Tuesday comes around, and the weather is cloudy and foggy, which Irene sees as another reason why she should not go see Clare. Clare rings Irene’s telephone incessantly all morning. Each time, Irene tells her father’s housekeeper Liza to take a message, but each time Clare calls back again. Finally, at noon, Irene’s resolve weakens and she takes the call.
Irene’s annoyance that Clare intends to control their communication turns into a power struggle. Irene, trying to regain power over their interactions, refuses to answer the phone, and Clare, insistent that she will see Irene, calls and calls.
Irene tries to tell Clare she cannot see her, but Clare begs Irene to come have tea, reminding her that she promised. Clare convinces Irene, and then tells Irene her last name (Bellew) and the address where she can find her at four o’clock. Irene hangs up the phone, angry at herself for having given in.
Clare does, ultimately, give Irene her contact information, including her last name, which Irene specifically noted she did not tell her before. Irene, however, is still mad, suggesting that it is not only Clare’s lack of trust that is upsetting Irene.
When Irene arrives at Clare’s place, Clare greets her with a kiss, and smilingly tells her how glad she is that Irene has come. Clare’s warmth melts away Irene’s frustrations. Clare leads her into a sitting room where Irene sees a woman lounging on the sofa. At first Irene does not recognize her, but then she identifies her, and asks, “how are you, Gertrude?”
Irene’s resentment, however, does not last. Again, Irene’s ambivalence toward Clare is profound. The reason for this ambivalence is unclear and complex, and it potentially includes mixed feelings about passing, general jealousy, and possibly attraction.
Gertrude, a mutual childhood acquaintance, greets Irene. Irene thinks about how Gertrude, like Clare, married a white man. Unlike Clare, however, Gertrude’s husband knows that she is black. Irene asks Gertrude how her husband is, and Gertrude responds that he’s doing fine. There is a silence, and then Clare says they will have tea right away. Clare mentions she is sorry that Irene won’t be able to meet her daughter, because Margery is staying with friends, but says that her husband John will be back soon.
Gertrude is married to a white man who knows that Gertrude is black. She represents a different lifestyle than either Clare, who passes entirely and constantly pretends to be white, or Irene, who passes only occasionally and lives in the black community. The three women, all from the same origins, show different ways of navigating the racist, segregated society of the 1920s.
Irene observes Gertrude, thinking she seems uncomfortable, and feels annoyed. The narrator notes that later, when Irene thinks back on the tea party, she will admit to herself that she felt outnumbered. Both Gertrude and Clare have married white men, while Irene married a black man, and thus stayed in the black community. Clare talks with the women about the experience of returning to Chicago, their common childhood home. She says she returned because her husband, who travels often for business, had a business trip there. Clare insisted on coming along so she could “find out what had happened to everybody.” Clare talks about how lucky it was to run into Irene at Drayton’s.
Irene’s feeling of being outnumbered shows how choosing whether to stay in the black community or leave it is a decision fraught with social judgment. Irene judges the women for leaving and feels judged for having stayed. The women represent of different ways of coping with racism: becoming a part of white society (and thus benefitting from the individual privileges that choice allows), or embracing the black community and suffering the racism that entails while also fighting for racial equality for black people as a whole.
Irene agrees, and asks how Clare found Gertrude. Clare says she looked up the contact information for Gertrude’s father’s store—a butcher shop. Irene says “oh, yes,” and begins to describe where the shop is before Gertrude cuts her off, telling her it has moved and now belongs to her husband. Irene then thinks that Gertrude looks like the wife of a butcher, noting that she is no longer pretty like she was when they were young, and is badly dressed.
Although Irene thinks of herself as deeply involved in her Chicago community, Irene not knowing the location of Gertrude’s father’s store shows that she is not as in touch with home as she thought. Irene, rather than taking this correction in stride, goes on to mentally mock Gertrude’s appearance, again revealing Irene’s pettiness and obsession with looks.
Clare tells Irene that Gertrude told her before Irene arrived about her two twin boys, and the tone in Clare’s voice makes Irene feel like Clare was reading her thoughts. Irene tells them she has two boys herself, and comments that Clare is “rather behind.” But Gertrude says that Clare is lucky to have a girl, and they continue discussing children while Clare serves tea.
Irene’s comment that Clare is “rather behind” displays how Irene competes with Clare in many areas, including motherhood. It also shows how, although Irene thinks very highly of motherhood, she is willing to use it self-servingly to make Clare feel inferior.
