Crumbs from the Table of Joy

by

Lynn Nottage

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Crumbs from the Table of Joy: Act 1, Scene 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Ernestine explains to the audience that she, her sister, and her father now share two single beds pushed together so that Lily can have her own place to sleep. She, Ermina, and Lily are now sitting in the kitchen as Lily straightens Ermina’s hair. The girls ask Lily about her job, which she has apparently lost. She says that determined, confident Black women often aren’t able to keep their jobs, noting that this comes with the territory of being an “independent thinker.”
More than anything, Lily shows her nieces that American society is suspicious of anyone who pushes back against their own disenfranchisement. Lily is an “independent thinker,” but because she’s a Black woman living in a racist and sexist society, it’s not all that easy for her to find stability and success. And yet, she doesn’t suggest that this means Black women like her should simply back down and follow the status quo—to the contrary, she implies that the cost to pay for independence and personal freedom is ultimately worth it.
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Ermina tells Lily that Ernestine wants to be a movie star, so Lily teases her about trying to be like the famous white actresses of the day. The conversation then turns to Lily’s love life, as the girls ask why she never got married. She tells them that she hasn’t been asked. But she also doesn’t plan to get married, not wanting to settle with just one man when she could spend a lifetime enjoying the company of multiple men. She says that this is a good thing to keep in mind, though it’s probably best if the girls don’t mention such an idea to their father.
Although Lily’s views on marriage and romance might not seem all that cutting-edge to contemporary audiences, it’s worth remembering that the play takes place in the 1950s, when the common expectation was that women would get married early in life to a man who would provide for them. Lily, however, rejects the idea that this is something she has to embrace, ultimately suggesting that embracing her sexuality on her own terms has been very empowering—an idea that certainly goes against Father Divine’s restrictive beliefs surrounding love and marriage.
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Lily often talks about a “revolution,” causing Ernestine to wonder when, exactly, this cultural push for change will take place. Ernestine envisions the revolution as an actual battle. If so, she wonders if she’ll have to leave school to fight by Lily’s side. Curious about what will happen, Ernestine goes to the library and tries to find information about the revolution. She doesn’t find much. Still, she writes an essay for school entitled “The Colored Worker in the United States.” Her principal ends up summoning Godfrey and telling him not to talk to his Jewish coworkers, implying that he has been bringing home communist ideas—ideas that are, according to the principal, working their way into Ernestine’s worldview.
The reaction that Ernestine’s principal has to her essay is a good illustration of just how paranoid many Americans were about the supposed threat communism posed to quintessentially American ways of life. Of course, Ernestine is just interested in learning about how Black people are treated in the American workforce, but because her essay most likely explores the many injustices Black Americans face in everyday life (and especially in their work lives), her principal sees the ideas as a threat to the entire American system—a system that ultimately serves white people and disenfranchises Black people.
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In reality, all of Godfrey’s coworkers are Black, and none of the Jewish people on his block even talk to him. But he doesn’t explain any of this to Ernestine’s principal, simply remaining silent until he gets home, at which point he angrily tells Lily that she has put him in a very difficult position. Everyone thinks he’s a communist now. His coworkers won’t even talk to him anymore. But Lily refuses to apologize, insisting that she didn’t teach Ernestine anything about communism—it isn’t her fault, she says, that Ernestine is capable of observing the world, nor is it her fault that Ernestine has “a mind that ain’t limited to a few pages in the bible.”
Although it’s reasonable to conclude that Ernestine might not have written her essay if Lily hadn’t opened her eyes to the many injustices Black people face in American society, it’s also the case that Ernestine isn’t necessarily advocating for communism—she’s just thinking critically about the world around her. This, it seems, is what Lily wants her niece to do: question the injustices other people take for granted. Instead of limiting herself to a rather narrow religious worldview, Lily has simply encouraged Ernestine to broaden her horizons.
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Godfrey insists that Ernestine will have to go back to school and apologize for writing about communist ideas in her essay. Lily thinks this is absurd, claiming that Godfrey is punishing his daughter for thinking for herself. Ernestine, for her part, turns to the audience and recites her apology, saying that she didn’t mean to endorse communism—she simply wanted to write about the labor movement, which is a movement dedicated to making working conditions better for the average American.
Again, it’s quite clear that Ernestine’s intention wasn’t to sing the praises of communism. Instead, she has just started to ask questions about the world around her, which has led her to think critically about how Black people are treated in the American workforce. Unfortunately, though, her teachers don’t encourage this kind of open-minded, inquisitive thinking. Instead, they punish her for daring to ask questions that might challenge the unjust power structures at play in the United States.
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Ernestine notes that her father might have actually benefitted from reading her essay. If he had, he might have stood up for himself when he got passed over for a promotion at work. The only time he has ever stood up for himself, she says, was when he got drunk in the South and got into a fight. He later accused the white bartender of selling him alcohol and, in doing so, letting the devil work its way into him. Thankfully, Ernestine’s mother calmed him down, getting him to sleep until his drunken anger finally passed.
Ernestine’s narrative aside gives the audience a bit of insight into what Godfrey’s life was like before his wife died and before he devoted himself to religion. First of all, this story reveals that he didn’t used to be so opposed to alcohol. More importantly, though, it shows that he has rarely stood up for himself in his life—the only notable time, it seems, was when he got drunk and challenged the white bartender. He therefore doesn’t have much experience with advocating for himself, since the only time he did so was in an admittedly futile situation, since blaming somebody else for one’s own drunkenness isn’t very productive. In turn, his disdain for Lily’s tendency to take a stand against injustice makes sense, since he himself has never had success doing so.
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