Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand, and The Stories

Improper Politics: Quicksand and Black Female Sexuality

The entertainment of a Harlem cabaret hypnotizes Helga Crane, the protagonist of Nella Larsen's Quicksand. She loses herself in the "sudden streaming rhythm" and delights in the sexually suggestive moves of the dancers. Helga is "blown out, ripped out, beaten out by the joyous, wild, murky orchestra" in a moment suggestive of a sexual climax. But when the music fades, Helga returns to reality and asserts that "she wasn't, she told herself, a jungle creature." Helga feels this struggle between sexual freedom and restraint throughout the novel. As Larsen shows in the cabaret, black women of the early twentieth century repressed their sexual desires so that white America would perceive them as respectable. In its fight for equality, the black social elite wanted women to emulate the conventions of mainstream society. Maintaining a good image was intended not only to produce change within the race, but also to combat white stereotypes that caused discrimination against black people. Thus, described as primitive and promiscuous since slavery, black women hid their sexuality under socially accepted behavior. But, as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham refers to it, this "politics of...

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