"Children aren't everything": Maternal Ambivalences in Nella Larsen's Fiction

"Children aren't everything": Maternal Ambivalences in Nella Larsen's Fiction

Marie-Luise Löffler

In her biography of Nella Larsen, Thadious M. Davis notes that the novels Quicksand and Passing raise "issues of privilege, otherness, marginality, and identity to provide a substantive conceptual core to the life of a woman" (254). Probing into "the nexus of identities emerging from a layered coexistence of race and gender affiliations experienced by the black women" (Calloway 6), the trope of motherhood similarly acquires a central meaning in Larsen's fiction. Placing Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) within maternal discourses of black womanhood and motherhood of the 1920s, scholars have noted that her novels not only reference but subvert historically specific constructions of maternity within the black community of her times. However, while Allison Berg, for example, focused on the aspect of "the impossibility of black female artistry" and motherhood (130) in Quicksand, I will argue that Larsen goes further. She generally questions the predetermined roles for black women by portraying maternity's destruction of a woman who inherently rejects motherhood. No matter what path the main character Helga Crane attempts to set her life on, she encounters constant pressure to marry and become a mother. Yet when she finally yields to this pressure, fatal consequences ensue. Thus Larsen's novel reveals the rift between idealized societal expectations represented by the New Negro Mother on the one hand and one black woman's personal experience on the other, an aspect which I will primarily explore through Larsen's portrayal of her main character Helga's experiences of childbirth and the subsequent care of her children. Furthermore, while Anne Stavney and Licia Morrow Calloway have analyzed the character of Irene Redfield in Larsen's second novel Passing with respect to contemporary maternal discourses of the 1920s, I will instead focus on her foil, Clare Kendry. The way Clare is portrayed demonstrates the relationship between the tropes of passing and reproduction and reveals to what extent the novel deconstructs clear-cut racial boundaries and at the same time renders obsolete distinct white and black racial discourses of maternity.1

Explicit political and public agendas of the early twentieth century combated, as Theodore Roosevelt then put it in an Annual Message, "the willful sterility [of white American women as] the one sin for which the penalty is national death" (qtd. in Berg 1).2 White American women were chastised for falling birthrates among whites, which were attributed to increased access to college education for white middle-class women and the subsequent personal decision to leave the domestic realm of the True Woman. Furthermore, Roosevelt's speech also reflected a common white perception that immigrants and African Americans would soon overtake the white, native population (Berg 1-2). His statement thus encapsulates a widespread cultural anxiety over "race suicide" (Mitchell 91), echoing the preoccupation of eugenics with racially 'proper' motherhood.3 The agendas reflected in Roosevelt's speech thus stressed the need for procreative women to reproduce for the sake of the 'race,' and, in turn, of the nation, laying "bare the crucial intersection of ideologies of race and sex at the site of motherhood" (Doyle 11).4 Although for very different reasons, black women were similarly praised not only for "literally bearing a child, but also symbolically bearing a race" (Berg 2). The ideal of the New Negro mother of the 1920s became a means of revising stereotypical images of the mammy, since her place of mothering was now meant to be in her "own house and home" (Stavney 538), mothering her own "race" (Berg 5). As Chandler Owen, coeditor of The Messenger (a political and literary magazine by and for African Americans), put it, the New Negro mother was "no longer a 'white man's woman,' no longer the sex-enslaved 'black mammy' of Dixie, but the apotheosis of triumphant Negro womanhood" (qtd. in Berg 106).

In addition, contemporary ideas of black racial advancement stressed black maternal contributions and responsibilities, turning motherhood into an indispensable racial duty. By constructing the so-called "black race mother" (Mitchell 190)a black woman whose "maternal labors were viewed as contributing positively to racial progress" (Berg 9)a concept arose that not only reinforced women's traditional reproductive role but also articulated black mothers' central role in black racial uplift. Upholding motherhood as an inescapable racial imperative, discourses of the time defined black women's real glory in terms of their feminine, that is, maternal qualities.5 The black woman of the 1920s was assumed to have a strong desire to mother, to have a "frank longing for motherhood" (DuBois 525).

