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We see Helga internally and externally battle stereotypes of primitivism and exoticism projected by white America and Europe upon those of African descent.
When we are first introduced to Helga in the predominantly black society of Naxos, she is being taught to avoid alluding to primitivism in her behaviour. Du Bois[ii] was accused by some African-Americans of striving to emulate.
She is simultaneously expected to adopt a culture alien to her, and conform to the bourgeoisie white-American behaviour W. The suffocating atmosphere Helga tries to escape from is illustrated through a merger of white bourgeoisie behaviour, and black culture and history.
Larsen alludes to Helga’s trajectory into this class through the brief perspective of Anne, who “… that though she herself was lovely – more beautiful than Helga – and interesting, with her, [Dr.
Anderson] had not to struggle against that nameless and to him shameful impulse, that sheer delight, which ran through his nerves at mere proximity to Helga.”[iv] The “impulse” is not applicable to Du Bois’ tenth, therefore highlighting it as an anomaly and a preventative trait in this text.
In conclusion, the text acts as a microcosm to condense both the inter and intra-racial frictions of stereotype and prejudice, during the Harlem Renaissance.
In addition to social issues African-Americans faced, it also addresses the economical traits of the era through aesthetic images connoting the inescapable materialism and consumerism that was rife in the 1920s.Materialism and vanity that erupted during this decade.Larsen reflects this through the text in the relentless use of imagery, idealising Helga’s ‘mulatto’ identity just as native[vi] European’s of the time would have. Nilssen’s point of view, [and] her mother’s, her stepfather’s and his children’s points of view…”[viii] engage the readers in understanding the rift deep within America between the black and white populations.Not only do we witness rejection and social status as inter-racial features, but also as intra-racial one.Larsen’s focus on isolation and transnationalism automatically alludes to the political activists of the time.As an outsider in Naxos, Harlem, Copenhagen and Alabama, Helga has no true sense of belonging. Anderson as a metaphor for Helga’s lack of stability, and no cemented place to call home.The consumerism within the text visually emphasises Helga’s isolation,as she is constantly admired in Europe, but is instructed to conform to the unit that Naxos operates as, suppressing her identity.The novella discusses the social and mental effects of racism and oppression through the eyes of a female African-American during the Harlem Renaissance in America and Europe.The protagonist’s struggle to find her ‘self’ and ‘place’ in society is extended across the four cities we see her travel between.His belief was to uplift the population through academic experience and shun the natural, or indeed primitive.However, the connotation of self-presentation not only connects an aesthetic superiority, but also the shallow and consumerist traits that the 1920’s instilled in the American population[v].