Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 949
A year has now passed since Helga arrived in New York and began living with Anne Grey. In that time, Helga secured work as a secretary with an insurance company and has come to her nights reading or attending the theater or parties. In Harlem, she feels that “magic sense of having come home.”
Helga and Anne build a particularly close friendship, and Helga, who greatly appreciates Anne’s aesthetic taste, remains a lodger in Anne’s home. Anne introduces Helga to progressive thinkers who, like Helga, think of Naxos with “contempt and scorn.” The more Helga experiences Anne’s world, the more “established, secure, and comfortable” she feels, and she begins to lose that “oppression of loneliness and isolation” that has plagued her for most of her life.
During this time, Helga is happy. She is fascinated by the “continuously gorgeous panorama of Harlem” and shows no interest in the “pale and powerful people” of white America: “of that white world… she asked only indifference.” Rejecting the whiteness she inherited from her mother, Helga locks away the “shame and grief” of her white ancestry. She hopes to marry a man of color who can provide her with a financially secure life, and she finally feels free from the “hostile white folk” of Chicago and the “snobbish black folk” of Naxos. This freedom allows her to imagine a happy future, one that is bigger and more open than she’s ever dreamed of before.
Helga’s happiness fades; she again feels that same restlessness she felt in Chicago. She begins to withdraw from her social circle, preferring “estrangement and isolation” to hearing her friends’ obsessive chatter about “the race problem.” Helga realizes that Anne “hates white people” while at the same time aping “their clothes [and] their manners.” Helga finds that her peers’ incessant harping on racial prejudice probes her own “hidden wounds” when all she wants is to be free of her constant preoccupation about her race and her related sense of unbelonging.
To her surprise, Helga encounters Dr. Anderson in the city when they both attend a meeting in a church. When they share a taxi together after the meeting, Helga becomes aware of “a strange ill-defined emotion, a vague yearning rising within her,” and experiences a flash of anger when Dr. Anderson tells her, “You haven’t changed. You’re still seeking for something.” When he comes to see her three days later, she avoids him, then regrets her decision. Her thoughts are haunted by his face and a desire to speak with him again.
The next day, Anne tells Helga that Dr. Anderson had been “too liberal, too lenient” for education at Naxos and thus has lost his work there. He now lives and works in New York helping with the “uplift” of the black race.
Helga’s mood continues to worsen: life “became for her a hateful place.” Unexpectedly, she receives a letter from Uncle Peter which contains a check for five thousand dollars and the suggestion that Helga visit her Aunt Katrina, who lives in Copenhagen. The money helps Helga realize that she has felt “shut up, boxed up, with hundreds of her race” even though “she didn’t, in spite of her racial markings, belong to these dark segregated people.” Her newfound financial security leads to her imagining “a happy future in Copenhagen, where there were no Negroes, no problems, no prejudice.”
Anne has been away for a seaside vacation, and this is the night she returns, with a dinner party planned in celebration. Helga decides to wear a dress that will be symbolic of the fact that she is “about to fly” to a new life. Helga readies the house for Anne’s return, feeling a bit guilty that she is about to abandon the only woman who welcomed her when she first arrived in New York. Her concerns ebb, however, as she envisions a life in Denmark where she feels “permanently satisfied… where she would be appreciated, and understood.”
After the dinner party celebrating Anne’s return, the group moves on to a bar where they can drink and dance. In listening to the jazz beat, Helga gets lost in the “extraordinary music,” and when the music ends, she feels “a shameful certainty that not only had she been in the jungle, but that she had enjoyed it.” This feeling disgusts her, and strengthens her resolve to leave New York.
While she sits and watches the dancing, Helga marvels at the many ways that blackness manifests across people: she sees a large spectrum of skin color, hair color, and eye color arrayed in a “fantastic motley of ugliness and beauty.”
Helga notices Dr. Anderson sitting at a table on the other side of the room; with him is a girl that Anne tells Helga is Audrey Denney. Anne is full of contempt and disgust for Audrey, calling her a “disgusting creature” because she “goes about with white people.” Even worse, in Anne’s opinion, is that Audrey hosts parties where white and black people intermingle, an act Anne condemns as “positively obscene.”
Helga notices the hypocrisies and judgements that fill Anne’s opinion of Audrey, and she sees that the others in the group agree with Anne. Rather than argue, Helga keeps her thoughts to herself, thoughts which admire the “beautiful, calm, cool girl who had the assurance, the courage, so placidly to ignore racial barriers and give her attention to people.”
When Helga watches Audrey and Dr. Anderson dance together, she feels an overwhelming confusion that compels her to leave. Outside, “feeling cold, unhappy, misunderstood, and forlorn,” she hails a taxi to end her night.