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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

11. Modernist Portraits

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Activities: Author Activities

Nella Larsen - Teaching Tips

Back Back to Nella Larsen Activities
  • Quicksand would work well in conjunction with a unit on the Harlem Renaissance as well as one on modernism. You might teach this novel and the concerns it raises about black identity and sexuality together with Langston Hughes's "I, Too," or "Mulatto," or works by Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, or James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Quicksand also shares many concerns with Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and if you are reading Uncle Tom's Cabin, you might also consider how mixed-race women's sexuality is constructed (for more on the figure of the "tragic mulatta," see Unit 7). If you read Quicksand in the context of other Harlem Renaissance writers, you may want to spend some time giving students a sense of Harlem society in the 1920s. You could begin with a discussion of the "Great Migration" of African Americans to the North and especially to northern cities as background for the coalescence of African American culture. The archive contains some photos you may want to assign or look at together in class; juxtaposing these with Larsen's descriptions of the activity and night life of Harlem could help locate Helga in a historical moment. For specific suggestions, see Unit 10.

  • Quicksand shares with other works in this unit a character's sense of alienation from America and search abroad for an environment more conducive to self-development. Like the selections by Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Quicksand concludes rather bleakly--Helga's attempted improvement of her life ends in ultimate failure, as does Dexter's, Charlie's, and Harry's. You might consider discussing with your class how Helga's difficulty adapting herself to American society differs from the problems the white authors explore.

  • You'll probably want to go over the varying positions different characters (Helga, Anne, Dr. Anderson, etc.) take on the "race problem," articulating the tenets of "uplift" and the concern that middle-class blacks were in danger of losing touch with their heritage. You may want to ask why certain characters find it intolerable to socialize with whites, even those sympathetic to the struggles facing African Americans. You might extend this discussion to consider contemporary viewpoints on African American identity and white America.

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