African American Women History

            An analysis of the book “Quicksand” by Nella Larsen illustrates that clothing plays an essential role in the novel. The author demonstrates how women in society use clothing to cultivate and enhance their sexuality. In the book, Nella Larsen effectively uses the character Helga to illustrate black womanhood. Similarly, an analysis of the movies “Imitation of Life” and “Cabin in the Sky” also shows that clothing plays a great role in the cultivation and development of sexuality by women in society. In the movie “Imitation of Life,” the characters Bea and Delilah are used to portray how women nurture and build up sexuality in different times and environment. An evaluation of the two movies and the novel shows that they are saturated with clothing, which provides an effective basis to develop sexuality and illustrate the meaning of black womanhood. The movie and the novel prove that sexuality is cultivated and nurtured based on place and time.

Clothing makes up a major part of Nella Larsen’s novel the “Quicksand.” To illustrate the development of sexuality and the views society has on its black womanhood, the author uses the character Helga Crane. Helga in the book, “Quicksand” lives in an environment where black women are limited in their sexuality because of the negative white racist stereotype that exists on black women. Although she has always longed and loved for nice things, she is limited by the different negative views and perceptions in the society she lives in. At the start of the novel, the stereotypes in society on black womanhood and her family dynamics prevent Helga from cultivating her sexuality. In her life lived in racist America, she is forced to control her sexuality (Larsen & Davis, 2002). This shows that the extent and ways in which sexuality is determined by the beliefs and views of the given society.

In an attempt to escape the racial stereotypes in society and enhance her sexuality, Helga moves from her country of Birth to Denmark. In Denmark, she engages in the purchase and use of cosmetics to improve her looks. She is dresses up in elegant clothes that illustrate her exotic looks and beauty. This shows that the meaning of black womanhood varies from place. In America, Black womanhood is despised while in Denmark, black woman hood and sexuality is admired. In her new environment, she is able to escape the intertwinement of cultural and psychological demands that force her to limit her sexuality. The reason motivating Helga’s movement from one place to another is the desire to discover and explore her sexuality. Every change is illustrated by a modification in the nature and form of clothing. The change in clothes helps illustrate racial identity in society. Society identifies and defines Helga based on the kind of clothes she wears. The author states that clothing define the meaning society placed on black woman hood.

To discover her sexuality Helga engages in a number of things. The first thing she does is to locate an environment that encourages her endeavors to realize her sexuality and understands her as black woman. At the start of the book, she works as a teacher at Naxos, a privileged African-American school. After some time, she quits her job because of the suppressive structures and hierarchies in the school returning to her home city in Chicago. In Chicago, she goes through a phase of deprivation, which leads her to Harlem. From Harlem, she moves to Denmark. She therefore moves from racist America to non-racist Denmark. Emphasis in America is placed on “true womanhood” which requires that women should restrict their sexual desires and leading a passionless life (Larsen & Davis, 2002). However, the view that she is an exotic outsider leads her to go back to America. Still in the quest to develop her sexuality, she quickly marries gets five children in quick succession. However, instead of helping her develop and realize her sexuality, marriage takes away her meaning of womanhood leaving her wishing for her earlier premarital life.

The second thing Helga does to cultivate her sexuality is to purchase and dress in cosmetics and cloths that lay emphasis on her exotic beauty. The new dress code results to Helga becoming very popular in her new environment. It encourages her to engage into more cosmetics and clothing that promote her sexuality. This illustrates the fact that society determines whether one develops her sexuality and determines the ways used to cultivate sexuality. However, tragedy occurs when Helga attempts to cultivate her sexuality. The journey Helga undertakes helps show that clothes give a symbolic register on which racial identity is based. Helga is identified and defined by her looks. This shows that the attachment of meaning to black womanhood is influenced by fashion and clothes worn. The novel shows that image of black womanhood or the meaning attached on black womanhood depended on white patriarchal views and values. The book shows that negative labels on black womanhood were promoted by the Black themselves. They did this to show the negative aspects of slavery to promote the position of Black people in society. This led to the development of a bad image of black women. It was taken that black women were sexually free (Larsen & Davis, 2002).

The movie “Imitation of life” provides an effective basis to understand the cultivation of sexuality and the meaning society places on black womanhood. The movie helps examine the use of clothes to nurture and develop sexuality. The characters Bea and Delilah help in the evaluation process. The movie involves a white widow by the name Bea Pullman and her daughter named Jessie. The white widow takes up a black house help by the name Delilah Johnson and her light-skinned daughter called Poela. Despite the racial differences, the two families fit in together. The two are families are similar in many ways. This shows that Bea and her daughter are not engaged in racial stereotypes and biases as they take up a black woman. Bea opens up a pancake flour corporation by taking advantage of Delilah’s proficiency in making pancakes leading to the women gaining material wealth. However, despite the material possession, the two families lack to achieve happiness and sexuality.

Because of the racial stereotypes in society, Peola, Bea’s daughter is ashamed of her black American tradition. She therefore engages in things and clothing that will make her appear white. This is seen in the way she behaves, talks and wears. They do not represent her African culture at all. This saddens Delilah who is very proud of her black culture and tradition irrespective of the racial stereotypes in society (Hurst & Itzkovitz, 2004). Just like in the book, the movie shows that society defines the meaning of black woman hood. The society in this case placed a low meaning on black woman hood, which influenced Delilah’s daughter to denounce her black heritage.

Bea and her daughter engage in activities aiming to cultivate and develop their sexuality. This is observed when Jessie falls in love with her mother’s boyfriend. Both Bea and Jessie, her daughter view Steve as an instrument to help in the development of sexuality. The low and negatives placed on black womanhood lead to Peola running away from her home. Although society has many stereotypes on black women, it is impossible for a person to divorce the race to which one belongs. However, to enhance the respect society places on black womanhood, Delilah plans a grand funeral for herself from the earnings from the business. An analysis of the movie and the book illustrates that the society has placed a low and negative meaning on black woman hood. The two also showed that clothes are an important part in the development and cultivation of sexuality.


Works Cited

Gates, H. & Higginbotham, E. B. Harlem Renaissance lives from the African American national biography. New York, NY: Oxford University Press US, 2009

Graham, P. Imitation of life: gender, race, and sexuality in popular cinema. East Sussex: University of Sussex, 2000

Hurst, F. & Itzkovitz, D. Imitation of life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004

Jarrett-Macauley, D. Reconstructing womanhood, reconstructing feminism: writings on black women. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996

Larsen, N. & McDowell, D. E. Quicksand; and Passing. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986

Larsen, N. & Davis, T. M. Quicksand. Penguin Classics, 2002

Sirk, D. & Fischer, L. Imitation of life. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991

Wells, B. S. A politics of maternal sexuality: unmasking role duality in Kate Chopin’s The awakening and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991

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