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When we meet Irene, she's not in a good place. She's just been dealt a professional blow: "An educational project into which she'd poured much of her time, energy and considerable talent was declared 'superfluous and romantic' by Washington, and summarily killed; Irene began to long for every amenity the small, dusty Southern town she worked in did not offer" (Source.1).
For Irene, this isn't just a pet project that has failed; it's also a waste of her time. Irene, like many of Walker's other characters, has a sense of total invincibility. She's talented, she's smart, she's on the right side of history—and goshdarnit, people like her.
Irene is dealing with unprecedented disappointment when she heads out to San Francisco to visit her college friend, Anastasia Green. She thinks that Anastasia will be super happy to see her. When her friend wants to introduce her to Source, she's 100 percent sure that Source will be out of his mind with joy to meet her, too: "Who would not love me? was her attitude. The trauma of having lost the educational project had not damaged an essential self-saving vanity" (Source.13).
Okay, so you get our point: Irene's a bit…full of herself. She's also full of her own ideologies. When she comes up against Anastasia's newly espoused hippie theology, she really can't deal:
"Your life is what you make it," Anastasia said, stonily.
"But that's absurd. Not everyone's life is what they make it. Some people's life is what other people make it. I would say this is true of the majority of the people in the world." (Source.117-118)
We might agree with Irene here, but keep something in mind: pride comes before a fall. And Irene is going to take a nosedive shortly where Anastasia is concerned because, despite her dedication to civil rights and justice for the oppressed, it turns out that Irene has marginalized her biracial friend in a pretty spectacular way.
Irene doesn't find any of this out until years after the episode in SF—which does not end well. When the two ladies meet again in Alaska, Anastasia is clear-headed enough to tell Irene about an episode in college when Irene hypocritically shunned her for not being "Black enough." Irene is gobsmacked: "Like most people who have come to believe they are better than they are, Irene resented the notion that she could be intolerant" (Source.191).
To her credit, Irene only tries to wiggle out of her awful behavior for a few minutes. She remembers with perfect clarity how awful she'd been, going against basically everything she'd worked for in the equality department:
What Anastasia said was basically true; but even worse was the realization that she had viewed Anastasia in the same "backhanded" way her professors had. In face, she had never been able to consider her entirely black, and in subtle ways had indicated a lack of recognition, of trust. (Source.197)
"Source" feels like it will be a story about what happens to Anastasia—after all, she's the lady living on the edge, while Irene seems to have it together. But don't take your eyes off Irene. She's so content with herself at the beginning that major change is inevitable.
And it does happen for her. By the time she leaves Anastasia in Alaska, she's able to value her friend as a true friend—as she probably should have done back in the day.
When Irene sees her college friend again for the first time, it's clear that Anastasia has gone straight-up flower child:
[...] she appeared in clogs, a long granny dress of old-fashioned print and sleazy texture, with a purple velvet cape. The kinkiness of her hair was now encouraged, and formed an aura about her beige, unpowdered face. She was beaded and feathered to a delightfully pleasant extreme. (Source.6)
Taking on a role is nothing new to Anastasia. When Irene knew her in college, she'd tried on other roles, from "little English schoolboy" to an imitation of Kathleen Cleaver, a Black militant activist. That's a pretty broad spectrum. Anastasia inhabits those roles because she's trying to find a place to land with her identity. As a biracial woman, she's kind of having a hard time of it.
And so far, her old friend Irene is not part of the solution. After a lifetime of rejection from "friends" of both races, Anastasia finally lays it out for Irene. She reminds her friend of a time in school when Irene lashed out at the close-minded administration. Anastasia got the cold shoulder from Irene, who didn't consider her "Black enough" to understand her problems:
"Hypocrites, the whole bunch," said Irene.