The ideal of the New Negro mother became a predominant trope in African American fictional and non-fictional literary works, in articles of popular magazines such as Voices of the Negro, The Crisis and The Messenger, and in instructional publications.6 These publications stressed again and again that black women were especially suited for motherhood. They also pointed out that by becoming good mothers and creating a good home life, black women would advance the "race." As Beverly Guy-Sheftall notes, "this theme [was] repeated with such frequency that it appears to be a battle cry" (73). It becomes clear that more often than not, black women's contribution to what The Messenger called "a free race and a new world" (Murray 757) in the 1920s was envisioned in terms of their reproductive contribution to future generations. That each black woman had an "obligation to advance her own race's destiny" (Berg 4) was thus strongly emphasized only in regard to procreation.7

However, many black women during that era, especially black women writers, questioned the cult of the New Negro mother. As several scholars have noted, this becomes evident in black women's poetry, plays, short stories and novels, which critiqued and tempered exaggerated, romanticized presentations of the black race mother.8 The African American writer Angelina Weld Grimk, for instance, was acutely concerned with the tensions and conflicts of black women in regard to motherhood, foregrounding the issue of reproduction, especially conflated with racial and sexual violence, in her play Rachel (1916) and her short story "The Closing Door" (1919). Similarly, Georgia Douglas Johnson's play Safe (1929) makes the connection between racial violence and maternity very explicit, handling the subject of lynching from the perspective of a black mother. However, black women writers not only expressed their rejection of motherhood owing to the relationship between racial violence, reproduction and mothering. They also stressed the need for contraception, an aspect which is of central importance in Mary Burill's birth control play They That Sit in Darkness (1919).9 Yet while the works of these black women writers still implied that their heroines wished to be mothersonly their maternal desire was thwarted by racial violenceLarsen's work depicts heroines who refuse to become "an instrument of reproduction" (Miller 122) and instead opts for and tests cultural spaces of self-determination, thus fundamentally rejecting any notions of black womanhood which define black women's identity solely with respect to their maternal role.

In her novel Quicksand, Larsen voices this rejection through her main character Helga Crane, who migrates between different locations of black culture in order to define herself only to find herself trapped in very particular social settings that press her into the unwanted roles of sexual object, wife, or mother. Although she desperately seeks a place where she can live without compromising her inner self, she comes to realize that there is literally no place where she can explore the complexity of her identity as a black woman and develop herself fully as a human being. Helga repeatedly dismisses narrow definitions of black womanhood within the black community, overtly rejecting motherhood as a choice for her life. At Naxos, "the finest school for Negroes anywhere in the country" (2-3) her fianc James Vayle can neither accept Helga for the woman she is nor understand her need for individuality. He is only interested in her in "one nameless way necessary to him" (Larsen 42), that is, James sees her only as an object to fulfill his sexual desires, which, in his eyes, can only be acted upon if Helga becomes his wife. Leaving for the North in the hopes of finding a place where she can live out all aspects of her self, Helga comes to realize that in Chicago, men merely define her as a prostitute. In Harlem, among the black bourgeoisie, marriage is constructed as an inevitable strategy for women who aspire to membership in the middle class. Helga is acutely aware of and rejects the convergence of the roles of wife and mother as evident in her appalled reaction to the prospect of matrimony: "Marriagethat means children" (132). This aspect is further stressed when Helga travels abroad to Denmark where she is not only reduced to an exotic object but also considered a profitable, marriageable prospectsince marrying Axel Olsen "was the only thing she could do for them" (121)as well as being a future mother. Helga's reduction of her identity to that of a wife and mother becomes most poignantly clear after her return to Harlem and her re-encounter with James Vayle, who proposes marriage to her again. Drawing a definite link between marriage and maternity, and echoing maternal discourses of the 1920s, he exclaims:

Don't you see that if weI mean people like usdon't have children, the others will still have. That's the one thing that's the matter with us. The race is sterile at the top. Few, very few Negroes of the better class have children [] I feel very strongly about this. We're the ones who must have children if the race is to get anywhere. (Larsen 132)

Helga's response to his statement explicitly sums up her viewpoint on motherhood: "Well, I do not intend to contribute any to the cause" (132).

