Summary: Chapter Six
Helga goes to the library the next day and asks for work, but she is told that she does not have the required training. She then remembers that the YWCA has an employment agency. They tell Helga that she would not want the work that they offer, and also that she will need references. Helga tries several other agencies, with the same result. She tries attending church on Sunday, hoping that someone will ask if she is new in town. No one does. Her distrust of religion increases.
After weeks of trying to find employment, she receives a note that she should return to the YWCA employment office. The clerks there tell her that she has an appointment to meet a traveling lecturer who needs an assistant. Helga meets Mrs. Hayes-Rore the same day. The woman asks Helga a series of questions, including her “opinions on the race problem,” but is so talkative that Helga does not get to answer. Mrs. Hayes-Rore likes Helga and tells her that they are leaving the next day. The travel schedule will eventually take them to New York, where Helga believes that she could find work. When Helga returns to the YWCA employment office to thank them, she asks if they know anything about Mrs. Hayes-Rore, since Helga did not get to ask her any questions. The clerks invite her to have supper with them, where they will tell Helga about her new employer.
Summary: Chapter Seven
Helga is told that Mrs. Hayes-Rore’s husband, now dead, was involved in the crooked politics of Chicago’s South Side. His widow was left money and some prestige in “Negro circles.” Helga organizes and condenses Mrs. Hayes-Rore’s speeches on the train ride, noticing that most of the speeches are just borrowed passages from Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass. Mrs. Hayes-Rore asks how Helga is able to leave for New York on short notice, and Helga explains that she doesn’t have family or friends. Hearing Helga’s story, Mrs. Hayes-Rore does not pry further, because it dealt with interracial relationships and adultery. Mrs. Hayes-Rore tells Helga that she knows people in New York and will help Helga find work, possibly at a “new Negro insurance company.” She warns Helga not to mention that she is of mixed race, as “colored people won’t understand it.” Mrs. Hayes-Rore tells Helga that she will stay with her friend, Anne Grey, in Harlem. Helga is to be introduced as Mrs. Hayes-Rore’s friend whose mother has died.
Analysis: Chapters Six–Seven
Larsen explores how the themes of class, gender, and race intersect in this section through Helga’s struggle to find work in Chicago. Though the clothes she wears when visiting employment agencies reflect the plain style of Naxos that she so resented, they also represent her claim to middle-class status, as do her speech patterns and background as a teacher. Although Helga is willing to accept housecleaning or waitressing work, the employment agents perceive her appearance and education as disqualifying for such positions. Even in church, Helga’s middle-class appearance is a disadvantage as it gives off a false air of self-sufficiency and unapproachability even though she desperately needs new connections to survive. Ultimately, the only employment option available to Helga is as a speech writer and travel companion to Mrs. Hayes-Rore, the responsibilities of which allow Larsen to provide more criticism of contemporary discussions of race issues by referencing the pilfered ideas of prominent Black activists of the time. The paradox of Helga’s appearance and qualifications emphasizes the limited choices available to educated Black women in the 1920s.
These chapters center on the difficulties of having a mixed-race identity through Helga’s intermittent revelations about her family history. The third-person narration reveals that Helga is unaware of the impression of self-sufficiency that makes her so unapproachable at church and implies that this is a coping mechanism from having grown up as a mixed-race child in a white family that did not accept her. Ironically, this aspect of Helga’s personality prevents her from establishing the close emotional connections necessary to feel a sense of belonging anywhere. Helga’s initial hesitance to reveal her background to Mrs. Hayes-Rore on the train ride to Chicago reveals that she knows that information about her mixed-race identity is not usually received well. This proves to be true as Mrs. Hayes-Rore not only appears distinctly uncomfortable by the revelation but instructs Helga to hide her mixed-race background from the connections she will introduce her to in New York. Through Helga’s conflicting feelings about explaining her background to Mrs. Hayes-Rore and then denying her identity to secure new connections in the Black community, Larsen reveals the struggles faced by mixed-race individuals as they try to find a place in a world that does not accept them.