The Gold Standard of Racial Identity in Nella Larsen's Quicksand and Passing

By Dawahare, Anthony | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Gold Standard of Racial Identity in Nella Larsen's Quicksand and Passing


Dawahare, Anthony, Twentieth Century Literature


  Gold? yellow, glittering, precious gold?...
  Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair, Wrong right,
  base noble, old young, coward valiant.
  --Shakespeare, Timon of Athens 4.3

  He's got a five-dollar gold piece for a stickpin and he got a ten-
  dollar gold piece on his watch chain and his mouf is jes' crammed full
  of gold teethes. Sho wisht it wuz mine.
  --Zora Neale Hurston, "The Gilded Six-Bits" (1014)

In the 1920s, many black writers established African American identity as one of the most significant issues to be addressed in the post-World War I period. Figures as diverse as W E. B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Marcus Garvey, Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, and Jesse Fauset sought to define a new black identity that had appeared on the scene. They claimed that this New Negro belonged to a modern generation of black Americans shaped by the great events of the teens and twenties, from the Great Migration North, World War I, industrialism, urbanism, and nationalist liberation movements to the growth of internationalism following the Bolshevik Revolution. To be sure, black writers and activists were often at odds over just who the New Negro was. Garvey, for example, championed what he saw as the African character of the New Negro, while Randolph welcomed the arrival of a left-leaning, working-class New Negro. More often than not, however, definitions of the New Negro asserted that black Americans belonged to a unique race of human beings whose ancestry imparted a distinctive and invaluable racial identity and culture. The New Negro, it was claimed, had thrown off the yoke of racial prejudice that equated blackness with barbarism and was proud of his or her race and heritage. Many writers also believed that the New Negro's racial revaluation would help to produce a friendly revaluation of black Americans by white America. Writers heralded the arrival of the New Negro as the beginning of a new phase of American history in which the production of black culture would assist African Americans in winning respect long overdue in the US and abroad.

At the heart of New Negro discourses of the 1920s lies a crucial contradiction, one with important implications for discussions of black identity today. Writers claimed that the New Negro was shaped by modernity yet retained in some way a racial essence or character that preceded modernity. The New Negro was as old as Africa but as contemporary as a jazz club in urban Harlem; his racial soul was as ancient as Hughes's "dusky rivers" (Voices 155) yet as modern as the Garvey's Black Star Line ships ready to take the black diasporic masses back "home" to Africa. The New Negro had "the instinctive gift of the folk spirit" (Locke, "Negro Youth" 51), which did not preclude his evolution into a "new type of Negro ... a city Negro" (Johnson 285). In a word, the "new" black identity also retained a good amount of an "old," premodern racial self.

Granted, not all Renaissance writers asserted that the New Negro was both premodern and modern. Exceptions stand out, such the black socialists who, for a time, rejected racial categories out of hand, and George Schuyler, who called the New Negro Renaissance the "Negro-Art Hokum" for claiming that black Americans are a distinct race somehow unaffected by "the same economic and social forces that mold the actions and thoughts of the white Americans" (1173). (1) But taken as a whole, New Negro discourses are caught between two poles: a notion of a premodern racial identity whose origins lie in ancient Africa and a concept of a modern self not exclusive to black Americans.

A number of current literary studies of the New Negro have all but laid to rest the racial essentialism predicated on concepts of a universal black "soul" or "blood" transmuted generationally. These critiques show how such essentialism reproduces fallacious premises integral to the "scientific" racism dating back to the period of slavery as well as to antiracist writers who problematically borrowed from these pseudoscientific discourses to argue against racism. …

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