Chapter 2: 1920 Summary
Last Updated on March 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 397
Helene Sabat was born in the New Orleans Sundown House, a popular brothel where her mother, a prostitute, often worked. While her mother struggled to make ends meet, her grandmother, Cecile, raised Helene, who eventually married a man named Wiley Wright and relocated to Medallion, Ohio. Her husband was a seaman, meaning that his work as a ship’s cook kept him out of the house thirteen out of sixteen days. After nine years of marriage, they had a daughter whom they named Nel.
In November 1920, Helene received a letter from Henri Martin informing her that Cecile was unwell. A poised and caring woman, Helene elected to return to New Orleans. She donned a new dress, gathered her daughter, and took a train home. However, during their train ride, they accidentally boarded the wrong car. The conductor spoke to them in a condescending manner, and Helene reflexively smiled at the man in an attempt to ease the situation.
Helene’s smile elicited the anger of all the black men in the car, who saw her kindness in the face of the conductor’s condescension as weakness. In response, Helene’s expression changed, becoming submissive and cautious. Nel watched her mother limit herself in response to these men, and she vowed never to cower in the face of such circumstances.
The journey south took two days. As they traveled, Helene and Nel left behind the regions where the restrooms were labeled "White" and "Colored" and entered a place where the restroom was simply an open field of grass.
Upon arriving in New Orleans, Helene and Nel were met with the devastating news that Cecile had passed away shortly before their train arrived. While visiting her mother’s hometown, Nel met Rochelle, her maternal grandmother. The trip—her first and last excursion outside of Medallion, led Nel to a significant realization about herself: she knows who she is and knows that she is unlike anyone else.
Back home in Medallion, Nel formed a close friendship with Sula Peace, a local girl with whom she enjoys spending time. While Nel's mother was controlling and kept her home extremely tidy, Sula's home was more relaxed and welcoming. Visitors were common in Sula's home, and dirty dishes often remained in the sink. When Nel visited, Sula's one-legged grandmother, Eva, would read dreams to the girls and give them peanuts from her pockets.