It is amazing to see how two people with such similarities as those found in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Johnson and Quicksand by Nella Larsen can have such distinct personalities from each other. The child hood and even the events of later life correspond greatly in the Ex-colored man’s and Helga Crane’s life from their family and even who they associate with. Despite these similarities the Ex-colored man has a naivety that doesn’t dissipate and Helga Crane would hold an escapist need and dissatisfaction.
Both the Ex-colored man and Helga Crane both had white, absentee fathers. These fathers play a strong role in the lives of both these individuals. The Ex-colored man’s father supported his mother despite the fact they would not marry and he would later go to marry another. The love his mother felt for his white father also allowed her to deeply love her son. She shared her time with him and made the Ex-colored man her focus and would give him the skills that would lead him through life, his music. Her love, I believe, also kept her from marrying another. Crane would not have this caring home life. Her mother did not lavish her attention on her daughter. She would marry again for financial stability. Crane’s stepfather would resent her and would lead to Crane’s critical view of the world. She had no place at home and would struggle to find one elsewhere. The Ex-colored man would be more at ease in wherever he went. He would have the advantage of looking white and was in a position to change his status because of this.
The Ex-colored man has a different perspective, a white perspective, compared to Helga Crane. They both have the same parental background but the color of their skin changes their opportunities. The Ex-colored man can choose to ignore the race problem if he wanted to but Helga is submerged. This is most evident by the two rich individuals in the stories. The Ex-colored man, through the Rich man’s employment, is taken away from the very place where the Ex-colored man would need to question his place and the race question. In Europe his music was what mattered, not if he was a black or a white musician. The Rich man himself need not question his place in a world with white power do to him being a white power. Crane’s rich friend Anne would not allow for this avoidance. Anne herself is black and very much involved in what is called the race question. Talking about race is her main topic because of this she can never place race aside and gain true equality. She judges others of her race for who they associate with and in what manner. This leads to some of Crane’s dissatisfaction.
The dissatisfaction both these individuals felt would come from the inequality blacks have in society. The Ex-colored man, despite his ability to appear white to others, could not escape his unfulfillment. He knew who he was, a musician, and played black music. His conflict was to have the safety of having white skin or fulfill his needs to play and gain recognition for it. His children would be the deciding factor of choosing to live as a white man but this required the denial of his race. His ability to take an active part in gaining recognition for blacks that would allow him to find his place in the world was taken by putting his children first. It was a high price to pay. Helga Crane also felt dissatisfaction do to her place in the world but I feel this is less because of her color. I believe Crane had expectations well beyond equality. She expects a very particular person and full acceptance of her. This probably wouldn’t happen even with equality in place. She would not have acceptance from her family, either black or white, and she had very little tolerance for those in her life. Both these characters would suffer for their lack of place in the world.
The race question is not one easily answered as the Ex-colored man and Helga Crane would find. It wasn’t just about making your way, both managed to find work and friendly people to guide them, but it was about finding satisfaction. When a large part of the population is set against you and the other part unambitious it results in inner turmoil for both these characters. Even with a life time to search and the ability to travel and start anew these issues of who you are is not easily answered.