Helga Crane seems awkward and capricious, as introverts (like me) often do, at odds with a world better shaped to the needs of extroverts. But Helga’s struggle to find a place for herself, she feels, is caused by her heritage, visible and invisible. Biracial, black, she is rejected by her white family, yet raised among whites, starved of any recognition or respect, finding refuge in aesthetic and intellectual pleasures, both drawn to and repelled by the joyous abandon of Harlem’s parties and jazz clubs, scornful also of the black activists who talk of racial equality but, fed on white supremacy, cannot help but privately disdain aspects of blackness.
Escaping Naxos, a black college in the South, where the contaminant dust of antiblackness hangs thick and heavy over everything, from clothes to curriculum, she is at first elated by the style of New York, by the liveliness and keener race-consciousness of Harlem. Yet soon she chafes at what she sees as its insularity and self-satisfaction, its double personality. She sneers at ‘uplift’ and is repelled by respectability politics. Though she shares trappings of middle-classness with her milieu, her own harsh experiences of racism and the hopeless struggle to find work as an educated black woman in Chicago (where there are plenty of jobs for black domestic workers with references) make her sensitive to their relatively naive analysis of whiteness.
She moves again. Told that her Danish aunt ‘always wanted [her]’ she seeks her family, and finds, for the first time, an enthusiastic welcome, interest in her, admiration, she is feted! The Danes have, it seems, never seen a black woman, so they treat her like a fabulous beast. Her aunt dresses her in the bright, revealing clothes she imagines black women wear, she parades and displays her and encourages her to pose for artists, to find a husband. But Helga, though susceptible to the pleasures of narcissism and being surrounded by beautiful garments and decor (‘Things! Things! Things!’) is acutely aware of the dehumanising effect of exotification, as Rowena notes in her illuminating review ‘she didn’t at all count‘
Time passes, pleasantly and yet unreally, in a spirit-sapping malaise. Loneliness pulls her back to Harlem, but she finds no escape from it. The opening scene of the book pictures Helga blissfully alone in a large room where light and shadow mingle. She and the tale move on, but the emptiness of the room follows her like an aura.
What tips Helga into desperation seems to be the frustration of her romantic life, since her racial status and personality both work against her being considered by others a desiring and desirable subject. Stricken after a disappointing encounter, she undergoes an inadvertent baptism by falling into a gutter. Lacking the will to direct her own fate now that every avenue out of misery seems exhausted, she ceases to struggle, she embraces a life she never wanted, she sinks into the quicksand of patriarchal Christianity. Yet this places her to reach radical conclusions about race and religion that were evidently not being voiced by her activist contemporaries:
And this, Helga decided, was what ailed the whole Negro race in America, this fatuous belief in the white man’s God, this child-like trust in full compensation for all woes and privations in ‘kingdom come’… How the white man’s God must laugh at the great joke he had played on them! Bound them to slavery, then to poverty and insult, and made them bear it unresistingly, uncomplainingly almost, by sweet promises of mansions in the sky by and by.
This critique is in sharp contrast to, for example, Frederick Douglas’ framing of white supremacy as unChristian, passionately argued at the end of his Narrative.
Larsen’s style is refined, elegant, lingering over moments of aesthetic pleasure with tactile words: descriptions exude a bodily happiness fuelled by both sophisticated and elemental sources. Helga attempts to articulate an affirmation of blackness in response to assimilationist ‘uplift’ ideology, an effort hampered by her location in white supremacist contexts on one side and the objectifying essentialism of her aunt on the other. Still, the story’s melancholic core, reflected in the dull, weak coloured clothes of the staff and students at Naxos, is much leavened by Helga’s occasional lovingly appreciative moods, vibrantly evoked by sensitive, precise prose.