A Woman’s Struggle For Liberation


The above picture is a caption of the Women’s Liberation Movement that took place during the Black Arts Movement.  The author of this photo is anonymous.

Throughout Afro-Modernism and the Black Arts Movement, the identity of black women has been discussed, defined and critiqued. In the novels “Quicksand” and “The Cotillion” both characters struggle in defining themselves due to racial and class pressure given from the society surrounding them.  However, these struggles were inevitable and necessary for the liberation of women.

In Nella Larson’s Quicksand, Helga a bi-racial women is having an internal struggle with her identity.  Helga expresses her need for liberation as woman due to the repressive feelings her society is giving her.  Helga’s identity however, is very complex because she is of two races.  The African American community is looking for Helga to define herself but she cannot be completely honest.  The White American community is also looking for Helga to define herself but she also struggles with this definition also.  Helga moves from place to place, trying to find a place to fit in but she is simply a complex mix of things and considers herself more as an outsider. She is not fully a white woman nor is she fully a black woman. Helga essentially is lost in the middle of two completely different world.

During the time of the Harlem Renaissance, society both African American and Caucasian held a interesting state.  There was a strong need amongst everyone to fit in and to be accepted.  Often this meant defining your lineage, dressing appropriately and using the correct vernacular.  People wanted to know where you came from, and who you knew, only to label you according to there standards.  If one aspect of your life was out of place, you were seen as a lower class African American or Caucasian individual and often were excluded from the perks of high class life.  Considering that across race, African Americans and Caucasians were never going to be acceptable of each other, they created different communities that looked very similar.  It is within these communities whether African American or Caucasian that people had to define themselves to their own race or face exclusion.

To further explain this idea, I’ve gathered a clip from a documentary that talks about the small communities that began to appear in the south where Helga starts her journey and slowly moves north similar to Helga’s own journey.


In this clip, the director talks about the sudden appearance of African American tight knit communities throughout the South and North. Within these communities, although it was meant to be a safe haven from the harsh outside world, it held its own struggles.  These communities expected African Americans to act, dress and speak similarly.  It is here that Helga, and many other African American women found their troubles.  Helga expresses her feelings by stating “Negro society, she had learned, was as complicated and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society.  If you couldn’t prove your ancestry or connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t ‘belong’” (Quicksand 10)  Helga’s place in society had left her with feeling repressed and unclear as to who she is as a woman and what society both African American and Caucasian wanted her to be.

Helga finds her identity in limbo because participants of each community she enters, expects her to define herself and put herself into box.  The question whether the real reason women who didn’t want to fit into the mold put before them, struggled because of themselves, or their own community.  African Americans set-up their own communities to escape the harsh white society to only turn around and turn their back on their own.  White Americans expected their own to live up to the standards put forth by them.  Both worlds are equally repressive and leave Helga undeniably lost in who she wants to be.  Her fighting spirit that demands her to be different and is constantly at odds with society, is being beaten down.  Internally, Helga would prefer not to be define and live life freely. In the end, Helga is forced to make a decision about the woman she is.

The Black Arts Movement, began with a shift in the ideology of the African American community.  Many people moved away from a society that expected you to dress in nude colors or use the vernacular that would be acceptable in mainstream white society. This new shift was more accepting to slang, loud clothing and large hair.  However, this society was still very repressive to African American women.  In “The Cotillion” written by John Oliver Killens,  Yoruba the female character caught in the middle of this shift from Afro-Modernism to The Black Arts Movement, struggles with who she is and what world she wants to live in. The Black Arts Movement, the time frame depicted by this book, creates a culture where embracing the black identity becomes a norm.  There are men and women all over using slang and making it “hip” to be black.

There was an emergence of popular music praising black people such as James Brown.  Different artist and poets were also writing about the “Black Experience” and how beautiful it was to be black.


The above video is just a glimpse into the powerful things that began to evolve in the Black Arts Movement.  There is a large appreciation for the black identity and the black experience.  Yoruba in the “The Cotillion” is experiencing this time period but is having trouble with adjusting and finding her place.  Yoruba to born to a father who is eager for Yoruba to embrace her black identity and a mother who is pushing for her partake in a Cotillion.  In many ways, Yoruba’s parents represent her conflict between Afro-Modernism and “The Black Arts Movement”.  The Cotillion, which her mother is pushing her to become involved in, is a ceremony for the upper-class African American women, who similar to the Afro-Modernism movement are expected to act in a very conformed way.  Her father however stands in place of the Black Arts Movement with his liberal thinking about the beauty of blackness and hip slang.

