Irene has been working in a small Southern town to help women improve their reading skills—that is, until the government slashes the funding for her program.
Irene wants to shake the dust of that small town off her heels and lick her wounds in a much more citified place. She heads out to San Francisco to visit Anastasia Green, an old college friend.
Irene knew Anastasia as a woman of many identities. She'd evolved from a young innocent to a New York goth to someone with a "little English schoolboy" look.
Anastasia headed out west with her aspiring-actor boyfriend, Galen. She'd become a flower child, complete with maxi dresses and clogs.
Anastasia, her two friends, Calm and Peace, and their baby, Bliss, meet Irene at the airport. The hippie names, by the way, are thoughtfully translated by Walker from Sanskrit so that we can read them.
They all ride home in a rainbow-colored van. Groovy.
On the way, they all talk about how much "Source" would like to meet Irene. Of course, Irene wants to know who Source is, but her friends tell her she'll have to wait and see.
Irene marvels at the amount of food in the pantry. Anastasia tells her they're on food stamps and other government relief programs. She doesn't seem to be worried about that at all.
Irene remarks that the government gives some people less money than they need in other parts of the country. Anastasia says it's better to be on food stamps in a rich place.
Anastasia asks about Irene's teaching, and Irene has to debate with herself how to answer. People often think her work is noble and fun—but sometimes it's drudgery.
And Irene's classroom is not great: it's an unused, un-air-conditioned trailer infested with flies. Sometimes she has more students than she can handle. Most of them don't know how to participate in a class, and they just sit there. A lot of the time, no one seems to learn much.
Irene decides to tell Anastasia that things are not great. She admits that the program has been defunded.
We learn that the two women have different personalities. Anastasia thinks that Irene is into pain—always taking on projects that emphasize the shady side of society.
Irene thinks that Anastasia is a bit of an airhead, with the emotional depth of a puddle.
Irene explains that with the war in Vietnam, there's no funding for education programs—even if three of her students are white.
Irene also admits that these three women are so poor she doesn't think of them as white. They're poor and oppressed just like the Black women there.
Irene's mind wanders to a larger, more personal question: what happens to Black women when they (like her) become middle class?
This is a real problem for Irene since she hates the Black middle class. (For her, they're too busy imitating the white middle class—no, thanks.)
Irene explains to Anastasia that the funding for the literacy program had lifted up the women in her group. It made them feel like someone in the government really cared about them.
But when the funding dried up so quickly, the women didn't know what to do. They could go back to learning the way they did before, but that seemed so…old school. The women had made progress, and they didn't want to backslide.
Irene thinks about a student called Fania, who was seriously embarrassed by her inability to read. Irene tried to help Fania learn by offering her newspaper articles.
But Fania couldn't stand it because most news is bad news. Irene didn't get it. She tried to get Fania to read about the mechanization of labor on local farms—but Fania wouldn't.
It turns out that Fania didn't want to read about possibly losing the only type of work she'd ever done. No kidding.
Anastasia is not digging this story. The narrator says that Anastasia has a hard time talking to Black people because they always seem to have some problem or other.
Anastasia tells Irene that she'll never change the world. Things are what they are. And she learned that from Source.
Anastasia tells the story of how Source helped her get back with her estranged parents. Irene knows Anastasia's parents from back in the day, when they'd been Baptists.
Now, Anastasia's parents are Jehovah's Witnesses, and the letters that Anastasia shows to Irene weird her out a bit. In them, her parents say they are praying every hour for their little Anastasia.
Irene remembers meeting Anastasia's parents when she was living in a D.C. slum. Anastasia knew her parents were coming, and she didn't want them to know she was living with her boyfriend, so she pretended to be living with Irene.
The parents were NOT impressed with the neighborhood; Anastasia's mom wouldn't even get out of the car.
After they read more letters about Anastasia walking the "path of obedience" to find "peace everlasting," Anastasia declares that she doesn't believe in doing good. In her mind, there can be no altruism. No one does anything good for anyone but him- or herself.
Irene gets hot under the collar about this. She's an activist at heart.
But Anastasia digs in. She says that people only suffer because they choose to. She's sure that if you live somewhere that makes you miserable, you should just move. Clueless alert, anyone?
Irene gets to play with the baby now. His mother says that she's going to give the baby to Anastasia since she and her husband are going to South America.
Anastasia and her roommates are incredibly chill in their child-rearing philosophies: someone will raise the baby—or not.
Um, perhaps they're a bit too chill.
But, of course, they all have Source's support on this. He says that children belong to everybody. And Irene really has to meet him.
So off they all go to visit Source. Anastasia and company bring an offering of wine and money to their guru.
Source has three daughters who serve him—one is pregnant. He talks about what Anastasia looked like when she first came to him: like Kathleen Cleaver.
Anastasia laughs at her past self, saying that she'd thought she was Black back in the day. Source proceeds to tell racist jokes and talks about how backward African people are.
Irene is so done with the whole scene. She excuses herself and waits for Anastasia on the street. When Anastasia meets her, Irene asks if the pregnant daughter is married.
Anastasia and her roommates tell Irene that the pregnant daughter doesn't need a husband because she has Source. Irene has a horrible suspicion that Source fathered his own grandchild. Yikes.
After this, Anastasia and her roommates kick out Irene. She's ruining their good vibes because she doesn't think Source is the bee's knees.
Anastasia says that Source has saved her life, teaching her that she's nothing. And that's Irene's problem: she thinks she's "somebody."
Irene understands none of this. But she knows that she doesn't like Source's racist, domineering, parasitic ways.
Anastasia says that Source can't be racist if he believes that everyone is nothing. That means we're all equal in our nothingness.
