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Contemplations of a Wild Woman

At this stage in my life, reading Quicksand by Nella Larsen sounds eerily analogous to my own journal entries. From the description of Helga’s love for peace and freedom, to her frustration with the conformity and compliance of Naxos, the mythic journey of Helga is all too familiar. This novel is rich with examples of archetypal patterns that I want to analyze within the framework of my own research about the Wild woman and her mythic journey, inspired by Women Who Run with the Wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola-Estes.

I initially felt hesitant to read this novel. Truthfully, I feel emotionally challenged by most of the texts in this course. It feels like every single title is an invitation to confront my own heartache surrounding identity, race, and colorism. I am the daughter of a father and mother who both identify as African-American. My parents took pride in giving me a respectable name that honored our presumed ancestral land. My first name is an ancient relic of Ethiopian royalty, the queen mother, an intentional affirmation and blessing. Africa was romanticized in my home. But my last name reflects the complexities of my family’s history. My last name does not reflect my family’s love affair with Africa. My identity whispers softly and screams brutally that I am. I am my ancestors’ waking memory, and the blessing and burden of that realization weighs in the pit of my stomach and courses through my veins like fire.

My father raised me to believe that we were warriors. I grew up being called Shaka’s daughter. He taught me that education makes a man unfit to be enslaved. But history and these graduate courses are showing me an unkind alternative reality. The more that I learn, the more exhausted I feel. The more that I learn, the more I grieve. Although Spelman helped me to understand that I am a daughter of the Diaspora, my own ancestral journey continues to teach me how convoluted the idea of race is, thereby contesting this aspect of my identity. “I wonder where I’m gonna die (Hughes)” is not so much my concern, because I am currently pondering, like Helga, where I belong; to what, if anything, am I connected beyond traumatic memories and fighting to exist beyond the systemic institutions of oppression? I hate that I associate my “Blackness” with fighting for liberation. I have complex feelings about how being Black or indigenous, deeply affects my perception and experiences, particularly in America. Like Helga, I can “neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity.” This she saw clearly now, and with cold anger at all the past futile effort. What a waste (Larsen 6)!” The responsibility feels so overwhelming. Knowing what I know now, unpacking race as it relates to my own identity feels impossible. Working through this coursework, while sorting through the different aspects of my identity, and addressing inherently biased information that is presented as standard curriculum feels exactly how I imagine surviving quicksand to be. Nobody warned me how much I would grieve in pursuit of this higher education.

Larsen’s characterization of Helga is so subtly intimate and relatable that I am reminded of our similarities, particularly “after the hard classes, in which she gave willingly and unsparingly of herself with no apparent return…following the fret and strain of the long hours spent among fellow members of a carelessly unkind and gossiping faculty, following the strenuous rigidity of conduct required in this huge education community of which she was an insignificant part” (Larsen 2). After nearly every class, this is how I feel, frantically worked up by some off-kilter remark made by some underdeveloped scholar who carelessly regurgitates European and Anglicized rhetoric with little to no analysis beyond their favorite academic sources. More often than not, discussions in my classes have been centered in Whiteness/Christianity/Patriarchy, with a disheartening percentage of the students lacking the exposure or willingness to analyze inherently skewed information. “This great community, she thought, was no longer a school. It had grown into a machine. It was now a show place in the black belt, exemplification of the white man’s magnanimity, refutation of the black man’s inefficiency” (Larsen 4). This sentiment reminds me of my own thoughts about HBCUs in a “post-racial” era. It is bittersweet and frustrating to observe intellectually malnourished students who are spoon-fed piss poor curriculum for the sake of maintaining the status quo...

In my first semester here, I observed poor work accepted as satisfactory, and I immediately felt like this is not where I need to be. I felt torn between addressing this ethical dilemma, whilst acknowledging my own privileges that permitted me to get to this point. I was groomed by upper middle class, respectability politics playing educators who expected that my work reflected my capability. Simply put, Quicksand immediately makes me explore my feelings about this institution of higher learning. This space feels so poisonous, and I feel conflicted by participating in this system. I fear that, like Helga, I will have a moment, much like the one I had that led me here, where I can “no longer abide being connected with a place of shame, lies, hypocrisy, cruelty, servility, and snobbishness” (Larsen 13). I fear that Helga is another mirror of my own Wild Woman archetypal patterns, and I am afraid of what will happen when I allow myself to exist beyond performative femininity and racial identity.

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