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Fame, race, Nella Larsen, and Nella the Princess Knight

Certainly my oddest moment as a scholar of the biracial woman novelist Nella Larsen (1891–1964) was the day I ran across her in the guise of a pink-clad children’s cartoon character, profiled in the New York Times.

The unusual name “Nella” drew my eye to Nella the Princess Knight, but as I read further, the character’s similarities to the literary figure multiplied. Like the novelist, Nick Jr’s new heroine has a black father, a white mother, and a baby sister, and she lives in a multiracial community. Also like Larsen, who despite racism and sexism had three different professional careers (nurse, librarian, and novelist), the Princess transforms herself and fights. When someone needs saving, she recites a little poem, her magic necklace glows, and Princess Nella becomes a Princess Knight, armored and carrying a sword, to mete out justice.

Such links between a high modernist and the protagonist of an educational program for three to five-year-olds could be pure coincidence, or the little joke of a rogue English major toiling in some fluorescent-lit writers’ room. On my inquiry, Nickelodeon representatives stated unequivocally that no homage or reference was intendedthey liked, rather, the alliterative N-sound of “Nella” and “Knight.” But whether accidental or intentional, these uncanny similarities raise questions about the novelist’s canonical status. How famous is Nella Larsen, exactly? Does her reputation influence culture beyond the academy?

These questions are particularly interesting because Larsen is a “rediscovered” author, newly valued for her works’ germinal social critique. Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) are both psychological studies of middle-class black women, “New Negroes” who live in an urban, modern, and mass-mediated United States. Although they refer frequently to anti-black racism, these novels are not protest fiction in the received sense of the term: they do not make moral appeals. Indeed, their characters routinely mock traditional African-American anti-racist advocacy: “Uplift, sniffed [Quicksand’s autobiographical protagonist] Helga contemptuously, and fled before the onslaught of [her friend’s] harangue on the needs and ills of the race.”

Nella Larsen, photographed by James Allen in 1928, age 37. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Instead, Larsen’s works immerse readers in the complexities of black and biracial women’s experiences of colorism, misogyny, homophobia, and sexual repression. They teach readers, in other words, that black racial identification is not simple, and black women are often left off liberationist agendas. These themes have been increasingly well-received by critics and teachers. Since the late 1980’s, black feminist, queer, and psychoanalytic literary scholars have represented, polished, and responded creatively to Larsen’s insights, while Larsen herself became the subject of no fewer than three biographies. Today, Quicksand and Passing are included in full in market-dominating Norton Anthology textbooks, and widely available in many cheap classroom editions. Some very recent scholarship explores her works’ theoretical relevance to mixed-race and disability studies.

Both Larsen’s own goals, and those of recovery scholars, seem to have been accomplished, in other words. Not only has the canon been demonstrably diversified, but new areas of critical inquiry have been permanently opened. The world has changed.

This seemingly-complete revolution brings me back to Nella the Princess Knight, though. Whatever the cartoon’s relationship to the novelist, its creators likewise wish to advance more complex images of racial difference, trouble the gender binary, and generally reflect the true diversity of human experience. It’s instructive, therefore, to note what is not present in the cartoon. Translated thus into childhood kitsch, the pedagogy of subtle difference that motivated scholars’ recovery of Larsen reveals its stark limitations. To assert that gender and racial categories are overlapping and mutable is not to question those categories.

For one thing, the “Princess Knight” is still a princess; she gains masculine, martial behaviors, but also retains pink femininity. For another, she has few connections to black culture; despite her darker skin color, the character speaks a deracinated television English, hangs out with a white male friend, and displays a very long, flowing hairstyle more typical of European than African descent. In her world, girls are always at least a little girly, and heroes always somewhat white. There are real limits to what this “Princess Knight” can overcome.

Are Larsen’s novels similarly limited? Do they tend to preserve gender and racial hierarchy even as they describe and explicate boundary-crossing? We routinely ask similar questions of more established canonical authors, such as Mark Twain and William Faulkner, so perhaps it’s time to examine Quicksand, Passing, and the stories in similar wise.

It’s also true, though, that Larsen’s black women boundary-crossers, unlike Huck Finn or Jake Barnes, are met not with love and recognition, but with killing violence. Most famously, Passing’s Clare Kendry, a glamorous and courageous light-skinned woman who passes for white, is literally pushed out the window by another black woman, to expire on the snow like a dropped cigarette.

Many scholars identify Passing’s final scene as conservative: a danger to the social order was eliminated. Yet we may also read Larsen as avoiding the “Princess Knight” syndrome here. Her novels’ negative, disturbing endings leave us, not with hero(in)es to emulate but with a hole, an empty place to spur thinking. They don’t tell us that we can be both black and white, both masculine and feminine; instead, they ask us to think about what is missing from our schemata of identity.

Featured image credit: Joan of Arc depicted in The Maid of Orléans by Jan Matejko (1838–1893). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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