But Anastasia has backstory, and we get it now. She actually met Kathleen Cleaver in New York and wanted to be like her. She dressed like her and moved in with a "revolutionary" Black man. In the end, he didn't treat her well, and her parents came to rescue her—which means they sent her to a "rest home."
Anastasia tells Irene that she wanted to join the Civil Rights Movement when she was a girl. But she herself was biracial and her mom made her straighten her hair from a young age. She felt like race was not an issue for her. Anastasia, it's clear, had been brainwashed to think that race is not a thing. Her parents and Source agree on this.
Now, Anastasia's parents are subsidizing Source's life because they think he's on the right track. They approve of his ideas about being indifferent to the world around them.
The baby starts to cry, and Irene tries to pick him up, but his mom grabs him back. Apparently, Irene has too many bad vibes.
And that's when Irene loses it. She tells Anastasia that she's in a bad place right now and that this is why she'd come to visit. Source was not the best person for her to deal with now.
Anastasia tells Irene that she's choosing to suffer. If she wants to be happy, she should just go ahead and be happy.
This pushes Irene over the edge. She says that most people don't get to choose what happens to them, and she points to her students as examples. They didn't choose to be poor and illiterate.
Guess what Anastasia says to her now. Just guess. Hint: Irene doesn't have to choose to teach such miserable people. Oh, yes, she did.
Fast forward some years. Irene is now in Alaska talking to Native American and white women educators in Anchorage.
And who should show up but Anastasia, who's now living in the area. She asks Irene's forgiveness for chucking her out all those years ago in SF.
Anastasia has decided that she's totally white. She even mentions that she was afraid she'd be the only white woman at the conference. She talks about how much she loves being white.
Irene decides to drink a lot while the two of them chat. She tells Anastasia about her marriage, which had been happy in the past.
Anastasia says that being white has given her back her sense of humor. When she was Black, she'd had none. Irene can see her point of view on this one.
Anastasia says that she's not actively trying to "pass" as a white woman—she's just riding on other people's assumptions. She's not correcting them.
Irene looks at her friend's eyes and tries to understand that they are now the eyes of a white person. It weirds her out a bit.
Irene tells Anastasia that she loved being married because it took away her sense of panic. But it also kind of dulled her. Anastasia says that leaving her Blackness behind did the same for her.
Irene thinks that Anastasia hasn't got out of the race issue—she's just on the other side of it now.
Irene asks whatever happened to Peace, Calm, and Bliss. Anastasia says that Irene gets a facial tic whenever she thinks of SF and those days.
Anastasia knows that Peace and Calm did make it to South America—but she doesn't know what happened to Bliss. They both have a good drunken giggle over the idea that "bliss" has been lost.
Once again, Anastasia's parents swooped in to save her, this time from Source (and the drugs and sex). Again, she's on "house arrest" to clean herself up.
Anastasia also comes to understand that back home in Arkansas, she wasn't welcomed by Black or white people. Her parents hated all her friends, Black or white, rich or poor.
So, Anastasia married some random guy who was going to work on the Alaska pipeline and went north. And then they divorced.
Anastasia's story reminds Irene of the slave narratives that Fania finally settled down to reading.
But Anastasia moves on to talk about the Aleut man she lives with and her life in a village. She tells Irene that she's practically Native American now because she's learned to smoke salmon (the only industry in her village). Gah.
Anastasia circles back to Source. She's decided that everybody is, in fact, somebody. And that color has a lot to do with it. Being Black, she says, gave her no joy—so she latched on to her whiteness.
The ladies switch to coffee (time to sober up) and tune in to the convos going on around them: white people are talking about discrimination against Native Americans in the area. It's not pretty.
The white people talk about how Native Americans weren't allowed in the bar 15 years ago—there was even a sign posted back then. Irene remembers signs like that coming down in the South, too.
But Irene still doesn't feel comfortable in fancy-schmancy places, so she figures that those signs have made her internalize segregation.
Anastasia explains more about her conflicted childhood. Her Black friends envied her white looks but hated white people. It messed with her self-perception.
Anastasia admits that she got "tired of black people" being preoccupied with race, so she went to school in the North. Anastasia also felt left out of the Civil Rights Movement.
Irene tells Anastasia that's because she already had the freedom to choose her race. But Anastasia tells her she was only free to be dissed by both sides—and Irene led the way sometimes.
Irene does not like this one bit. She thinks of herself as hugely enlightened and tolerant.
Anastasia reminds Irene of a nasty episode in college when Irene had a tantrum because she'd finally suffered from the hypocrisy of the university.
Anastasia remembers that Irene got away with it because she was Black—and because she was exceptionally talented and loved.
Anastasia never got that kind of support because she didn't belong fully to either the Black or white students.
Anastasia accuses Irene of the same hypocrisy because she doesn't get outraged until the problem affects her.
Also, Irene had nastily told Anastasia that she could never understand racism (you know, because Anastasia wasn't "black enough"). Irene is mortified because she knows Anastasia is right.
At this point, Anastasia is glad that she's got all this off her chest. She'd been silenced her whole life in the face of racial suffering her Black friends thought she wasn't part of.
Irene makes her own confession. Her struggle has been something kind of surprising: it's all about how to deal with the success she knew she'd be.
Irene didn't want to just sink into an imitation of white middle-class happiness.
Anastasia says that she liked Irene because she knew Irene would never "desert" her Blackness. Irene says she couldn't if she tried.
Irene also offers a theory about their journeys in life: they both looked for stability—Anastasia in Source, Irene in the government.
Now, Anastasia feels she has a toehold on something real and original. She's pretty sure that her future child will be Native American, at the root of everything.
When the women say goodbye, they give each other a real, sincere hug. They're finally seeing each other for the first time—and they kind of like what they see, despite everything.