The mulatto, often characterized as a beautiful young woman, usually...
One cultural and literary marker that has disappeared since Quicksand is that of the tragic mulatto. Torn between two worlds, black and white, the tragic mulatto was a common literary figure in African-American literature from the 1890s to the 1920s.
The mulatto, often characterized as a beautiful young woman, usually attempted to "pass for white" and was discovered, frequently by her white lover, and experienced a shame so great that she would kill herself. She did not belong in the black community either. Her skin color made her an object of mistrust and envy. In Larsen's novels, including this one, the tragic mulatto does not commit suicide. Instead, she experiences social alienation, and never finds personal fulfillment due to her status as an outsider.
Helga Crane's story is based on Larsen's own life. Larsen, too, was born to a white mother and a black father. Her mother later remarried a Danish man. In the novel, Helga goes to Copenhagen to meet her new family. She becomes the object of their fascination -- not because she is a new relative, but because she is black. Thus, the second marker in the novel concerns that of the exoticization of black people.
In the 1920s, all things black were "in vogue." This was true from Harlem to Paris. Upper-class white New Yorkers who wanted to seem hip hung out in Harlem. This new fascination was connected to two things: the popularization of jazz and blues, and the presence of African motifs in Cubist paintings. Black identity was frequently exaggerated in the white imagination. These exaggerations were present in advertisements and in entertainment. Josephine Baker became a success in Paris, but largely because she catered to fetishist tastes, which wanted to see her in grass skirts or imitating an hysterical monkey.
A third cultural marker in the novel is the disconnection between well-educated, middle-class blacks in the North, and the poor, rural black migrants coming from the South. The 1920s were part of the period in which there was a massive migration of blacks, often former slaves, from the South to major cities in the North (e.g., New York) and the Midwest (e.g., Chicago, St. Louis).
Later in the novel, Helga marries a Southern Baptist minister who expects her to conform to his way of life. She is ill-equipped to do so. She is too urbane, too educated, and may feel a sense of superiority due to her lighter skin. She is miserable and, ultimately, descends into physical and mental illness.
Honestly, not all of the themes addressed in Quicksand are limited to the 1920s. Some remain true today. Black identity is still a site of both public fascination and loathing. Class distinctions within black communities remain true as well. The black poor and the black middle-class, generally, have little contact with each other. Lastly, though the "tragic mulatto" is an outdated trope, colorism still exists. Light-skinned black people are sometimes treated more favorably than darker ones. They may also be viewed as "exotics."
Because these issues remain relevant, Larsen's literature remains relevant.