Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719
Stephen Jorgenson, the Danish doctoral student who comes to Harlem and shortly thereafter professes a love for the town and black culture, describes his initial impression of Harlem and its people. He tells Raymond and Samuel,
New York itself was alarming enough, but when I emerged from the sub-way at 135th Street, I was actually panic stricken. It was the most eerie experience I have ever had. I felt alien, creepy, conspicuous, ashamed. I wanted to camouflage my white skin, and assume some protective coloration. Although, in reality, I suppose no one paid the slightest attention to me, I felt that everyone was sizing me up, regarding me with hostile eyes. It was ghastly. The strange dark faces, the suspicious eyes, the undercurrent of racial antagonism which I felt sweeping around me, the squalid streets, barricaded by grim tenement houses, and then that depressing public dining room in which Samuel and I were the only white persons. I was ready to bolt.
This description is alarming in its details of Stephen's fear. He says that his first experience in the city was "eerie" and that he wished for some kind of protection from its inhabitants. He felt himself to be the victim of a terrible hostility, and he describes the people around him as "strange," "suspicious" antagonists of the "squalid streets" living amongst "grim tenement[s]" and "depressing" eateries. It all seems to foreshadow his future distaste for Harlem in general and black people in particular. Note that he sees himself as a victim and is aware of his own peril in a place where black people have been victimized and endangered for centuries. Stephen's view seems to implicate a significant segment of the white population who are ultimately intimidated and disgusted by black people and black culture. He does not see black people as individuals with feelings and wants. He sees the as a threat to himself.
When Stephen praises the progress that blacks have made, romanticizing it in a way, Raymond says to him,
Can't you understand, Steve . . . that the Negro had to make what progress he has made or else he wouldn't have survived? He's merely tried to keep the pace set by his environment. People rave about the progress of the Negro. It is nothing near as remarkable, that is generally, as the progress made by foreign immigrants who also come to this country to find freedom from a serfdom and illiteracy just as stringent as that of the pre- and post-Civil War Negro.
In other words, Ray asserts that the progress African Americans have made since the time of slavery is not very special because immigrants have to do the same thing. It is interesting, though, that he does not simply consider all of it remarkable, rather than unremarkable. He deflects praise away from his race, despite the fact that many immigrants possess privilege due to their white skin and that this fact would have made Ray's own "progress" a great deal easier to achieve. In the text, some of the young black artists seem to want to praise their race's accomplishments and history, while others want to avoid it or deflect attention away from their history. While Ray does criticize one friend for his refusal to sing Negro spirituals, Ray seems reluctant to give credit where credit is due. The subject of racial pride is a hotly contested one in the text.
Interracial relationships prove incredibly tricky to navigate in the novel. Ray's friend, Lucille, says to him at one point,
I wouldn't go to bed with a white man, because I'd never be sure that I wasn't doing it just because he was white.
Aline, a fair-skinned black woman, has an intimate relationship with Stephen that does not end well, and it causes problems between her and her good friend Janet, who has darker skin. In the end, Aline makes the decision to "pass" so that she can reap the benefits of a relationship with an affluent white man. Another friend, Bull, has serious problems with white men sleeping with black women because black men are lynched for just whistling at a white woman. It seems that the power imbalance between whites and blacks can never be put aside, not in the name of friendship or even in the name of love.