Crumbs from the Table of Joy

by

Lynn Nottage

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Crumbs from the Table of Joy: Act 2, Scene 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In the coming months, Ermina takes an interest in boys and starts imitating the slang she hears in the neighborhood. She also makes fun of Ernestine for being uptight, though even Ermina dislikes it when the other kids make fun of them for living with a white woman. And yet, Ermina can only defend Gerte so much, since she herself doesn’t like that her father married a white woman. If she had her way, she tells Ernestine, she would pay a local boy’s formerly incarcerated cousin to break Gerte’s kneecaps—something that recently happened to somebody else in the neighborhood. Ernestine can’t believe her ears, but Ermina simply pushes on and says that it’s simply not right for their family to live with a white woman.
One of the difficulties that people in interracial marriages faced in the 1950s was the fact that such relationships often attracted anger and scorn from both white and Black people. Ermina experiences the disapproval of her peers, who taunt her and Ernestine because their father married a white woman, thus betraying (in their peers’ eyes) the Black community. To add to this, it will later become clear that Godfrey’s marriage to Gerte doesn’t just invite disapproval from Ermina’s peers but is actually something that actively puts Godfrey in danger because of racist white people who don’t think Black men and white women should be together.
Themes
Racism and Opportunity Theme Icon
Back at the apartment, Gerte chops cabbage as Ernestine works on her graduation dress. Meanwhile, Ermina interrogates Gerte, asking her if she’s anti-Semitic like the Nazis. The question offends Gerte, who demands to know where Ermina got such an idea, but Ermina leaves the room. Gerte then tries to bond with Ernestine, who generally doesn’t speak to her. They end up realizing that they both like going to the movies, but Ernestine declines Gerte’s invitation to go together, since she wouldn’t want people to see them.
Neither Ermina nor Ernestine wants to form a relationship with Gerte. It’s difficult for them to welcome her into the family because they’re still grieving the loss of their mother. What’s more, though, Godfrey’s marriage to a white woman has put the girls in a difficult position within the Black community, since seemingly everyone around them disapproves of the marriage.
Themes
Racism and Opportunity Theme Icon
Grief, Loss, and Moving On Theme Icon
Gerte tries to fill the silence by turning on the radio, but Ernestine reminds her that Godfrey doesn’t like music in the apartment on Sundays, so she shuts it off. Just then, Lily stumbles in after a long night of drinking. Gerte gives her some water for her hangover, and then Lily turns the radio back on and dials it to a station playing jazz. She waxes poetic about how jazz musicians take old songs and make them new, prompting Gerte to admit that before she moved to the United States, she thought all Black people either “played jazz or were laborers.” One of the reasons she wanted to travel to the United States was to meet the people who make such wonderful music. 
Gerte reveals her lack of knowledge about Black Americans in this moment. She doesn’t seem to recognize that what she’s saying might be offensive, not hesitating at all to reveal that she has made very broad generalizations about Black people. Given that everyone in the household (except Godfrey) already resents her, it’s unlikely that saying this will help her cause, ultimately emphasizing her naïve perspective on race—a perspective that surely makes Ernestine, Ermina, and Lily that much less likely to connect with her.
Themes
Racism and Opportunity Theme Icon
After speaking admiringly about jazz, Gerte goes over to the radio and turns it off, noting that Godfrey doesn’t like it when they play such music in the apartment. Lily, for her part, remarks that Godfrey doesn’t like anything, especially things he “can’t control.” But Gerte likes Godfrey’s dependability—he always comes home at the same time with a pocketful of sweets from the bakery. Lily remains unimpressed and pours herself a glass of whiskey. She offers some to Gerte, but Gerte refuses because it’s still early.  
Earlier in this scene, Gerte turned on the radio to fill the awkward silence between her and Ernestine—but Ernestine told her to turn it off because Godfrey doesn’t approve. Now, though, Lily turns on the radio and Gerte is the one to reprimand her, reminding her that Godfrey doesn’t want such music playing in the apartment. In this way, Godfrey’s strict lifestyle imposes itself on everyone in the family, and different people essentially weaponize his rules against each other, ultimately using his faith as an argumentative tool.
Themes
Faith, Devotion, and Hope Theme Icon
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Crumbs from the Table of Joy PDF
Gerte asks Lily about how she spends her days. She hasn’t heard Lily talk about the “revolution” much. Ernestine chimes in to say that Lily has stopped talking about her work in Harlem with the Communist Party, but Lily claims that she simply says nothing because she doesn’t want to get in trouble with Godfrey for filling Ernestine’s head with new ideas. When Gerte mentions that she came across a job opening that Lily might be interested in, Lily says that “nobody wants to hire a smart colored woman.”
The implication in this exchange is that Lily has become less involved in the Communist Party, perhaps because she has been spending her time drinking and partying. By asking about how she spends her time, Gerte subtly suggests that Lily leads an idle and unsavory lifestyle. But Lily strikes back by suggesting that it's not as easy for her to get a job as it would be for Gerte—after all, racism is still very much alive in New York City, even if Gerte is blissfully unaware of its scope. What’s more, Lily clearly resents the idea that she should take any old job, since she’s very intelligent. And yet, this is exactly the problem: white employers, she implies, are hesitant to hire strong, independent Black women for fear that they might push for change.
Themes
