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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,077

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This is the grave of Nella Larsen.

Nellie Walker was born in 1891 in Chicago. She was born into a mixed-race family. Her mother was a Danish immigrant and her father a mixed-race Afro-Caribbean man from the Danish West Indies. So she was maybe 1/4 Black but in the United States that meant this was an unquestionably Black woman. I’ll use this moment to mention one way I like to teach my students about race, which is to ask them while we always talk about Barack Obama as the first Black president when he is also just as much a white president. They never have a good response to this. Welcome to race in America. In any case, the father disappeared when she was very young and she had no interaction with him, thus being raised as a mixed-race child by a very white mother, which must have been very tough. Her mother married another Dane named Peter Larsen and they raised Nella. In fact, they spent the late 1890s in Denmark.

Larsen’s parents believed strongly in education, but for Nella, opportunities were limited. However, they sent her to Fisk University in Nashville, one of the iconic HBCUs. This was the first time she had really lived with Black people before and it was a very strange experience for her since she shared the racial makeup of the students, but not the cultural experiences. For reasons we don’t quite know, she was expelled from Fisk after a year and then went back to Denmark for the next few years.

Back in the U.S., by 1914, Larsen enrolled at a nursing school in New York. This was a Black hospital and nursing home where all the doctors were white and all the nurses were Black. She graduated and then took a job at Tuskegee Institute at Alabama, which only exacerbated her weird understanding of race in America, never believing she belonged anywhere. She also became quite disillusioned with the kind of education and second-class racial status acceptance Booker T. Washington developed there. So she moved back to New York.

In 1919, choosing to identify as Black, Larsen married Elmer Innes. He was one of the Black elite of New York, just the second Black American to earn a PhD in physics. They moved to Harlem just as the Harlem Renaissance got underway. Larsen embraced this fully and became one of the cultural icons of that fertile period of American creation. She began writing and publishing short stories in 1920. But she maintained a very ambivalent position vis-a-vis the Black elite. Again, Larsen never felt she fit anywhere. She wasn’t comfortable with the class snobbery of the Black elite that she knew–and that very much included people such as W.E.B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson. She wasn’t highly educated and knew poverty more than they did. She never felt they accepted her and she might not have really wanted to be accepted by them either. She also did not have a college diploma and felt they looked down on her a bit for that. She also faced a very unhappy marriage. Innes cheated on her pretty frequently and she discovered an affair he had while he was down at Fisk working for awhile.

So Larsen threw her sorrows into her writing. She also charted her own path in the Harlem Renaissance. She was active with the New York Public Library, helped organize their “Negro Art” exhibit and graduated from the NYPL’s Library School that Columbia helped run which also integrated the library staff. She worked as a librarian on the Lower East Side in a mostly Jewish neighborhood; it’s entirely possible that the patrons thought she was one of them or at least Italian.

Larsen’s health wasn’t great. She suffered from pretty significant depression, among other things. So in 1925, she took some time off from the library to protect her health and started getting serious about her writing. She then quit the job entirely the next year. In 1928, she published her first novel. Quicksand discussed a mixed-race woman who had trouble finding her way in the complex racial world of the United States. This highly autobiographical novel follows the woman through her family in Denmark, to the South, to New York, all seeking a way to understand race and a need to flee when she felt hemmed in by it. The novel was liked by critics, though it didn’t sell much. But it was certainly a successful debut novel and so Larsen decided to write another. This became Passing, from 1929, which is one of the classics of American literature, another key exploration of the complexities of race in America. The story, as many of you know, is about two light-skinned Black friends who meet again after many years. One is passing as white and is with a white man who is also a total racist. But she gets back in touch with her Black past, eventually leading to tragic results. I’m sure a lot of readers saw the film last year, which was pretty solid and kept the ambivalent ending, which is good given how often films will change ambiguity to provide a nice closing for viewers.

In 1930, Larsen published a short story called “Sanctuary.” She was accused of plagiarizing a British novelist and it started the end of her writing career. Scholars generally think that she did not plagiarize the story, but the accusation hit her like a truck. She recovered from this in terms of her reputation and shortly after received a Guggenheim Fellowship. But she never really published again. She spent her Guggenheim living in Europe, mostly in Mallorca and Paris. She started work on a novel that described a love triangle and interestingly used all-white characters. But she never published it. In fact, she just kind of disappeared from the literary scene.

In 1937, Larsen and her cheating husband finally divorced. She came back to the U.S. She got plenty of money in the divorce. But then her ex-husband died in 1941 and the alimony was turned off. She was pretty depressed during these years and now needed money. I don’t know what was going on inside of her mind, but she decided to simply leave the entire artistic community behind. She moved to the Lower East Side, wouldn’t even go to Harlem, and became a nurse. Her old friends figured that she was somewhere passing as white, which was easy enough for her to do. But they really didn’t know what she was doing or even if she was still in New York. She never published again. She died, almost completely forgotten, in her New York apartment in 1964, at the age of 72.

Nella Larsen is buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other Black writers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Zora Neale Hurston is in Fort Pierce, Florida and Alex Haley is in Henning, Tennessee. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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