The narrator feels excited to give his first speech on the Woman Question. The narrator knows the topic will generate interest, and also feels that the women will be interested in him for his blackness alone. The lecture goes well, and the audience asks many questions after.
Downtown, the narrator feels a new kind of invisibility. Despite the high level of education of his audience, he knows that he is interesting as a sexualized object instead of as an informed speaker on feminism.
After the lecture, the narrator is caught off guard when a woman (later called the hostess) approaches him. In a flirting manner, the woman tells him that she would like to discuss the Brotherhood’s ideology further with him. The narrator catches the woman’s cue of innuendo and agrees to stop by her apartment later for coffee.
Despite his time living in New York, the narrator is still unsure how to interact with white women—a sense of taboo still haunts him. He is surprised by the hostess’ advances, but his curiosity and desire overcome his natural fear of the complications.
The narrator arrives at the hostess’ apartment and is impressed by its luxury. The hostess, who is wearing a voluptuous red evening gown, tells the narrator that she is interested in the Brotherhood’s “spiritual values” and the narrator remembers Brother Jack’s words about wealthy people who donate to the Brotherhood to assuage their guilt.
The hostess’ flimsy pretext for initiating a sexual relationship with the narrator is an interesting variation on the way in which the Brotherhood’s ideals can be used to achieve personal ends.
As the narrator admires the wealth in the apartment, the hostess informs him that her husband is out of town on business. They agree to “discuss ideology” on the sofa, and the hostess’ offer of coffee quickly turns into an offer of wine. The hostess remarks that she is a little afraid of the narrator, and that there is something “primitive” in his voice.
By deciding to make their meeting about Brotherhood ideology, the hostess and narrator mask their personal interests. When the hostess describes the narrator as primitive, it displays that part of her interest in the narrator has to do with his blackness.
The narrator and the hostess speak briefly about the “Woman Question,” and the hostess tells the narrator that women should be “absolutely as free as men.” After a few words, the narrator discovers that the hostess is only inches away from him. They embrace, and the hostess leads the narrator into her bedroom.
For the narrator, his natural fear of initiating a contact with a white woman remains intact. At the same time, the hostess realizes the power that she has over the narrator, using it to satisfy her curiosity.
As the narrator is drawn toward the bed, he hears a loud ringing sound. The narrator assumes that someone is at the door, and begins to become afraid. However, the hostess tells him that’s it’s only the telephone. The narrator asks if the call might be her husband, but the hostess replies that the narrator doesn’t have any reason to worry. She indicates that her husband isn’t interested in the noble pursuits of the Brotherhood.
Besides the ingrained taboo the narrator feels, he is also aware that he is committing adultery. Despite the fact that he lives in the north, sex between white and black partners is still considered socially controversial. The narrator’s unconscious transforms the telephone into the doorbell, making a faraway threat seem nearby.
To reassure the narrator, the hostess answers the phone; the call turns out to be the hostess’ sister. The narrator stands by the bed, feeling both desire and guilt. When she returns, he gives in to his desire and the couple goes to bed.
The narrator also realizes that his involvement with the hostess could be a kind of political trap. Nevertheless, he is overcome by his desire and his own curiosity about white women. (Also, remember how Ras told the narrator and Tod Clifton that they had probably only joined the Brotherhood because of their attraction to white women.)
Later, the narrator is unsure if he’s awake or dreaming because his senses are in such confusion. He hears a noise and looks up to see a man in the doorway. The man converses with the hostess as though they are husband and wife, but the husband seems unconcerned that the narrator is in bed with his wife. The man tells the hostess to wake him early in the morning, as he has work to do.
After sleeping with the hostess, the narrator is filled with a dreamlike sense of unreality. His encounter with the hostess is something he would never have thought possible in his past life. To make matters even stranger, it seems that the hostess’ husband is aware of and uncaring about the arrangement.
The narrator is confused by the situation. He wants to linger in bed with the hostess but also realizes that he should leave as soon as possible. He dresses and leaves the apartment. He expects to run into someone on the way out, but his path is completely clear. He is unsure if the presumed husband was a dream or the product of relaxed morals created by wealth. He feels anger toward women for interfering in his plans.
Even if the hostess and her husband simply live an unconventional lifestyle, the hostess’ husband is now another potential witness that could be involved in exploiting the narrator’s sexual dalliances. It is clear that in sexual power games, the narrator is in over his head.
The next day, the narrator is sure his indiscretion will be discovered, but no one says anything. The unknown man from the previous day reminds him of an important member of the Brotherhood, but he cannot figure out whom. He wonders if the whole event was some kind of trap. The hostess calls and asks if he will return for “further discussion,” and the narrator agrees that he will. The narrator feels that he has failed an important test, but his position in the Brotherhood remains stable.
The narrator is tormented not so much by guilt over committing adultery as by the fear that his affair might be exposed, resulting in a loss of his position. Presumably the Brotherhood’s lecturer on the Woman Question is not supposed to sleep with his students. However, the lesson the narrator receives is one of banality: no one is really interested in the sordid details of his private life.
The narrator continues his lectures on the subject of women, but learns to play his role and to separate the “biological and the ideological.” He feels that the audiences of mostly women seem to expect something from him, but he is not sure what it is. He knows that it doesn’t have to do with what he’s saying in his lectures. The narrator tries to forget about the audience’s strange sense of anticipation and “unburdening.”
The narrator realizes that sexuality is a powerful tool, one that is capable of ensnaring people despite their best intentions. It is safer for him to abstain from such adventures. All the same, he notices the strange way in which the women he lectures continue to see him as an object of desire.
One night, the narrator is summoned to an emergency meeting at headquarters. The narrator assumes that the meeting’s subject is either Wrestrum’s charges or his tryst with the hostess. Anxious to discover his fate, the narrator arrives at the meeting late.
The narrator has become so caught up in the turmoil of his private life that he assumes that the Brotherhood’s meeting must be about him. However, this is not the case.
In the meeting, the narrator is told that he is done lecturing on the “Woman Question.” However, what follows is unexpected: Tod Clifton has disappeared. Brother Jack asks if the narrator knows anything about his disappearance. The narrator answers that he does not. He is told that Clifton has “failed in his assignment,” and that Ras the Exhorter is gaining influence in Harlem. The narrator is instructed to return to the district to regain the strength that the Brotherhood has lost. The narrator curses himself for offending the committee. His separation from Harlem seems to have erased all of the previous gains.
The disappearance of Tod Clifton marks a turning point in the narrator’s relationship with the Brotherhood. It is clear that much has happened in Harlem without the narrator’s awareness. Clifton was the narrator’s strongest ally in the Brotherhood, as well as the man most capable of fighting against Ras’ black nationalism. Without Clifton, the role of the Brotherhood in Harlem is significantly weakened.