Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The novel begins by introducing a number of individual characters who are old or new associates of Banjo, the nickname by which Lincoln Agrippa Daily is known. Then the author provides an overview of all the different types of men to be found on the docks of Marseilles, where the story takes place.
They were all on the beach, and there were many others besides them —white men, brown men, black men. Finns, Poles, Italians, Slavs, Maltese, Indians, Negroids, African Negroes, West Indian Negroes—deportees from America for violation of the United States immigration laws—afraid and ashamed to go back to their own lands, all dumped down in the great Provençal port, bumming a day's work, a meal, a drink, existing from hand to mouth, anyhow any way, between box car, tramp ship, bistro, and bordel.
After the men wander around the neighborhood called the Ditch, McKay gives a sketch of Banjo, a “great vagabond of lowly life” who has worked in many different jobs that somehow leave him wanting something more. He has reached France through an immigration scam, after convincing the authorities he is not American, although he is from the Cotton Belt. Marseilles, on his first visit, is both exciting and disappointing, and thanks to a woman, he soon goes broke and is left alone.
Banjo's soul thrilled to the place — the whole life of it that milled around the ponderous, somber building of the Mairie, standing on the Quai du Port, where fish and vegetables and girls and youthful touts, cats, mongrels, and a thousand second-hand things were all mingled together in a churning agglomeration of stench and sliminess.
His wonderful Marseilles! Even more wonderful to him than he had been told. Unstintingly Banjo gave of himself and his means to his girl and the life around him. And when he was all spent she left him.
Banjo recovers, spends time playing music, makes the rounds of bars with his friends, and meets an Indian or Middle Eastern woman named Latnah. All the men see that she is no ordinary woman. Their opinions are complicated further when, telling them she can take care of herself, she reveals that she carries a dagger in her blouse.
She was different from the women of his race. She laughed differently, quietly, subtly. The women of his race could throw laughter like a clap of thunder. And their style, the movement of their hips, was like that of fine, vigorous, four-footed animals. Latnah's was gliding like a serpent. But she stirred up a powerfully sweet and strange desire in him.
One of the new arrivals, a writer named Ray, explains some issues he had with writing in the States, where many of the literary consumers are white or highly educated blacks.
The best Negroes are not the society Negroes. I am not writing for them, nor the poke-chop-abstaining Negroes, nor the Puritan Friends of Color, nor the Negrophobes nor the Negrophiles. I am writing for people who can stand a real story no matter where it comes from.
They soon start to congregate at a new place that a Senegalese man has opened—the first black-owned bar in town. The melting pot of Africans and African Americans is an oasis for the men.
The opening of the Cafe African by a Senegalese had brought all the joy-lovers of darkest color together. Never was there such a big black-throated guzzling of red wine, white wine, and close, indiscriminate jazzing of all the Negroes of Marseilles.
All shades of Negroes came together there. Even the mulattoes took a step down from their perch...
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to mix in . . . But the magic had brought them all together to jazz and drink red wine, white wine, sweet wine. All the British West African blacks, Portuguese blacks, American blacks, all who had drifted into this port that the world goes through.
Banjo dreams of putting an orchestra together, and for a while, several of the men play there with him. The situation turns bad in the port, however, and the police begin targeting the black foreigners.
Some of them had not the proper papers to get by the police and tried to evade them always. By way of the main Rue de la Republique they were more likely to be stopped, questioned, searched, and taken to the police station. Sometimes they were told that their papers were not in order, but they were only locked up for a night and let out the next morning. Some of them complained of being beaten by the police. Ginger thought the police were getting more brutal and strict, quite different from what they were like when he first landed on the beach.