Nella Larsen

(April 13th, 1895 — March 30th, 1964)

Nella Larsen was an American author. Though she only published two books (Quicksand, and Passing), she is recognized as a very influential figure in literary modernism and the Harlem Renaissance.

Larsen was born as Nellie Walker in a poor district of Chicago. Her mother and father were both Danish immigrants. Thought her mother was white, her father (who is not identified with certainty) was likely of mixed race himself. Her father disappeared from her life at a young age, and her mother reported him as dead. Later, her mother remarried another fellow Danish immigrant. Nella took her stepfather’s last name — Larsen.

Larsen’s family encountered discrimination because of her appearance. She was the only member of the family of four who was of mixed race, and she was discriminated against when the family moved to mostly white neighbourhoods.

Being fully Danish in decent, Larsen had no connection to the typical Black American narrative of former slavery. She had difficulties relating to other students at the Black university she went to, and racial segregation tensions were mounting in the US. With fond memories of a childhood trip to Denmark, she travelled there on her own and lived their for three years.

When she returned to the US, Larsen enrolled in nursing school. She eventually graduated and earned a head nurse position that she eventually left to move to New York. She worked as a nurse during the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic.

Larsen married a prominent Black physicist and moved to Harlem, where she began writing. Her marriage ended in divorce after he had an affair, and she used her alimony settlement to continue her writing career. After he passed away, she returned to nursing.

During her time in Harlem, Larsen was the first Black American woman to earn a Guggenheim Fellowship. She was the first Black American woman to graduate from the NYPL school. She helped prepare the first “Negro Art” exhibit at the NYPL. She worked as a librarian and a writer and knew many of the figures of the Harlem Rennaisance.

After her divorce and her return to nursing, she suffered from depression and lived a quiet life isolated from former acquaintances. She died in her apartment on the Lower East Side of New York at the age of 72.

Nella Larsen is a book author.

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