However, having tested all other avenues for her life, even beyond the borders of the US, she finally gives in to societal pressures. Thus, her marriage to the Reverend Pleasant Green and her subsequent multiple childbirths should not be interpreted as "implausible" (Berg 127) or "Larsen's difficulty with rounding off stories convincingly" (McDowell 140). Rather, they highlight Helgas resignationher defeat. She abandons her restless search for identity and instead accepts the lot society has handed to herthe role of the black mother reproducing for the "race." Her turn of fortune is encapsulated in the following passage where Larsen bluntly portrays the downside of New Negro motherhood for her protagonist:

The light, carefree days of the past, when she had not felt heavy and reluctant or weak and spent, receded more and more with increasing vagueness, like a dream passing from a faulty memory. The children used her up. There were already three of them, all born within the short space of twenty months. (Larsen 150, emphasis added)

Quite contrary to the image of the dutiful New Negro mother who fulfills her chores with ease, Helga is utterly physically exhausted, constantly experiencing a "horrible nausea and hateful faintness" (150). She feels overwhelmed by her maternal duties, entirely helpless and isolated in her situation. Her home is not a sentimental domestic haven but is "unswept and undusted," cluttered with "the perpetual array of drying baby clothes on the chair backs" and "the constant debris of broken toys on the floor" (151). Furthermore, Larsen points to the consequences of the standard image of motherhood which leaves marks not only on Helga's body but also on her psyche. Her home is not presented as a shelter but a prison, a constant site of Helga's failure. She blames herself for her inadequacy and "thoughtless selfishness" (151), a notion that is further emphasized by her husband, who, instead of protecting her and having her well-being in mind, further adds to her oppression, pointing out that her "doubt and uncertainty were a stupendous ingratitude" (151).

Helga's ambivalence towards her role as a mother is also evident in the almost complete absence of a description of affection towards her children in the text. Only once does she refer to them as "lovely bodies" and speaks of a "certain delicious feeling in which were mingled pride, tenderness, and exaltation" (150). She never refers to her children by names, but calls them the "twin boys" and the "girl" (150). Instead, Helga openly questions idealized notions of maternity: "Could it be possible, that, while presenting such smiling and contented faces, [other women and mothers] were all always on the edge of health? Always worn out and apprehensive?" (152) Her own perception of motherhood stands in stark contrast to these assertionsfor her motherhood is only a "strain" which is "almost unendurable" (152). She not only protests the physical hardships concomitant with being a mother: "I'm always so tired and half sick. That can't be natural" (152). Helga also points out that "she would die" since "she couldn't endure it" (160)drawing a connection between marriage and especially motherhood  and mental and physical death for women.10

Any notions of the New Negro mother are ultimately undermined in Helga's nightmarish experience of her fourth childbirth and in the reaction and perception towards her newborn. When the baby "was held before her for maternal approval" (154), she

failed entirely to respond properly to the sop of consolation for the suffering and horror through which she had passed. There was from her no pleased, proud smile, no loving, possessive gesture, no manifestation of interest in the important matters of sex and weight. (154)

The portrayal of Helga's rejection of her newborn infant is in drastic opposition to the instantaneous joy and pride a New Negro mother supposedly feels towards her child. Instead, Helga "deliberately closed her eyes, mutely shutting out the sickly infant, its smiling father, the soiled midwife, the curious neighbors, and the tousled room" (154, emphasis added). Larsen's destabilization of idealized notions of motherhood is even further highlighted in Helga's afterthoughts on childbirth as a "futile torture" (158, emphasis added), again undercutting any idealized notions of a mother-child bond. This can also be seen in her reaction to her newborn's death, where "she had closed her eyes to shut in any telltale gleam of the relief which she felt. One less" (158).

Thus, Larsen is able to create a gap between social constructions of how women should perceive motherhood and a black woman's personal rejection of such a perspective, since Helga did not want to have another child. Her fourth pregnancy can rather be seen as the means of male (i.e., her husband's) domination over her body. Helga's perception of her own motherhood makes clear that translating women's biological capacity to bear children into their destiny is a deficient perspective.

