One day, a woman dressed in stylish clothes arrives at the apartment. Ernestine and Ermina reluctantly let her in, though Ermina has no idea who she is. Ernestine explains to the audience that this is their aunt, Lily, who’s the first Black woman she and her sister have ever seen dressed like a white woman. Lily shocks the two sisters by sitting down and showing her legs as she talks about how her stockings kept her warm while she was waiting on the street for the girls to let her in.
As soon as she enters the play, Lily represents a way of life that contrasts starkly with Godfrey’s strict, cautious, and overprotective behavior. Whereas Godfrey avoids white people whenever possible for fear of falling prey to racist aggression, Lily outwardly challenges the status quo by dressing like white women—something Ernestine immediately notices.
Godfrey enters the room and is shocked to see Lily, but she takes his surprise in stride. Before long, Godfrey warms up to her and even speaks to her somewhat flirtatiously, admitting that she’s looking “smart” and that he’s pleased to see a familiar face after having been around so many strangers since moving to Brooklyn. But when Lily responds by flirtatiously suggesting that Godfrey’s tongue still has a “taste of honey,” he immediately avoids her eye contact.
Lily’s presence seems to unlock something in Godfrey, who is normally so reserved. It’s clear that they have some kind of history together, though the exact nature of their connection remains to be seen. As soon as Lily starts openly flirting with him, though, Godfrey immediately shuts down again, perhaps realizing that he has forgotten his newfound commitment to religion and—for that matter—celibacy.
To break the awkward silence that has filled the apartment, Godfrey tells Lily that they tried to find her when they moved to Brooklyn. They knew she lived in Harlem, but they had no way of tracking her down—Harlem isn’t like a small town, where everybody knows each other. To stop Lily from talking too much about the time they used to spend together, Godfrey offers her a seat. As she moves into the room a bit more, though, she sees her sister’s picture hanging on the wall and apologizes for not making it to the funeral.
Godfrey is anxious about reminiscing about the old days with Lily, suggesting that he doesn’t want his daughters to hear about their history together. His reticence in this regard also implies that he wants to leave his past life behind—he’s a devout religious man now, and it’s clear that his former lifestyle didn’t adhere to the rigid standards he now has for himself and for his daughters.
Godfrey notices that Ernestine is staring at Lily, so he tells her to stop. But Lily doesn’t mind. She asks if her niece likes the suit she’s wearing, saying that she got it on Fifth Avenue, where all the white women shop. She bought it to “spite” them, she says, since white women don’t like when Black women manage to outdress them or look prettier than them. As the conversation progresses, she says that she has become an etymologist. She had to study hard to do this, but she suggests that it was worth it to break into a field full of white men. When Ermina asks what an etymologist does, though, Lily simply says that she won’t bore them with the details.
It's evident that Lily is interested in breaking down boundaries. She’s not one to simply accept arbitrary rules about who can do what, which is why she makes a point of outdressing white women. It’s also why she works to become an etymologist. It’s difficult to interpret her eagerness to change the subject when Ermina asks what an etymologist is—as Lily develops as a character throughout the play, it comes to seem as if she might exaggerate some of her credentials, so it’s possible that she isn’t actually an etymologist. And yet, this reading runs the risk of undermining her abilities and ultimately subjecting her to the same restrictive, prejudiced mindset that she so admirably challenges. Either way, it’s obvious that Lily is a free-thinking, independent Black woman whose way of responding to injustice stands in stark contrast to Godfrey’s.
Lily makes a comment about how hungry she is, and though she half-heartedly tells Godfrey and Ernestine not to go to any trouble on her behalf, she quickly accepts an offer to stay for dinner. Before Ernestine goes to find some food, though, Lily asks her to come give her a kiss, and when she’s in arm’s reach, she pinches her behind and comments on how big she has gotten. “And look at those boobies!” she says, telling Ernestine to watch out because she might end up drawing the attention of adult men. Bewildered, Ernestine hastily retreats to the kitchen, covering her breasts with her arms.
