Later, Ernestine cleans up the pieces of paper that have been scattered about the living room. As she does so, she reads the questions Godfrey wrote down for Father Divine, which largely implore Father Divine to give him guidance—he came to New York with his daughters but feels like life is largely the same as it was in the South, so he wants to know what to do. In another question, Godfrey asks Father Divine what he should do about the fact that his boss calls him the n-word in front of the other workers. He also mentions that Lily has been living with his family and he doesn’t know how much longer he’ll “be able to look away.”
Godfrey’s questions illustrate the uncertainty he feels as he moves through life. In short, he’s looking for constant guidance, trying to run from the difficult prospect of actually confronting life head-on and dealing with its many challenges. This scene thus confirms the idea that Godfrey uses religion as an escapist outlet—one that helps him turn away from real life while still feeling like he’s doing something to address his troubles.
Lily comes back with a bottle of whiskey and tells Ernestine that she’s leaving. She says she has been invited somewhere upstate, where she’ll give a lecture. “They’ve recognized that I’m an expert on the plight of the Negro woman,” she says. Ernestine says that Lily is lucky, but her aunt reminds her that she’ll be graduating in just a few days. She also tells Ernestine that she can’t sit around waiting for life to happen to her. Similarly, she shouldn’t spend her time picking up her father’s mess—Godfrey should do that himself.
Lily once more urges her niece to think and act for herself. Although she briefly turned against Ernestine in a moment of anger while arguing with Gerte, she now resumes her supportive role in her niece’s life. It’s unclear whether or not Lily was actually invited to give a lecture upstate. Given that she has been spending her time partying instead of visiting the Communist Party’s headquarters, it seems unlikely that she’s as involved in activism as she once was (or as she claims to be). Nonetheless, she instills in Ernestine a sense of independence and power.
Ernestine asks Lily to pour her a glass of whiskey, and though Lily notes that Godfrey wouldn’t approve, Ernestine says that her father isn’t there to stop her. As they drink, Ernestine talks about how nobody wants to be her friend. She’s lonely, so she asks if she can become a communist like Lily. Lily laughs and tells her niece that she had trouble when she first came to New York City from the South, too. She originally left the South after enraging everyone by interrupting a minister’s sermon about the evils of Jim Crow to suggest that everyone should take their concerns to the city hall instead of complaining about them in church.
The main message Lily imparts to Ernestine is the importance of standing up and advocating for oneself. This is the same message she tried to convey to her fellow community members when she interrupted the minister and urged them to bring their complaints directly to the city hall. This kind of self-empowerment and independence, she implies, isn’t something that necessarily comes with popularity—to the contrary, standing up for oneself often attracts criticism and scorn, but that doesn’t mean people like Ernestine should shy away from speaking their mind.
If Ernestine wants to further the revolution, Lily says, she should simply find herself a good profession. By doing this, she’ll make sure that she’s always “essential” and important, even if people speak badly about her or try to exclude her.
Lily suggests that finding a good job will help Ernestine position herself as an important and empowered member of society—somebody who can’t be ignored or pushed around. By saying this, Lily urges Ernestine to develop a sense of self-sufficiency that will ultimately make it harder for people (especially racists and sexists) to discount her value.
Gerte enters the living room, so Lily offers her a drink. For a moment, Ernestine imagines Gerte accepting the drink and then dancing exuberantly with Lily—but this is only what she wishes would happen. Instead, Gerte refuses the drink and then goes back to bed. Ernestine then goes to bed herself. Before Lily leaves, she rips some lace off her own clothes and starts sewing it to Ernestine’s graduation dress.
The fact that Ernestine wishes her aunt and her stepmother would drink and dance together suggests that she wishes the two conflicting areas of her life could fit seamlessly together. She wants to embrace the free-thinking independence that Lily has taught her, but she knows that doing so will mean going against her father’s wishes. She thus faces a choice between a sheltered, restricted lifestyle with her family and a more independent but fulfilling existence.