In Passing, the character of Clare Kendry most effectively undermines racialized discourses of maternity of Larsen's era in general, as well as instrumental ideologies of the New Negro mother in particular. Generally, the trope of passing provides a means for Larsen to question and destabilize the color line itself, subverting a "system predicated on binaries of 'black' and 'white'" (Bennett 6). Her use of the passing figure unsteadies essentialist views of "race," presenting it not as biological destiny but as a social construction. However, Larsen's use of a passing black woman does more than function as a disruption of the old binary scheme of color, as in other passing narratives. I argue that the female passing figure also has important repercussions for maternal discourses of the 1920s.

For Larsen's heroine Clare, passing is not only an opportunity "to completely reinvent herself" (Calloway 215) by leaving her complicated childhood behind, but she is able to use her appearance of whiteness effectively. By marrying a white man, Clare is able to "pass" into white society, an act which she completes by giving birth to a white child. However, beyond turning Clare "into a member of the privileged race" (Gallego 147), her bearing a white daughter has further implications: By choosing to reproduce for the white "race," Clare not only deliberately undermines maternal ideologies of the African American community that demand she give birth to black children and mother her own "race." She ridicules both black and white ideologies of the race mother of the 1920s, by exposing the artificiality of racial and gender definitionsfor she is a "black" mother bearing a "white" child.

After having given birth once, thus completing her act of passing into the white community, Clare rejects mothering any more children: "No, I have no boys and I don't think I'll ever have any" (Larsen 197).. Consequently, she refuses to comply with instrumental definitions that require her to reproduce frequentlyin this case for the white "race." However, her resolution not to conceive another child is also influenced by her constant fear of discovery because of what Licia Morrow Calloway calls the "unpredictability of her womb" (217). This notion becomes clear in a dialogue between Clare Kendry and her trusted friends Irene Redfield and Gertrude Martin in whom she confides that

I nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born for fear that she might be dark. Thank goodness, she turned out all right. But I'll never risk it again. Never! The strain is simply tootoo hellish (197).

Clare's statement clearly highlights her strong ambivalence towards motherhood, but it also stresses her rejection of black maternal ideologies: she has married a white man and fears to bear a black descendant since this would expose her as a passing black woman. Clares comment echoes Gertrude Martins assessment: "But of course, nobody wants a dark child" (197). Furthermore, it destabilizes definitions of a white or black race mother in general, since Clare's reproduction clearly straddles these boundaries, undermining any clear-cut constructions of maternity that are bound to a specific color of skin.

In addition, her fear of her identity being disclosed by giving birth to an identifiably black baby links this passage to a trope in American literature that fundamentally tests the boundaries between "white" and "black": the image of a "coal-black baby" (Dearborn 151) born to a light-skinned mother. The theme of atavism, that is, the reappearance of a characteristic or quality in a person that has not been seen for generations, appeared not only in white fiction, such as Kate Chopin's short story "Desire's Baby,"11 but also in many black-authored novels, especially those written by black women. In Neither White Nor Black, Judith Berzon argues that atavism was used as a metaphor for an uncontrollable reversion from an "attained veneer of white civilization" to "savage, primitivistic behavior" (31). However, I would argue that, especially in black women's literature, the image of the black child born to a "white" woman also draws attention to the impossibility of any definite color binaries due to a history of miscegenation. In Frances Harper's Iola Leroy (1892), for example, this notion becomes especially pronounced, since Iola herself is clearly a product of miscegenation between the southern slave owner Eugene Leroy and his slave Marie. Having a white complexion and blue eyes, Iola grows up in the belief that she is white, yet after the discovery of her ancestry she is termed black, which already stresses the irony of artificial definitions of race. This notion is further highlighted when Iola, as a seemingly white woman, responds to the "white" Dr. Gresham after his marriage proposal: "Doctor, [] suppose we should marry, and little children should nestle in our arms, and one of them show unmistakable signs of color, would you be satisfied?" (Harper 117). In Passing, the connection between the reproduction of a light-skinned woman and its subversive effect on color binaries is also stressed by Gertrude, who notes that a child might "turn out dark no matter what color the father and mother are" (197; emphasis added). It becomes clear that there is no predictability as to what color a child could be, due to the history of slavery and miscegenation (even when it is born to a seemingly "white" woman and "white" man). Larsen's passing character, straddling the racial divide, thus demonstrates the artificiality of distinct ideologies regarding white and black motherhood. What is more, she blurs any notion of absolute differences based on racial constructions of "black" and "white."