"And so were you. You loved being adored. Being exceptional. Representing the race. I knew, from the backhanded way I was treated, that they were hypocrites. I mean, they knew I was black, I just didn't look black. I never got any of the attention you got, and I could have used some, because those white folks were just as strange to me as they were to you. But you thought everything was fine until the hypocrisy touched you." (Source.195-196)
It's a moment of embarrassment for Irene, who's pretty sure she's totally awesome and a poster child for equal rights. But for Anastasia, it's a moment of reckoning. After a lifetime of confusion and rejection, she finally gets to hold a mirror up to the Black community, through Irene:
Anastasia was glad she was finally able to say these things. All her life she had felt compelled to take and take from black people, anything they gave. Compliments and curses with the same benign, understanding silence. After all, she was exempt from their more predictable suffering, and must not presume to assert herself. (Source.206)
But Anastasia's story doesn't end here with catharsis and forgiveness. That's because Anastasia solves her "race problem" by choosing to be white. Because she's fair-skinned, it's easy for her to do. And because so many people in the Black community reject her (and so many white people already assume her whiteness), it's a relief for her.
Irene, however, finds that Anastasia's new identity throws her off balance: "Irene, staring directly into Anastasia's eyes, felt the strangest sensation. Those eyes now looked out of a white person. What did that mean?" (Source.149).
What does it mean, indeed? For Anastasia, it's something very concrete: total relief. She feels like she can shift her attention elsewhere for the time being: "having put race aside as a cause of concern, she could now concentrate on whatever assaults were in store for the other facets of herself" (Source.151).
Irene decides to leave the question of Anastasia's choice aside, especially when she realizes that she's been complicit in isolating her friend. Anastasia's ability to tell Irene what's been on her mind does something else important: it opens the door, for the first time, to a legit friendship between the two women.
Anastasia and her roomies, Peace and Calm, are devoted to their guru, Source. They lap up his "wisdom"—and his drugs—without question. The four of them quote Source so freely that we expect to see a man floating above the floor with spiritual enlightenment.
But when Irene finally meets Source, the whole scene is underwhelming. Source himself is "a pale, grayish brown" (Source.77)—though he does sport a white robe. His daughters are shabbily dressed. And Source himself? The first thing he does is crack a racist joke.
Irene also has some serious suspicions about this guy, which she brings up to Anastasia and her friends on the way home:
"Is the pregnant daughter married?" she asked coldly.
"Why should she be?" asked Calm.
"She has Source," sniffed Peace.
Which was precisely what Irene feared, but decided against pursuing it. (Source.93-96)
The implication is that Source is the father of his own grandchild—and there's nothing stopping Irene or us from thinking it. So, on the whole, Source is an unwholesome character. He's clearly into the guru gig to bilk people out of money (Anastasia's parents are supporting him, and she and her roommates bring him "offerings.")
But Source is not just some eccentric, harmless dude. Along with the possible incest, drugs, and fraudulent behavior, Source is also filling the heads of his followers with some seriously whack ideas. When Irene accuses Source of being racist, Anastasia calmly tells her that racism doesn't really exist since no one really matters:
"I understand I am nothing. […] You still think you are Somebody. That you matter. That Africans matter. They don't," she said. "And if they are nothing—if nobody's anything—it is impossible to humiliate them." (Source.104)
It's a particularly dangerous ideology because Irene can't really refute it without saying, basically, "Nuh-uh!" It absolves anyone of any responsibility for anything, and there's no way you can really argue with it. It's not until the two women meet in Alaska that Anastasia can admit that Source's ideologies were total rubbish: "I think really that Source was a fascist. Only a fascist would say nobody's anything. Everybody's something" (Source.174).
We know, at least, that Source was something else.
The most significant thing about Anastasia's roomies is their names. Walker uses them to slip in some sly humor about hippie culture: "The baby's name was very long, Sanskrit-derived, and, translated into English, meant Bliss. The man's name, arrived at in the same fashion, meant Calm, and the woman's name, Peace" (Source.8).
Peace and Calm don't do much to distinguish themselves—which Walker highlights by switching their gender throughout the story—except that Peace has noooo problem with the idea of giving her baby (Bliss—also a gender-variable character) away to Anastasia when she and her husband, Calm, leave for South America. Bliss is the real standout since she's the only one who seems to act normally—and is the only one who seems to enjoy Irene's visit at all.