Sterling Brown, a cultural critic and one of the last living poets of the Harlem Renaissance, delineated the negative and positive qualities of the mulatta, which it is Larsen’s goal to expose. Among these are a sense of alienation and isolation, the futility of searching for a concrete and stable identity, internalized ambivalence and hatred, and the constant pursuit of a continuously elusive and deceptive happiness. To the tragic mulatta’s credit, however, is the keen ability to see the world from dual perspectives—one, for example, that witnesses the racism of both whites and blacks. This dual vision is precisely what enables Helga to see through superficial interaction—be it at Naxos among snobbish blacks or in Denmark among self-important whites. Larsen also deploys this point of view to illustrate the paradox of Du Bois’ double consciousness when it simultaneously breeds self-contempt and disdain for the outside world of exploitative forces.
Larsen also suggests that miscegenation is a powerful and apt metaphor for confusion. Helga’s “two-ness” is compounded because she is the offspring of Danish and black parents, rejected by both communities into which she desperately tries to fit, to her own eventual detriment. Larsen adds another dimension in making the protagonist a woman: Patriarchy exacts its own brand of double consciousness, which more richly complicates Helga’s dilemma, for she is not accepted by women or men. Each wants her to repress or alter some integral aspect of her identity: Mrs. Hayes-Rore, her partially white background; Anne Grey, her nonjudgmental stance; James Vayle and Axel Olsen, her critical mind and astute scrutiny; her Aunt Katrina, her principles and autonomy; the Reverend Green, her self, her own desires and needs; Uncle Peter, her relation to and memory of him. Each wishes to construct a useful Helga, one who will solidify his or her own perception of the world and his or her inflated place in it. Thus it is that not only in Denmark—where she is exoticized in order to detonate her potency—but also in Naxos, Chicago, Harlem, and the South she is objectified and, thereby, disempowered.
Helga was fifteen when her mother died and her uncle placed her in a “school for Negroes,” where Helga discovered that she “was not necessarily loathsome” and that in fact she...
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