Again, it’s overwhelmingly clear that Lily is not the type to adhere to Godfrey’s strict and overprotective values. Whereas Godfrey is serious and somewhat sexually repressed, Lily is full of life and willing to speak openly about romance and attraction. Her free-thinking attitude will later bring itself to bear on Ernestine’s worldview and ultimately challenge the restrictive worldview Godfrey has tried to force upon his daughters.
Lily asks Godfrey to take her bags in from the hall. He’s surprised she even brought bags in the first place, but it soon becomes clear that she intends to stay. Sitting down, she asks Godfrey for a drink, and he gravely informs her that they don’t keep alcohol in the house—prompting her to make a joke about him becoming religious. She soon realizes, however, that this is no joke: Godfrey has become very religious. She notes the picture of Father Divine on the wall and puts the pieces together, asking if Divine is still preaching and presenting himself as God to his followers. Godfrey defensively explains that Father Divine’s words reached him when he was in a pit of despair in Florida, and that this is what motivated him to move the family to Brooklyn.
Godfrey is protective of Father Divine and his teachings, since he essentially restructured his entire life around those teachings. For Godfrey to second-guess Father Divine, then, would be like second-guessing the ideas that now define his existence. In turn, Godfrey has no stomach for Lily’s sarcastic tone, since any challenge to the Peace Mission Movement is like a challenge to Godfrey’s entire way of being.
Lily tries to get Godfrey to rehash memories of old times they spent together in various bars, but he refuses to participate. Instead, he shifts the conversation, asking if she’s still involved in the Communist Party. She makes fun of him for talking about it like it’s a frightening organization. She simply wants true equality, she explains, pointing out that capitalism puts Black Americans in especially disenfranchised positions. Although everyone refers to the threat of communism as “Red Scare,” she says, they should really call it “black scare.”
Although it was vilified in the United States during the 1950s, the Communist Party fiercely advocated for justice and equality. As such, many progressive Americans were sympathetic to the communist cause. In fact, the Communist Party even helped provide some of the Scottsboro Boys (whom Godfrey mentions in the play’s prologue) with legal representation, so the audience might think that Godfrey, too, would have a soft spot for the Party. However, Godfrey is clearly like the many Americans who make a point of denouncing communism. To that end, many people who resisted social change in the 20th century often unfairly accused activists and progressives of engaging in nefarious communist activity, using this as a quick and easy way to besmirch a person’s name in society. This kind of hysteria came to be known as “Red Scare,” and since the Communist Party was outspokenly in favor of racial justice and equality, Lily suggests that “Red Scare” could easily be called “black scare,” implying that the country’s fear of communism is rooted in racism.
Godfrey doesn’t like Lily talking about communism in front of the girls, but Lily tells him to relax. She claims to have promised her own mother that she would come look after the girls in her sister’s absence. Godfrey loosens up a bit, but when Lily smiles at him, he quickly looks away and writes something down in his notebook. She asks what he’s writing, and he explains that he’s just jotting down questions he wants to ask Father Divine when he comes to New York for the Holy Communion.
Godfrey is so devoted to Father Divine that he wants the man’s opinion on seemingly every aspect of his life. He wants, in other words, to refract everything he encounters through the lens of the Peace Mission Movement, desperately looking for guidance. It thus becomes clear that Godfrey feels somewhat incapable of finding his own way forward in life—a good indication that the loss of his wife has completely upended his ability to move through the world on his own.
Godfrey begrudgingly goes into the hall to get Lily’s bags while Lily talks to Ernestine and Ermina. When he returns, he asks if she’s going to stay, and she says, “Only if you insist.” Ernestine then turns to the audience and talks about how a minister in Florida once gave a long sermon about the end of the world after one of his female congregants came back from New York smoking cigarettes and wearing makeup. Now, though, Ernestine feels as if she has encountered sin up close for the first time, and it doesn’t seem all that bad.
Ernestine suggests that Lily is a living, breathing embodiment of sin—or, at the very least, a representation of the supposedly sinful lifestyle that Ernestine has been taught to avoid. Now that Ernestine has a chance to interact with somebody who has embraced sin, though, she doesn’t see what the big deal is: Lily is just a human being, and there’s nothing particularly ominous or harmful about her. The fact that Ernestine feels this way hints at her later gravitation toward Lily’s independent, free-thinking ways.