Black women as monuments in Nella Larsen's Quicksand

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University of Alabama Libraries

Given examples such as the Statue of Liberty and various Civil War monuments to the Confederate “Lost Cause,” it is clear that many monuments rooted in the American landscape take the form of the female body. I propose that this public prevalence translates into a rootedness in the American consciousness as well. With monuments, we honor the past and attempt to make permanent the ideologies that fit with and bolster our collective memory. This collective memory is, of course, a testament to the greater hegemonic forces that structure societies. Thus, marginalized bodies are often not inscribed within this narrative. Women’s bodies, however, are used to convey these hegemonic, masculine-centered ideologies in the form of monuments. Because this phenomenon is so present in the American (sub)conscious, I argue that such consciousness bleeds into the literary realm. This thesis attempts to make sense of the process of monumentalization and its deleterious effects on women, who, because they resemble such monuments, are subject to this process. As men construct physical monuments on the landscape in order to bolster their own masculine-centered power structures and ideologies, so do they attempt to construct femininity in such a way that achieves the same effect in every day life. I use Nella Larsen’s 1928 novel Quicksand as an example of how men and masculine-centered forces attempt and, ultimately fail, to monumentalize living women, specifically women of color, who face a unique set of constraints on their sexuality and identity within society. With Helga Crane as an example of a woman who undergoes attempted monumentalization in several different environments and by several different men or male-centered societal forces, I examine the deleterious effects that monumentalization has on the woman’s ability to self-fashion her own identity.

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American literature, African American studies, Women's studies