This novel is set in Harlem in New York City. The Grimes migrate to the North in search of new opportunities. Elizabeth bids goodbye to her aunt in Maryland and leaves with Richard.
She arrives in New York with great expectations but she is sorely disappointed. “Here, in this great city where no one cared, where people might live in the same building for years and never speak to one another, she found herself, when Richard took her in his arms, on the edge of a steep place and down she rushed, on the descent uncaring, into the dreadful sea.” New York is a big and bustling city but it is heartless. The only way Elizabeth and Richard make their existence meaningful is by visiting places of interest in the city on weekends. They go to the Central Park or the Museum of Natural history to take their mind off from the daily drudgery. John Grimes does the same when he has to escape out of his dingy quarters at Harlem. He climbs a hill nearby to view New York in all its majesty and imagines himself to be an influential figure in the city.
From there he walks over to mid-town Manhattan and Central Park to get a feel of the city. John experiences a sense of freedom in all the places outside his home at Harlem. His house was “narrow and dirty; nothing could alter its dimensions, no labour could ever make it clean. Dirt was in the walls and the floorboards, and triumphed beneath the sink where roaches spawned; was in the fine ridges of the pots and pans, scoured daily, burnt black on the bottom, hanging above the store; was in the wall against which they hung, and revealed itself where the paint had cracked and leaned outward in stiff squares and fragments, the paper-thin underside webbed with black.” In similar quarters live Florence and other Negroes like her.
If they look out of their window, they can see “scraps of paper and frosty dust, and — the hanging signs of stores and storefront churches.” In the evenings, the Negro families visit the churches at Harlem called the Temple of the Fire Baptized.’ “It was not the biggest church in Harlem, nor yet the smallest, but John had been brought up to believe it was the holiest and best.” John and Roy attend the Sunday school in this church conducted by Elisha before the morning service. “The Sunday morning service began when Brother Elisha sat down at the piano and raised a song.” In the evening, John goes to the church to clean it up before the service. Life within the homes seems to be secure for the inmates of Harlem. However, when they step out of its confines, they are alert. When John walks along the Fifth Avenue and 42-nd streets, he is cautious lest he be apprehended by the White men.
He desires to enter the Public Library but he is apprehensive as “he had never gone in because the building was so big that it must be full of corridors and marble steps in the maze of which he would be lost and never find the book he wanted. And then everyone, all the white people inside, would know that he was not used to great buildings, or to many books, and they would look at him with pity.” Roy is more daring than John. He strays outside his territory and provokes the white youth to challenge him. In one such encounter, he hurts himself. Life for the Negroes in New York in the mid-twentieth century was insecure.
Fear always gripped their hearts and they were restricted from pursuing their normal activities. If they dared to rebel, they became victims of racial prejudice.