Clare tells them she will not have any more children because she was so terrified during her pregnancy that Margery would have dark skin. Irene is silent. Gertrude empathizes with Clare. She says that, while her husband would have been fine with a dark child, Gertrude worried incessantly. Gertrude agrees that she will also not have any more children, and remarks that white people do not understand how dark skin can sometimes skip a generation. She then says, “nobody wants a dark child.”
Gertrude’s comment that “nobody wants a dark child” shows that, despite her own racial background, Gertrude harbors intense anti-black sentiment and internalized racism. It is an aesthetic judgment as well as a practical one, since lighter skin would afford children with privileges available only to white people and black people who pass.
Irene promptly replies that one of her boys is dark, and Gertrude is shocked and embarrassed. She asks if Irene’s husband is dark as well. Irene, though internally furious, responds coolly, telling them her husband Brian cannot “pass.”
Irene’s reply disrupts Gertrude and Clare’s assumption that, being light skinned themselves, they all prefer light skin. Irene does not agree with this preference.
Clare tries to smooth things over, saying that black people think too much about skin pigment, and saying it’s not so important for Irene, or even for Gertrude. Clare says that only “deserters” like her have to be afraid of “freaks of nature.” She then changes the subject and asks about Claude Jones, a man they used to know from the neighborhood.
Clare tries to reframe the discussion of dark children to make it seem like she was concerned about Margery having light skin for her safety. Still, Clare refers to dark skinned children born to light skinned parents derogatorily as “freaks of nature.”
Gertrude tells Clare that Claude Jones converted to Judaism, and says she would “die laughing” if she saw him. Clare laughs amiably, but says she thinks it’s his business. Irene, who is still hurt about the comments about dark children, says in a snippy tone that she guessed it didn’t occur to them that his conversion might have been sincere.
Gertrude’s amusement at Claude Jones’s religious conversion seems to stem from the idea that she sees it as “un-black.” Irene, meanwhile, clearly thinks that Gertrude and Clare’s views of race are regressive.
Clare is embarrassed, and backpedals, but then says she is surprised Irene would have expected them to think of that. The conversation gets tense. Meanwhile, Gertrude is confused and surprised. Clare then steers the conversation away from race and religion to lighter subjects. Irene notices that Clare is extremely socially adept in navigating conversation. They continue with polite chatter about Clare’s travels until Gertrude and Irene begin to get bored.
Irene’s resistance to Gertrude and Clare mocking Claude Jones makes the conversation uncomfortable. Clare seems to understand why her laughter was cruel, but Gertrude, who appears to be less thoughtful about race, is simply confused. Clearly, Gertrude, Clare, and Irene’s views of race differ greatly.
Irene is about to leave when Clare’s husband John arrives. Irene observes his appearance as he walks in, noticing he is not the same man that Clare was with at the Drayton. John greets Clare by saying “Hello, Nig,” shocking both Gertrude and Irene. Irene is confused, and thinks that maybe John knows that Clare comes from a black family. Still, she thinks his use of a racial slur is shockingly rude.
That John is not the same man Clare was with at the Drayton suggests the possibility of Clare’s sexual impropriety. Whether Clare actually had a romantic relationship with the man at the hotel is unclear; since the narrative is in Irene’s perspective, it could be clouded by Irene’s preexisting view of Clare as promiscuous.
Clare introduces John to Gertrude and Irene, and then asks if Irene and Gertrude heard her husband’s nickname for her. John laughingly explains that he calls Clare “nig” because he thinks that her skin has gotten darker over the course of their marriage, and says “if she don’t look out she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger.” John laughs at his punch line. Clare and Gertrude laugh as well. Irene, meanwhile, cannot stop laughing, and laughs for too long, until Clare catches her eye and Irene calms herself.
John explains that his use of the slur “nig” to address Clare is a joke between them. However, as this scene highlights, the “joke” does not work as intended. Instead, the “joke” is that John does not realize that all the women in the room with him are black. Clare and Gertrude laugh to make things seem normal, while Irene laughs because of the dark irony of the moment.
Clare pours tea for John and asks him if it would matter to him, after their long marriage, if she turned out to have the slightest bit of black ancestry. John insists that it would, saying he will have “no niggers in [his] family.” Irene fights the urge to laugh, grabs a cigarette, and makes eye contact with Clare. The look in Clare’s eyes makes Irene feel ever so slightly that she is in danger. Irene dismisses this feeling and allows John to light her cigarette.
