Nella Larsen, born April 13, 1891, was one of the most popular authors of the Harlem Renaissance, and the first African American woman to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship for literature. Her work examines issues of race, sexuality, and gender, with a sincerity and understanding that, more than 100 years after she was born, are still relevant today.
The daughter of immigrants, her father a black man from the West Indies, and her mother a white Danish woman, Larsen was acutely aware of race and the role it played in her life, especially after her half-sister was born. Her family was able to do something Larsen would go on to write about in depth: they could pass as white. This awareness of her racial identity, and the way it set her apart from her family, are said to play a part in Larsen going to the historically black college, Fisk University’s Normal School—at the age of 16!
After only a year, Larsen went to the University of Copenhagen to learn about her maternal heritage, only to return to Fisk University’s Normal School after four years. Back in the US, Larsen studied nursing and began training in a library program, which led her to working for the New York Public Library. It was through her job that she met her future husband Elmer Imes, the second African American to earn his Ph.D. in Physics,, and who introduced her to other well-known figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, and Langston Hughes.
Imes was successful enough that Larsen was able to devote herself to her writing. She wrote short stories for a while under the pseudonym Allen Nesral (a simple anagram of Nella Larsen), before gaining a name for herself and writing her first novel, Quicksand, in 1928. The novel was about a biracial woman, Helga Crane, searching for a place where she was neither slighted for her race, or made an exotic treasure. The novel was well received and won the Harmon Foundation Prize, but it was her second novel, Passing, that solidified Larsen’s place among the greats of the Harlem Renaissance and led her to be given the Guggenheim Fellowship for Literature and Creative Writing.
After she received the Guggenheim Fellowship, she spent the next six months traveling to Paris and France, where she worked on her third novel. However, it was in 1930 that things took a turn. Larsen was accused of plagiarism for her short story, “Sanctuary,” with critics sawing the story was too similar to a work by Sheila Kaye-Smith, published 8 years earlier. Although Kaye-Smith’s publishers disagreed, saying that “Sanctuary” was obviously an original work, Larsen was also in the spotlight due to a messy divorce with Imes, who had an affair with a white woman. Larsen faded from the limelight, living off her alimony payments until Imes’ death in 1941, when she started working as a nurse. Larsen remained a nurse until her death on March 30, 1964.
Passing is the only novel by Larsen that I’ve read, but it’s made me want to upturn my To-Read bookshelf until I’ve devoured all of Larsen’s writings. Passing follows the lives of two women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, during the 1920s. Irene and Clare grew up together in the way that people in the same neighborhood grew up together, having nothing much in common aside from the fact that both women were biracial, having one white parent and one black parent. The novel begins with Irene receiving a letter from Clare, telling her she’s in Manhattan and wants to meet up with her again. But Irene is livid, and flashes the reader back to their first reunion, where Irene realized that what they once had in common has become taboo. Clare Kendry is passing, or going through society as if she were white.
While Irene didn’t understand Clare passing: “She couldn’t … come to any conclusion about its meaning, try as she might. It was unfathomable, utterly beyond any experience or comprehension of hers”—Irene did not like Clare’s husband, an unrepentant racist who constantly talked about racial superiority of whites. Thus begins the novel, written in such an authentic voice that you feel as if you’re listening in on a conversation. The novel tackles issues of passing, of race, but also of gender and sexuality. However, because of the style of the novel, readers are left wondering, picking apart phrases to understand if they really do catch the meaning. As you watch the lives of Irene and Clare progress, Clare jealous over a connection to her past that Irene has, and Irene unhappy with Clare’s presence and her husband’s desire for a life outside the one he lives, readers are swallowed by the plot until the shocking end, leaving themselves to wonder, between careful turns of phrase, if they truly understand what they just read.
Larsen never published again after the accusations of plagiarism, but in her apartment two unfinished manuscripts were found. Now she is read internationally and celebrated for her insight on the liminal spaces between the gender, racial, and sexual binaries that surrounded her. In honor of her birthday, take some time to read the words of this amazing writer, and catch a glimpse into the past that resonates startlingly well with issues of the present.