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Helga Crane is a teacher at an all-Black school in the South. She is in her early twenties and of mixed racial descent. She is regarded as attractive, with dark eyes, broad brows and skin “like yellow satin.” She is a teacher at the Negro school in Naxos, but it is “a show place in the black belt,” often used to demonstrate how successful Black education could be. Helga sits awake in her room. She thinks of the patronizing white preacher who told the black students that they had good taste because they knew their place: as future laborers.
Helga thinks about how she does not fit in—not only at the school, but also in town. She gets more upset as she thinks about the school and eventually throws her books and papers across the room. Helga decides that she should leave the school, but that will also mean ending her engagement to James Vayle, a fellow teacher. She feels no regret over ending the engagement, although she does like Vayle (and liked that his family name was respected). She realizes that she will need money and that she will need the school to pay her out so she can return to Chicago. Other than her Uncle Peter, she and her remaining family have a mutual dislike. They will not help her. Helga reflects on how she never belonged in Naxos and goes to sleep relieved at the idea of leaving the town.
Helga wakes up feeling anxious, until she remembers that she had decided to leave Naxos. She thinks about how it would be best to wait until the school year is over, in June, but an inner force drives her to leave sooner. She has difficulty identifying her full desires. A loud bell rings, signaling breakfast. She chooses not to go. She hears Miss MacGooden yell at students in the hall. Margaret Creighton, a fellow teacher, comes to her room and tells her that she will be late for class. Helga tells her that she is leaving. Margaret warns Helga that leaving in mid-year will look bad on her teaching record and asks her to stay, but Helga is determined to leave.
Helga waits to see Dr. Anderson, the head of the school. She thinks about how she has been told not to wear bright colors, but she had purchased expensive clothes of royal blue, purple and deep red. When she speaks with Dr. Anderson, she tells him that she despises the school, with its hypocrisy and its cruelty to students and teachers. Helga describes Naxos as a “venomous disease.” Dr. Anderson tells her that there is injustice and hypocrisy in every community and that Naxos needs people like her. His words cause her to reconsider leaving. She is almost ready to tell him that she will stay, when he tries to compliment her by saying that she has “dignity and breeding.” Infuriated, she replies that she was born in a Chicago slum to a gambler and an immigrant who might not have been married. She tells him that she is leaving that afternoon.
These first chapters focus largely on the novel’s ongoing theme of race through Helga’s perception of Naxos, Black educational institutions, and Black society in southern America. As Helga reflects on the applause the white preacher received for his condescending, racist speech, Helga is furious at what she sees as the institution’s promotion of the sensibilities of white society as integral to the advancement of Black people. This fury reveals a frequent motif of her frustration at how systemic racism affects Black society. Helga also finds this hypocrisy embedded in the unironic instructions that students do not behave as if they come from the “backwoods” when that’s exactly where many of the students have their roots. The institution’s insistence that students eschew bright colors for drab ones is yet another example to Helga of the erasure of Black individuality and culture in favor of the values of white society. Helga’s relief at ending her engagement to James Vayle is another example of her criticism of Black society’s rigid social rules, which frowns on her lack of family connections just as white society would.
In these early chapters and throughout the book, minute descriptions of Helga’s appearance, thoughts, and feelings reveal the central conflict that her character experiences: a search for belonging. Larsen uses Helga’s thoughts and experiences as a vehicle to provide insight into the tumultuous inner world of a mixed-race woman struggling to find her place in a segregated society. Descriptions of Helga as distant and unreadable to her peers in Naxos are often juxtaposed with descriptions of her mixed-race features and colorful personal style, indicating that she feels like an outsider. Though Helga began her tenure at Naxos filled with hope at finding her place in the world, her inner monologue reveals a cycle of fulfillment and disillusionment that will follow her throughout the novel. Her abrupt and impulsive decision to leave Naxos for Chicago without even securing a reference further illustrates her desire to find a place where she belongs.