Summary: Part Two: Chapter One

New York, October 1927

Reading the new letter from Clare, the one with the New York postmark, Irene is surprised at how angry it makes her. She wonders why she did not respond to Bellew’s insults and lies, two years ago in Chicago. Yet she knows the answer: she felt a duty not to run any risk of exposing Clare’s secret. She was bound to Clare by ties of race, even though Clare sought to end those ties. However, she owes Clare nothing more now. “Not another damned thing!” she says aloud. Coming into the room, Brian asks about her outburst. Irene shows him the letter. His reaction is calmer and more philosophical than hers. He wants her to have nothing more to do with Clare, but he sees humor in white ignorance such as Bellew’s. As for Clare’s behavior, he believes that Black people who have blended into white society are drawn back to the race they have left behind. Irene is still angry, but she recognizes that “passing” is a strange thing. “It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.”

Irene asks Brian to drop her off in town, so she can make arrangements for a benefit dance. The money raised will go toward helping poor Black people. Brian agrees, but suddenly his own frustration spills out: he is tired of dealing with sick people and their families, and their disgusting living quarters. He ends the conversation abruptly. Irene senses that even after all these years, he blames her for insisting that he settle down to practice medicine in New York and give up his notion of leaving the United States for Brazil. Irene believes she acted for the best, for him and for their family. In the car, she intends to distract Brian by suggesting that he take their older son to Europe for a year of school there. The conversation gets sidetracked, however, onto to the question of when boys should learn about sex, and how much. Irene will have to wait for another occasion to direct her husband’s thoughts in the direction they should go.

Analysis: Part Two: Chapter One

In Part Two, Chapter One, when Brian appears for the first time, Larsen uses her first description of him to further develop her theme of the special beauty of Blackness. Beauty in general is an important theme in the book, and Brian is very handsome. However, the author states that what makes him more than ordinarily attractive is his skin. In an earlier scene, when Clare and Gertrude casually agree that dark skin is undesirable, Irene feels angry and resentful of them as she tells them Brian cannot pass. She has contempt for their preference for light skin. Larsen underscores this contempt by linking beauty in her characters to their Blackness. Even Clare, taken at first sight by many characters to be a beautiful white woman, is beautiful because of her Black ancestry and not in spite of it. Clare’s “ivory” skin has an unusual radiance, referring to its undertones of brown. Her very dark eyes, which other characters find fascinating, are attributed to her Black ancestry as well. In the case of Brian, his extraordinary beauty stems from the copper color of his skin. In this and other examples, Larsen links her characters’ beauty to their Blackness and not to their white blood. 

In this chapter, Larsen explores the theme of duty to the race through the characters of Irene, Clare, and Brian. Irene finds herself still angry over the double-bind she found herself in when visiting Clare in Chicago. When Bellew professed his hatred of Black people, she found that she could not challenge Bellew and defend her people without putting Clare in danger of discovery. Knowing Clare to be Black, Irene was by her own morality bound to protect her even at the cost of ignoring Bellew’s slur on her and all Black people. As evidenced further by her charitable work in this part of the book, Irene feels bound at all times by a duty to Black people. Clare, however, feels no such duty. Irene finds this a selfish approach, and she disapproves of Clare’s choice to pass as white rather than belong to the Black community. This is another example of Clare acting as Irene’s foil. However, even Brian, who spends his medical career caring for Black people, complains that the work is difficult and the people unpleasant. He seems to hold none of the pride Irene finds in working for racial uplift and wishes to leave for Brazil. In this way, Larsen suggests that Irene’s sense of duty is her own and is not just an inherent aspect of her Blackness.