Racism and Opportunity Theme Icon
Critical Thinking and Open-Mindedness Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Gerte, for her part, insists that she doesn’t see color when she looks at Lily, but both Lily and Ernestine challenge this—when they look at Gerte, they certainly see a white woman, and when they look in the mirror, they see Black women staring back at them. Gerte tries to say that she has seen how dangerous it can be for people to let their differences come between them, but Lily cuts her off, saying that the last thing she needs is to listen to Gerte talk about race. 
Gerte essentially tries to claim that she doesn’t see race, but this idea is inherently problematic. What both Lily and Ernestine understand very well is that, though people perhaps shouldn’t be defined by the generalizations or assumptions that society makes about race, the fact of the matter is that it’s impossible to simply ignore race altogether. Only white people—who have never experienced the harsh reality of racism firsthand—are afforded the privilege of pretending race doesn’t exist. For Lily and Ernestine, though, race is very real: the color of their skin directly impacts their everyday lives, since they live in a racist society.
Themes
Racism and Opportunity Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Gerte asks Ernestine to get her a bowl, but Lily tries to stop her niece, reminding her that she’s not Gerte’s servant. Plus, Gerte didn’t say “please.” Gerte then complains about how Lily always twists her intentions around, adding that she’s Ernestine and Ermina’s stepmother, meaning that she does have some authority in the household. This leads to a broader argument, in which Lily insults Gerte’s marriage to Godfrey by asking what it’s like to be with a man who refuses to touch her. Gerte loyally explains that Father Divine doesn’t approve of marital sex.
Lily doesn’t want Ernestine to feel obligated to do anything for Gerte. By telling her niece not to get the bowl, she not only tries to undermine Gerte’s position in the household—she also tries to instill in Ernestine a sense of independence, showing her that she doesn’t always have to do what other people expect of her. This lesson will prove important to Ernestine’s overall development as she gets older.
Themes
Critical Thinking and Open-Mindedness Theme Icon
When Ernestine comes back (after having gotten Gerte a bowl), Lily turns the radio back on and explains to her niece that the jazz coming out of the speakers belongs to them. The music descends from communal practices in African villages, she says, where each community had its own set of rhythms—but then the music cuts out and Ernestine turns to the audience, saying that she only wishes Lily had spoken this way. In reality, her aunt doesn’t say anything about the beautiful communal nature of music. Instead, Lily sits down, drinks whiskey, and insists that there are certain social circles who revere her for her ideas.
The play subtly implies that Lily is both an important figure in Ernestine’s life and a somewhat tragic figure in decline. Lily has made a point of teaching Ernestine the importance of thinking for herself, which is an invaluable lesson that will serve Ernestine for the rest of her life. However, Lily seems less and less engaged with the important lessons she imparts to her niece, instead spending most of her time drinking and telling (potentially exaggerated) stories about how important she is.
Themes
Racism and Opportunity Theme Icon
Critical Thinking and Open-Mindedness Theme Icon
Gerte has left the room, so Ernestine asks Lily if she thinks her mother would have liked the graduation dress she’s making. The dress is nearly perfect, though she had some trouble sewing the collar—but that’s all right, since she’s using some very fine lace around the collar, so it will cover up the imperfection. The lace is beautiful, but Lily is in a bad mood, so she disparages the material, especially after hearing that Gerte likes the lace Ernestine is using. Lace, Lily says, makes the dress look too “prissy” and “country.” 
Even though Lily wants to empower Ernestine and teach her to be independent and self-confident, she now turns on her. Because Gerte said she likes the lace on Ernestine’s dress, Ernestine finds herself in the crosshairs of Lily’s scorn. What Lily fails to recognize, though, is that the graduation dress itself is deeply meaningful for Ernestine, since it symbolizes not just her academic accomplishments (which align with Lily’s ideas about independence and free-thinking) but also the memory of her mother, since Ernestine’s mother had promised to make her a beautiful graduation gown.
Themes
Grief, Loss, and Moving On Theme Icon
Critical Thinking and Open-Mindedness Theme Icon
Addressing the audience, Ernestine says that she and Ermina went to the department store to admire the lace every day until Ermina finally worked up the courage to steal it. Their mother, Ermina had said, would have wanted Ernestine to have it. Now, though, Lily continues to insult the lace, insisting that it’ll make Ernestine look “girlish,” which is exactly how white people want her to look. She tells Ernestine not to care so much about her dress, and when Ernestine reminds her that she’ll be graduating in it, Lily undercuts the importance of getting a high school diploma. It’s not as if Ernestine will suddenly become an adult simply because she has graduated, Lily says. Deeply hurt, Ernestine rips the lace off the dress and says that she doesn’t like the way alcohol makes Lily talk.
It's clear that Lily is just taking her anger toward Gerte and Godfrey out on Ernestine. After all, Lily has previously suggested that it’s important for Black women to educate themselves so that they can more easily break down the many barriers society has put up to keep them out of certain fields. And yet, she now disparages the idea that graduating high school will make any difference in Ernestine’s life—a clear sign that she’s saying things she doesn’t really believe, ultimately letting her frustration with Gerte and Godfrey overshadow all else.
Themes
Racism and Opportunity Theme Icon
Grief, Loss, and Moving On Theme Icon
Critical Thinking and Open-Mindedness Theme Icon
Related Quotes