In this chapter, the narrator takes a “pause in [his] narrative” to give a more detailed picture of this “Club,” since it was “the most famous place of its kind in New York, and was well known to both the white and colored people of certain classes.”
This peculiar chapter opens with two levels of irony: first, the “Club” is famous only because it is a secret—because patrons can break the taboo of interracial mixing—and secondly, he feels he needs to pause and describe it even though it is already “well known.”
The Chinese restaurant in the basement made excellent chop-suey, which seemed to simply absorb alcohol and sober people up. The ground floor had two rooms. The parlor was carpeted, full of tables and chairs, and covered with “photographs or lithographs of every colored man in America who had ever ‘done anything,’” mostly autographed. The back room had the aforementioned piano and a large spot for “singers, dancers, and others who entertained the patrons.” There was a buffet in the closet, since the “Club” lacked a liquor license. On the second floor, the front room was for private parties and the back room served as a rehearsal space. Apartments filled the rest of the building.
The narrator’s exhaustive portrait of the “Club” shows how it is physically organized around entertainment, with food and drink relegated to the margins (the basement and the closet). Unlike many of the performers’ normal gigs and especially the narrator’s piano concerts, the shows at the “Club” are clearly more informal and experimental, and seem more authentic and exciting than the packaged performances artists deliver to more discerning guests. The photographs of successful black people both prove the importance of the “Club” and offer implicit inspiration to the narrator, for whom the space is clearly full of potential should he choose to take art back up.
There was no gambling; famous “colored bohemians and sports” frequented the “Club,” which had extraordinary performers whom other venues thought whites would never pay to see. Visiting professional performers sometimes gave impromptu shows in the back—like one minstrel whose interpretation of Shakespeare “strangely stirred” the audience, and who in his life clearly “did play a part in a tragedy.” Every celebrity drew an audience that competed to prove “their great intimacy with the noted one.” Over time, the narrator learned to pretend that he had heard of the visitors and soon began meeting them. And the patrons spent freely—one jockey made 12,000 dollars a year and bought everyone champagne, ending the night with at least twelve 5 dollar bottles on his own table (which the establishment never removed as a matter of course, in order to signal his status).
The “Club” is clearly a bustling center of black creative expression, but it also emphasizes the limits to early twentieth-century America’s willingness to take black art and accomplishment seriously: the minstrel is stuck playing meaningless parts for white audiences despite his talent, and many guests are only there because they cannot get in anywhere else. Although he values status highly, the narrator realizes that he can fake his way to it and that it is ultimately just a complicated game based on appearances—which is the same reason incredible acts get blocked from white clubs.
There were also usually a handful of white visitors. Most were “out sight-seeing, or slumming.” Some “delineated darky characters” and came for inspiration. There were also a handful of white women who regularly came to pass time with black men. The narrator fell for one of them, a French-speaking, piano-playing, elegantly-dressed woman of 35 who always came in a cab and met “a well set up, very black young fellow” (the rich widow’s companion) dressed in finely-tailored clothes and diamonds that she bought him. In fact, “he was not the only one of his kind,” and this woman—whom everyone called “the rich widow”—caused “another decided turn” in the narrator’s past.
The white visitors are all presented as insincere in one way or another, there to exploit black art rather than genuinely respecting it. The widow’s relationships with black men are more complicated: she clearly fetishizes them and only sees them in secret, but she also gives them access to things they could not otherwise afford—her age (35) and elegant clothes are the same as the narrator’s father’s on his last visit to Connecticut, which suggests a parallel in their patronizing interracial relationships.