Irene and Wentworth at the Dance

I chose to examine the dance and how it presents to us a specific lens through which we can closely view an element of the renaissance wherein the social roles of white people and African American people are switched. These dances were a way for African American’s to rise socially, and since there was a mix of races present, intermesh with white people in a way that was more evenly leveled. This dance provided a way for these two races to interact instead of observe one another.

Focusing in on the conversation between Hugh Wentworth and Irene, we are able to observe how their social roles have changed. While Irene seems quite comfortable in this setting and confident and in control during the conversation, Wentworth appears to be eager and slightly anxious. He is surrounded by more African American’s than he is used to and this makes him somewhat self conscious and curious. As he loses the social power that he is so used to having, he grows concerned as to how he is being perceived by the African Americans at the dance. He asks Irene if she “subscribes to the general opinion” that the reason for him being there is “purely predatory”(61). In a way, through asking these questions and seeking Irene’s guidance, Wentworth creates a sort of student-teacher dynamic, empowering Irene and further elevating her social status. Wentworth also seems somewhat jealous that the white women find some of the African American men attractive; he can sense this jeopardizing his power. He talks about how the white women are “always raving about the good looks of some negro”, and asks Irene if she too “thinks he’s ravishingly beautiful” (60). It’s as if he wants her to say no because that would make him feel better about himself. She answers no and that she thinks what they feel is “a kind of emotional excitement” that stems from being “in the presence of something strange” (60). The strangeness of the African American man results in a curious attraction.

One of the most revealing lines from this section is when Irene says, “It’s easy for a negro to pass for white. But I don’t think it would be so simple for a white person to pass for colored” (61). If anything their conversation reveals to us how African American’s have greater insight into the dynamic of their relationship. In this interracial atmosphere, Irene is better able to understand how they interact. Due to their lower social status, African Americans were required to learn and deal with how white people thought of them. So when it came to the dance, Irene was prepared to analyze the way in which Wentworth thought, whereas Wentworth was stumped when it came to figuring out Irene’s perspective.

One Response to Irene and Wentworth at the Dance

  1. Prof VZ March 4, 2015 at 11:03 pm #

    Great post about this crucial scene. I think you’re right to suggest that it highlights a certain epistemic advantage that Irene has: she seems to know more and see more. And as someone who can pass, she seems to have moved beyond the exoticization of the racial line; she views it as more flexible and negotiable, and has clearly define ideas for why she chooses to commit to one side over the other. The “something strange” that the white women feel–a stand in for that broader sense of a shallow “excitement” over racial difference–is not something that controls Irene anymore. If anything, she controls that feeling in herself and others, which is also her downfall (her inability to police these lines that she sees so clearly).

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