Throughout the novel, Yoruba finds herself attracted to the Black Arts Movements but held by the ideologies of Afro-Modernism.  The book further explains this conflict,

“In Yoruba’s now world, Black was the ‘in’ thing, and the ‘end’ thing.”  Alpha and Omega, or words in Swahili to that effect.  She had gone all the way with the black thing, except that she had not cut off the long black stuff that crowned her head with shining glory and spilled down to her shoulders in sweet black cascades, and unlike some (not all) of her Black (in quotes) brethren, she still showered every morning.  She worshipped cleanliness like a fetish.  Bourgeois? And she worked regularly for a living, which was known, by some, to be unhip. (The Cotillion 66).

All of these attributes that Yoruba originally had in order to be consider a respectable African American woman had to be changed.  She ultimately cut her hair and changed how she behaved in order to fit in.  She no longer wanted her “Black” identity questioned because her appearance or vernacular did not match those of The Black Arts Movement.  Yoruba seemed to be enjoying her life, until she experienced that within the Black Arts Movement, women were struggling for their place.  In order for Yoruba to fit in and assure her “Black Identity” she had to cut off her hair, change her clothing attire and her way of speech.  The change not only affected Yoruba but it also affected the people around her.  Due to Yoruba’s appearance, people around her began to see her differently.

Although the emergence of the Black Arts Movement had begun to change the perception of African Americans, many people were still living with the ideology of Afro-Modernism.  Yoruba’s appearance had led people including her mother to believe that she was of lower class and was not going to be able to go anywhere in life.  Whenever Yoruba was certain about her place in the Black Arts Movement, something from other people’s Afro-Modernism ideology would make her question her identity choices.

From the struggles of Afro-Modernism and The Black Arts Movement emerged a women’s liberation movement. Women began to stop racial and class differences from creating an identity struggle for them.  The message became less of defining who you are and more of liberation and unification. Women such as Sonya Sanchez and Angela Davis used the newly found expressive art whether it be poetry or speeches from the Black Arts Movement, to argue against narrow definitions of what its means to be a woman in the current society.  Even within progressive movements such as the Black Power movement, the men would not let the women participate in the movement.  They held an expectation for women similar to the expectations led on by race and social classes, which again forced  women to try and define themselves.

“Some of these Black Broads are some evil sisters.  Bitches sleep with their fists balled up.  You hip to that?  They don’t never want to give us revolutionary cats no leg, not even for the cause of the glorious Revolution… I mean, like they always psychologically emasculating our Black manhood and whatnot.  Yet and still they don’t want Miss, Bountiful to be giving you no pussy either.” (The Cotillion 176)

It was this type of thinking that forced women into another box that labeled them and required them to behave a certain way. The idea of liberation and unification had come to the forefront for many women.


Sonia Sanchez emerged from The Black Arts Movement as a leader trying to bring forth women’s liberation.  Her creativity and deep passion for women, led her to be a phenomenal poet for women’s rights.  She developed the message that embracing yourself was not only a necessary part of being a women but it was an individual task.  Social classes or racial boundaries were going to be unable to define who you were as a woman.  It was this type of thinking that led to other movements for women including movement’s for equal rights and movements for liberation.  Today the message that women like Sonia Sanchez preached about liberation during The Black Arts Movement still rings true. When women are faced with troubles of finding who they are and there place in society, these messages are a guiding force.

In the end, both examples of the women in Afro-Modernism and The Black Arts Movement, identity struggle was a large conflict. The causes of these struggles also happened to stem from their own race or social class.  Helga from “Quicksand” ended her journey back in the south, and married with a large number of children.  She was the wife of the pastor and despite her efforts to find liberation, she fell in society’s trap for her.  She ended the novel as a wife and a mother.  Helga, ends the Post-Modernism period with little hope for the identity crisis women were facing.  Yoruba from “The Cotillion” also struggled until the end of the book.  Eventually she decides to partake in the Cotillion she resented so much.  However, she brings her past to the present.  She comes to the Cotillion with her short cut hair and her boyfriend wearing a garb.  Although the high class people of the Cotillion look upon her with disgrace, Yoruba feels proud that she has made a statement.  She finds herself, discovering and appreciating her identity while also leaving hope for other women.

Afro-Modernism and The Black Arts Movement both set-up the stage for women’s liberation and ending the need to define yourself based on your position in life.  Although Helga ended the novel, falling into the trap that she initially ran from, Yoruba from the Black Arts Movement takes the first step to break the cycle.  These two women created an interesting dynamic that mimicked the two periods of Afro-Modernism and The Black Arts Movement.  Although their struggles were unique, they were representative of the era and imperative to development of liberation for women.

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Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. New York: Negro Universities, 1969. Print.

Killens, John Oliver. The Cotillion; Or, One Good Bull Is Half the Herd. New York: Trident, 1971. Print.

“Sonia Sanchez.” Sonia Sanchez. Attie&Goldwater Publishers, 2013. Web. 14 May 2013.