Nella Larsen’s (1928) novel Quicksand chronicles the character of Helga Crane as she makes multiple migrations throughout the United States and Europe while grappling with complexities of racial identity and politics of gender and sexual desire in early 20th century life. In Larsen’s detailed description of Helga’s meticulous fascination with clothing and style, an underlying theme of the novel is thrown into high relief: Helga’s migratory movement and subsequent wrestlings with various notions of identity are experienced as embodied, textured realities that are physically marked by the ways in which her body is aesthetically rendered throughout the novel. When read against scholar Anthony Pinn’s (2003) theory of black religion, particularly his “hermeneutic of style and the body,” Larsen’s literary depiction of the significance of bodily adornments offers a rich case study in which to explore how literary source materials can be used to consider the embodied nature of religion and religious experience.
Pinn (2003) posits a “hermeneutic of style and the body” wherein he argues that the very nature of black religion is concerned with engaging in a “reconstruction of black bodies,” such that they are reclaimed from dehumanizing identities imposed by larger social systems and visualized and presented in new and liberating ways (p. 142). Here, he emphasizes that black religion’s reconstruction of black bodies is an embodied effort, one that is worked out through the real, physiological, biochemical material of lived bodies (p. 143). This idea of black religion can be observed in black material and expressive culture, such as the clothing, dress and bodily movement displayed in nineteenth century black parades and strolls through northern American cities where style was employed as a means to both circumvent dehumanization and to incite transformation through bodily expressions of creativity, dignity and self-worth (p. 143).
Pinn’s analysis of the embodied nature of black religion, particularly as it is expressed through material and expressive culture has resonance with Larsen’s (1928) literary depiction of Helga’s conscientious attention to clothing and style. For example, while working as a teacher at Naxos, a school for black children in the segregated south, Helga criticizes the institution for its strict control over its students according to white social norms. She likens the school to “a big knife with cruelly sharp edges ruthlessly cutting all to a pattern, the white man’s pattern (p. 4).” Helga’s clothes, with their elaborate textures, designs and colors, stand in stark contrast to the school’s metaphorical white patterning. While other women who work at the school submit to rules that dictate that the “most becoming colors for colored people” are muted colors, such as navy blue, black and brown, Helga engages in what can be considered the black religious task of disrupting and undermining this racist mandate through embodied means (p. 18). She unabashedly attends school functions in what Larsen describes as, “dark purples, royal blues, rich greens, deep reds, in soft, luxurious woolens, or heavy, clinging silks,” all of which make her the object of social critique (p.18).
Helga travels to Copenhagen, Denmark where she finds herself rendered an exotic object. She is encouraged to dress in flamboyant clothing and accessories, such as a “shining black taffeta with bizarre trimmings” along with long, “brightly enameled earrings” and “glittering shoe buckles” while she is paraded around to social gatherings where she sits on display (p. 70). Similar to her experience at Naxos, she subverts these efforts at social control by reclaiming her “deep faith in the perfection of her own taste.” Instead of the “flaunting flashy things,” Helga returns to her own “blue crepe frock” (p. 85). Larsen’s work reflects what literary critic Deborah McDowell (1980:157) points out is a literary tradition among black women writers to “use clothing as iconography.” This is perhaps most evident in Helga’s state of disillusionment by the end of the novel, when her acquiescence to forms of policing and control espoused in Christianity coincide with a diminished sense of personal stylistic expression. Helga is now the propagator of such forms of control, pointing out to other women that “sunbonnets, no matter how gay, and aprons, no matter how frilly, were not quite the proper things for Sunday church wear” (p. 126). The book concludes with the protagonist railing against what is now the “anesthetic impact” on all of her senses. She is said to miss “the ordinary things of life,” including embodied senses and realities, such as “hunger, sleep, and freedom from pain” (p. 126).
Considering Larsen’s literary novel in the context of Pinn’s work on religion and embodiment raises a number of questions that are worth further exploration: Given that embodiment is concerned with the physical, material bodies, are there ways in which literary renderings of physical bodies fall short of portraying/representing lived, embodied experiences? Are there ways in which literary mediums can portray embodied experiences that other mediums, such as the visual, cannot?
McDowell, Deborah, “New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism”, Black American Literature Forum (1980), 153-59.
Pinn, Anthony, Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
In Terror and Triumph Anthony Pinn begs the question of what constitutes black religion. He shows the ways in which blackness as construed in the context, and as a byproduct, of the transatlantic slave trade is based on the dehumanization and objectification of these bodies. The religiosity derived from the black experience of slavery, in particular, is a response to dealing with the absurdities that enslaved Africans were confronted with and making meaning out of it. The black religious experience, then, is the continued search for, what Pinn calls, “complex subjectivity.”