Focusing on an ambivalent portrayal of maternity, Larsen's Quicksand clearly breaks with maternal expectations within the black community of the early twentieth century. Her novel lays bare the drastic consequences of enforced maternity on a black woman who, although she rejects motherhood, is not given any other avenue of self-expression. Thus, Quicksand renders narrow definitions of black womanhood in terms of wifehood and maternity as an inherently inadequate framework for a black woman's identity, drawing attention to the gap between contemporary discourses of the New Negro mother and a black woman's personal experience of it. Furthermore, by introducing the character of a passing mother in her second novel Passing, Larsen not only explicitly revises contemporary ideologies of black and white motherhood, but simultaneously creates a platform to fundamentally challenge clearly defined racial boundaries in general. Thus, by deconstructing and revising conflicting issues surrounding black womanhood and motherhood, Larsen's work fundamentally questions a predetermined identity for black women and stresses a fluidity of representation that denounces maternity as the primary or exclusive calling for women. In so doing, Quicksand and Passing represent an attempt to create a new iconography of the black female body, uncovering and revising the constraints of a "genderized, sexualized and wholly racialized world" (Morrison 4).12


1 In Passing Novels, Mar Gallego discusses Larsen's ambivalent portrayal of motherhood in Quicksand and Passing by placing her novels within the sentimental tradition, thus interpreting Larsen's heroines within a genteel tradition based on dominant values of the cult of true womanhood. My focus, however, is on placing Larsen's novels within specific contemporary discourses of maternity within the black community of the 1920s, in contrast to Gallego's discussion of her novels as instrumentalizing and reversing a white literary tradition.

2 See Roosevelt, "Sixth Annual Message," 1906. A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the President. New York: Bureau of National Literature, 1909, 7428 (qtd. in Berg 1).

3 As Michele Mitchell points out, the term "race suicide" circulated widely at the beginning of the twentieth century and was also used by Roosevelt to condemn the use of birth control. He decried the fact that "increasing numbers of elite and middle-class native white women embraced 'voluntary motherhood' by controlling their own fertility" (91). For a similar account, see Calloway, chapter 1, and English 11.

4 For a discussion of the intersection of race, eugenics and motherhood, see Doyle, especially chapters 1 and 2; English, especially chapters 1 and 5.

5 The emphasis on motherhood as essential for racial uplift has its origins in the decades after Reconstruction but was especially predominant in the 1920s when a vast cultural and literary reevaluation of black motherhood took place that defined black women's "race work" almost exclusively in terms of reproduction. For further discussion, see Mitchell, especially chapter 4.

6 For a discussion of idealized representations of black maternity in speeches, magazines, and guidebooks within the black community of the 1920s, see Stavney.

7 For a detailed discussion of the New Negro mother, see Berg 106-10 and Stavney 533-50.

8 See, for example, Meier and English, especially chapter 4.

9 For an analysis of birth control plays of the 1920s, see Miller 57-97 and Gainor 165-93.

10 As Deborah McDowell points out, Quicksand shares this notion with many other texts by women writers who similarly connected marriage and motherhood with the annihilation of the self (193), naming Ellen Glasgows Barren Ground (1925) and Emma Summer Kelleys Weeds (1923) as other examples from the 1920s.

11 Kate Chopin uses the topos of a black baby born to "white" parents as the chief impetus in her short story "Desire's Baby," which appeared in her collection Bayou Folk in 1894.

12 In regards to the nomenclature in this essay, I use the terms black and African American interchangeably as there has been little distancing of the earlier term (Bennett 13) to the latter after its conversion in the late 1980s. In addition, the term black was chosen by African Americans themselves and was seen to instill a sense of identity and pride (Martin 85). I further wish to point out that my usage of black and white does not refer to phenotypical categorizations, but is grounded in the understanding of the terms as historical and social constructs.

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McDowell, Deborah E. That namelessshameful impulse: Sexuality in Nella Larsens Quicksand and Passing. The Changing Same: Black Womens Literature, Criticism and Theory. Ed. Deborah McDowell. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. 78-100.

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