Clearly, John is extremely racist. This is evident from the moment he walks into the room and addresses Clare as “nig.” The vast extent of his violent racism, however, becomes clearer as they talk more about race. Irene senses they are in danger, showing how, though John’s racism is ironic, it also carries the threat of very real danger.
Irene asks John if he dislikes black people, and John responds that he and Clare both hate them, so much so that Clare will not even allow them to have a black maid. Irene no longer finds the irony of John’s racism amusing. She asks if John has ever met a black person. John responds that “thankfully” he has not, but he reads about them committing crimes in the newspaper.
As Irene asks John about his experience with black people, she exposes that much of his racism comes from the media. This emphasizes how the media has consistently contributed to racism through its stereotyped overrepresentation of black people as criminals.
Gertrude makes a noise, and Irene cannot tell whether it is a giggle or a snort. The room is silent and Irene’s anger mounts, but she does not say anything because she knows it would be dangerous for Clare. Clare gently tries to steer John away from the subject, saying it will bore them, and John apologizes and asks about Irene’s life in New York.
The ambiguousness of the sound Gertrude makes—it signals either amusement or anger— highlights the uncertainty of the scene as a whole. The women in room alternate between amusement and fury as humor proves to be unstable.
Irene is still furious, but out of allegiance to Clare, she tries to collect herself, and they calmly discuss Irene’s life in New York, and Irene’s husband’s work as a doctor. John jokingly comments that it must be hard for Irene, since her husband must have so many female patients. Irene responds that her husband, Brian, is more attracted to South America than his female patients.
Irene feels that she has an allegiance to Clare, and she does not reveal her own race because she is concerned it will put Clare in danger. Irene frames her loyalty to Clare as racial loyalty, a commitment to protecting and helping her because of their shared race.
John begins to comment nastily on the fact that there are lots of black people in South America before Clare cuts him off. John backs off and asks Gertrude about her life in Chicago. As they discuss Chicago and New York, Irene is astonished by the fact that she, Clare, and Gertrude are sitting with John and pretending to have a pleasant conversation while they are all furious. Irene then amends this thought, thinking that Gertrude might not be upset.
When Irene considers the fact that she, Clare, and Gertrude are sitting civilly with a vitriolic racist, her frustration highlights the maddening impossibility of navigating racism as a black person. Irene feels that she cannot speak up because of the potential for violence, but her silence makes her feel powerless.
Clare offers Irene more tea, but Irene refuses and says she must go. Everyone stands up, and John asks Irene how she likes the Drayton, believing that she is staying in the hotel. Irene plays along, saying she likes it. They all say goodbye, and Gertrude and Irene get in the elevator together silently.
John’s last question to Irene, in which he inquires about how she likes the Drayton, adds insult to injury. The Drayton is a white hotel, as segregation was still the law of the land in 1920s America.
On the street, Gertrude exclaims that Clare must be crazy to be living in that situation, and Irene agrees that it seems risky. Gertrude says she would never have married her own white husband without him knowing she is black. They discuss how angry the interaction made them, and Gertrude expresses her frustration that Clare did not warn them of John’s vitriolic racism. Irene points out that not telling them is something Clare would do, commenting that it was a joke on everyone. Irene says that Clare seems satisfied with her life, but Gertrude insists Clare will discover that she is not.
Gertrude’s shock at Clare’s lifestyle is somewhat surprising, since Gertrude is not exactly a champion of racial justice, and she suffers from significant internalized racism herself. Her surprise indicates how extremely unusual Clare’s secrecy about her race is, even among black people who pass. Irene’s comment that John’s racism is a joke on everyone emphasizes how humor, rather than being light-hearted, can be damaging and uncontrollable.
Irene and Gertrude part ways. Now alone, Irene processes the tea party, and her own contemptuous anger. She tries to decode the look on Clare’s face as she said goodbye, which seemed ambiguously threatening. Later than night, Irene continues to think it over, but cannot come to any conclusions about what the look might have meant. At last, Irene dismisses the questions from her mind, and thinks she should never have gone to meet up with Clare.
That Irene finds Clare’s facial expression threatening seems strange, since Clare should possess no power over Irene. On the contrary, Irene has the ability to reveal Clare’s identity and ruin her marriage. Irene’s feeling of being threatened by Clare might stem from her mixed feelings of jealousy and attraction to Clare.