had held them to be or had told them they were. He wanted his people to shed those ideas and become themselves, proud in their uniqueness, satisfied with their efforts for personal excellence and secure in their place in the world.

“The pulse of the Negro world has begun to beat in Harlem.” - Locke

His article in "Survey Graphic" reported a movement underway in black Harlem. An emerging middle class that had time on its hands, disposable income and an interest in the arts. The article that later became a book, was the launchpad for the Harlem Renaissance, read by thousands and thousands of black youth.

The "New Negro" became the symbol of a new era, documenting the social and cultural innovations of the younger African American generation. It contributed to a growing race consciousness, self-confidence, and sophistication of an increasingly urbanized African American population. (Carter)

He spotlighted young talents that he was actively supporting and promoting. Artists like; Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora N. Hurston and many others. 



Langston Hughes

''I swear to the Lord
I still can't see
Why Democracy means
Everybody but me.''
Jim Crow's Last Stand -1942



 Countee Cullen

       ''Not yet has my heart or head
        In the least way realized
        They and I are civilized.''
          My Souls High Song, c. 1927



 Zora Neal Hurston

“She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder, so much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937

The Professor

A few years before the publication of the "New Negro", Dr. Locke had accepted a full time position with Howard University as Professor of Philosophy. At this time the University had an all-white board and president. Dr. Locke, the faculty and student body all shared a vision of making Howard University the preeminent black university in America; however the board wanted to maintain its traditional non-racial status.  The difference in visions for the future of Howard University lead to Dr. Locke, and others, being dismissed. However he did return to Howard in 1928 with the installation of the university’s first black president. Locke chaired the Philosophy department until his retirement in 1953. (Carter)

Between 1940 and his retirement, he was in demand on the lecture circuit and as a visiting scholar. During this time, he made New York City a second home accepting visiting scholar positions at the New School for Social research and later at City College of New York. After 1948 he began to teach at both City College and Howard concurrently. He retired from teaching in 1953, and counted as one of his last major accomplishments, the installation of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Howard.  (Carter)
In retirement, he had intended to devote his full attention and energy towards a work that he hoped would become his opus, the work he would be most remembered by titled, “The Negro in American Culture”. He would not finish it. 

His Faith

It has been uncovered through research that Dr. Locke converted to the Baha’i faith in 1918. There have been several letters found between Locke and the leader of the Baha’i discussing philosophical and spiritual topics.

As Dr. Buck states in his book “Alain Locke; Faith and Philosophy”, “As the youngest independent world religion, the Bahá’í Faith was clearly a leader in advocating racial harmony and full integration during the Jim Crow era.” Factors that would have surely drawn Dr. Locke to this faith.
The Great Symbol of Baha'i
 According to the Baha'i website;
"Bahá’ís believe that there is one God, that all humanity is one family, and that there is a fundamental unity underlying religion. They recognize that the coming of Bahá'u'lláh has opened the age for the establishment of world peace, when, as anticipated in the sacred scriptures of the past, all humanity will achieve its spiritual and social maturity, and live as one united family in a just, global society.…the Bahá’í Faith brings new social principles appropriate to the needs of a global society, such as the oneness of mankind, the equality of rights and opportunities for men and women, the abolition of all forms of prejudice, the essential harmony of science and religion, universal education, the need for a universal auxiliary language, and the elimination of extremes of poverty and wealth."


The year after his retirement he fell ill. It was his heart that had been damaged as a child by rheumatic fever. For most of 1954, he was in and out of several hospitals in New York seeking treatment, but finally on June ninth, he succumbed in Mount Sinai Hospital. Visited regularly by friends and luminaries, he reportedly knew the grim prognosis and was prepared. That same year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board, ending public school segregation. 


Dr. Christopher Buck:
Without Locke, there may not have been a Martin Luther King. The New Negro movement, for which Locke was the chief architect and spokesman, was singularly responsible for inculcating and cultivating the requisite group consciousness and solidarity necessary for the mobilization of African Americans during the Civil Rights era. 
 W.E.B Du Bois:
His quest for truth and logic was no easy task. It was often contradictory and disappointing. It either appealed in vain to understand or found no understanding to which it could appeal. It was a thankless task….And yet its faithful pursuit is more than living. It is more than death.
 Ralph J. Bunche:

He is gone, but somehow I cannot fully believe it. Too few, perhaps, well understood or adequately appreciated Alain Locke. Those of us who did have lived a richer life for it. Philosopher he was, thinker and writer, an intellectual; a man of conviction with courage of his convictions. The American society has lost a noted scholar and an outstanding citizen. Negro Americans have lost a great pioneer and a fervent protagonist. I have lost a good friend.


Works Cited

Buck, Christopher. Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy. Los Angeles, CA: Kalimat, 2005. Print.

Carter, Jacoby Adeshei, "Alain LeRoy Locke", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Linneman, Russel J. ed. Alain Locke: Reflections on a Modern Renaissance Man. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 1982. 

Reuben, Paul P. PAL (perspectives in American Literature): A Research and Reference Guide. Turlock, CA: California State University, Stanislaus, 1993. Print.

Washington, Johnny. Alain Locke and Philosophy: A Quest for Cultural Pluralism. NY: Greenwood Press. 1986.