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Problematizing the comfortably depicted notions of race is essential in the struggle for, not only racial equality but rather, the complete erasure of the racial binary. This entails an adoption of strategies stereotypically adhered to by a racial-culture. Catalyzing this (semi-complicated, but really just badly worded abstract principle) is the notion of ‘passing’. Passing presents itself as “more than just a racial strategy: it is a strategy to be a person.” It is a strategy that enables the abandonment of the stereotypically perceived behaviors of a racial sect all while embracing new cultural flavors. It is a strategy that facilitates the search for identity. However, it is “only when passing becomes a subversive strategy for avoiding the enclosures of a racist, classist, and sexist society [that it becomes] truly liberating.” For then passing becomes not an usurpation of a lifestyle/identity that one would like to be a part of or would like to be, but rather a way of escaping the society-erected Pygmalion defining and categorizing the races. Nella Larsen’s Helga Crane and Clare Kendry illustrate the different ways in which to tackle and, arguably, problematize the racial binary; while Helga Crane searches aimlessly and insatiably for an identity—a ‘real’ self—Clare Kendry continuously complicates her racial identity by embracing a contradicting plurality of customs and behaviors—ultimately achieving the liberation of ontological multiplicity.
The Harlem Cabaret hypnotized Helga. She loses herself in the sudden streaming rhythm and finds herself drawn to the captivatingly sexually suggestive moves of the dancers. Soon, Helga finds herself “blown out, ripped out, beaten out by the joyous, wild, murky orchestra ” in a moment suggestive of sexual climax. But once the music fades, Helga re-assesses and asserts that “she wasn’t, she told herself, a jungle creature… ” The dissonance Helga feels is potent. It is clear that she more than enjoys the cabaret and yet the reader sees her trying to convince herself otherwise. Why? Helga Crane is a victim to the racial binary. Helga Crane feels that her desire, as well as her appeal to dancers, is out of place. And, unfortunately, Helga feels this tension (between sexual freedom and restraint) throughout the novel.
In its fight for equality, the black social elite wanted women to emulate the conventions of mainstream society. Maintaining a good image was aimed at not only producing change within the race, but also at combating the white stereotypes that fed the discrimination against black people. And thus, described as primitive and promiscuous since slavery, black women suppressed their sexuality and heavily subscribed to contemporary ideas of social propriety. Helga here does the same. Helga “wants to belong to herself and herself alone ” but she never stops to question whether it is possible to have an identity that is (a) completely self defined and (b) the solution to her problem. “Helga never confronts the fact that perhaps her identity is both plural and social and therefore she can never stop passing; she is always on quicksand. ” Helga thinks she has to choose between two identities: the black and the white. “Why couldn’t she have two lives, or why couldn’t she at least be satisfied in one place? She didn’t, in spite of her racial markings, belong to these dark segregated people,” Helga claims. “She was different. She felt it. It wasn’t, merely, a matter of color. ” Helga seeks a synthesis of self; a way to reconcile the incongruities of what she feels and what she thinks she should feel. She searches for a purpose without realizing it is enough to just be Helga Crane. And thus, the way in which she utilizes ‘passing’ is ineffective. The way in which she ‘passes’ caters to the complete particulars of the racial binary—she doesn’t recognize the validity of ontological plurality, and she remains forever stuck in the dichotomous one-dimensional world of race. “The assumption of only one guise or one form of passing causes Larsen’s [Helga] to become stable, static, fixed, [and ultimately] entrapped within one social definition. ”
Destabilizing unitary definitions of race and embracing ontological plurality is Helga’s antithesis: Clare Kendry. Kendry’s actions disprove the idea of the ‘essential self’ for throughout the novel the reader sees Clare pass for a multitude of things. She passes for a white mother; she passes for a white wife. Clare Kendry passes for many things, but she, unlike Helga, searches not for an ‘essential self’ but rather identities with which to supplement the Clare she is at that particular moment in time. Clare Kendry “finds her identity […] on a self that is composed of and created by a series of guises and masks, of performances and roles. In so doing, she transcends the labeling of society, for the more she ‘passes’, the more problematic and plural her presence becomes. ” Clare and Clare’s actions thus become instrumental in the fight toward problematization. Clare’s actions, thought seemingly irrational, function as signifiers; Clare’s plurality, flexibility, and lies, ironically, become what facilitate the escape of the racial binary. She passes, yes, but not because she is inherently discontent with the person she is, no, she passes to surpass the illegitimate stereotypes and prejudices that are arbitrarily assigned to ‘her race’.
The more tense and tumultuous identities are, the easier it is to produce the instability of a unitary ontology. The chaos of ontological multiplicity inherently, irrevocably, and inevitably destabilizes what society dictates one’s social role should be. The tragedy of Helga Crane is that she, insidiously and perhaps unknowingly, seeks the acceptance of her audience more that she seeks acceptance from herself—and so she ‘passes,’ but passes not to transcend these trends, but to dodge them. Helga Crane dodges, but Clare Kendry destroys. For Helga, in her doomed quest for self-definition, never finds what she is looking for; rather, she becomes increasingly entrenched within the racial binary. Ultimately, she commits psychological suicide. Who cares if Clare was or was not cheating with Brian, she surpassed the racial binary!
1. Cutter, Martha J. ?Sliding Significations: Passing as a Narrative and Textual Strategy in Nella Larsen’s Fiction.? In Passing & the Fictions of Identity, ed. Elaine K. Ginsberg, 75–100. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.
2. Larsen, Nella. Quicksand and Passing. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995.
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